Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Shear delight

After a few days of fog and light, variable winds, the forecast of a reasonable blow with a significant westerly element raised my pulse rate and guaranteed that I was on watch early the following morning. I was not disappointed, as two great shearwaters flew 100 metres or so off the port bow as I gathered my waterproofs, hat, notebook and binoculars from the bridge! From then on and over the last three days I have enjoyed three figure counts of great shearwaters, intermingled with scores of Cory's! Some birders would say that when you have seen one large shear you have seen them all, but I disagree, find them totally captivating and have no problem watching them shear and glide over the swell and waves for hours on end. Surprisingly, and contrary to the large numbers of sooty shearwaters reported from Irish sea-watching sites, I have only seen one in the last 3 days- maybe they hug the Irish coast more as they drift SE? I also had the bonus of seeing flocks of Sabines' gulls- a group of 3 and a group of five. Unfortunately being on a 92 metre vessel, with a GRT of over 9000 tonnes means that many birds are rather ship-shy, occasionally however, a large shear made a relatively close pass, allowing me to try for a couple of shots. Good numbers of Arctic and 'comic' terns have also been seen flying south and an additional grey phalarope and a turnstone have been the only other obvious passage birds. I suppose we should see some significant skua passage before too long, but with the exception of a solo, spoon-laden pom and a few locally foraging bonxies they have yet to make an appearance. Happy days!

great shearwater- close pass at last!
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Cory's - unusually close in!
brilliant birds!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Bad light stops play

Day three of rain and rolling fog banks with severely reduced visibility has stopped all seabird observations with the exception of a close pass by a storm petrel. Not a gannet or fulmar in sight. Heres a few snaps I took earlier. (The whimbrel flew overhead heading south before the weather turned)

whimbrel on migration
great shearwater
manx shearwater
manx & great shearwater

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Barolo shearwater!

It must be an age thing in that I am having increasing trouble with my 'T's- technology and taxonomy! I have a simple mobile phone- I dare not get a 'smart' phone as I have no idea what 3G or 4G is, I have a HD capable TV but I have no idea how to program it to get HD channels, my microwave is programmable but I just reheat for 'x' number of minutes and my modest car has a computer so advanced it has it's very own user manual. Then there is taxonomy- I used to know what a sub-alpine warbler was- now is it eastern or western?, I thought I could I/D a stonechat but now I have to be aware of the siberian variety, same for a rock pipit as apparently I now need to find the scandinavian variety. Then of course we have the good old chestnuts of the redpoll and wagtail complexes- enough to give any average birder grey hair. I digress, but there is a point- yesterday I chanced upon a wonderful seabird- a mega in fact!- a cute small shearwater that for decades I would have immediately called a 'Little shearwater' Somewhere along the line this then became a Macaronesian shearwater (or is it Macronesian?- I seem to come across both spelling forms!). Apparently this wonderful seabird is now known as a Barolo shearwater! (as an aside does anyone know how to pronounce that?- is it bah as in the noise sheep make or bar as in propping one up with a pint!!) Anyway a great find no matter what it is called. I observed the bird for 1.5-2 minutes at a range of approx. 300-350 metres- not ideal and certainly no opportunity for a photo. but the bird was strikingly different to the manx shearwater that it was associating with- smaller by 20-25%, the same two-tone coloration- jet black above, snow white below, very rapid wingbeats producing weak, fluttering flight on obviously shorter, rounder wings, a dark band to the underwing trailing edge, and occasionally a strange 'head-up' posture. Unfortunately I could not make out an obvious pale face and dark eye- but hey I'm more than happy with my ID. I'm left with mixed emotions- absolutely thrilled to have had the privilege of chancing upon a mega rarity, but this is tinged with a hint of melancholy- no phone calls or text messages to send to fellow birders to twitch it and share the delight. Of course I'm now left to decide whether or not to submit my description to the IRBC (Irish rare bird committee). On the one hand I know this sighting will inevitably be clouded in the 'single observer' issues conundrum, but on the other I think that for a bird of this rarity status it really ought to go into the system- purely for the birds scientific merit. Right that's it- I have convinced myself that I really should submit so I have to go and write and email my description. Good fun this birding! 

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Porcupine Seabight

The Porcupine Seabight is an interesting oceanographic feature located a hundred or so nautical miles  WSW off the southern coast of Ireland. It is a large depression where the water rapidly deepens and leads out to the abyssal depths of the North Atlantic. The strong ocean currents form nice areas of nutrient-rich upwelling so there is often an abundance of marine life- plankton, shoals of pelagic fish including albacore and yellow-fin tuna, cetaceans and seabirds- at least that is what it said in the tourist brochure! In all honesty there have been good numbers of fin whales- sometimes 5 or 6 in a day, the fishing fleets of Ireland and Spain are actively fishing for tuna, but seabirds have been rather scarce. Admittedly I see gannets and fulmars every day but numbers are low. A few lesser black-backed gulls have followed the survey vessel on occasion and I have had good days where I have seen four species of shearwater- Great, Corys, Sooty and Manx- but again numbers have been disappointing. I have also see a few bonxies, 2 Sabines gulls- both magnificent adults in summer plumage a few storm petrels and 1 wilson's petrel- I can't complain but I hope that numbers increase over the coming weeks! Unfortunately I have struggled with poor light and distant birds so taking photographs has been challenging, although this morning a great shearwater came within 40 metres of the bow, allowing me to rattle off a few snaps. Hopefully the sunshine and a nice Fea's or Bulwer's petrel are not too far away! 

great shearwater
great shearwater
nice flock of manx shearwaters
manx shearwaters- incredible how the light affects the plumage tones!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Great, Cory's and Wilson's- when lifers don't count! :(

Joined my survey vessel yesterday in a nice little port in the SW of Ireland. We steamed down the river Shannon, then overnight on the open sea. This morning I awoke over the Porcupine sea bight WSW of Mizen head in about 1600 metres of water. I spent the morning working and getting organised and then spent 3 hours on watch this afternoon. It was very quiet aside from a few gannets and fulmars and a solitary great skua and a fly-by turnstone. The sea was choppy but not unduly so, however the watch was made difficult by intermittent heavy rain and rolling damp fog banks that left water droplets on everything. The light was dull and everything had a soggy feel to it and as there was not much about I didn't bother taking the camera out onto the deck- then things changed for the good with 4 great shearwaters, a Cory's shearwater and a Wilson's petrel flying past the bow of the vessel in quick succession! Although I have seen thousands of both of these shearwater species and scores of Wilson's I have not seen any of these 3 species in British waters and so all 3 are needed for my 'British list'! Of course having checked my position on the nautical charts I confirmed my worst fears in that I am working in the Irish sector- by a significant margin! The moral of the tale is always, always have the camera ready and also too consider starting a British and Irish life list! The camera (in a plastic bag) will be on deck for the rest of the voyage!