Monday, 31 March 2014

The case of the phantom white- billed diver.

It is great to be home and I had a great half day birding on one of my 'local' patches today- Achnahaird beach/salt marsh/dunes- a 25 mile drive north of Ullapool. I had planned a trip to the hebrides and although the rooms were booked the ferry was full. Plan B- check out the recently reported 'white-billed diver' - one of two reported, with another further up the coast at Lochinver. As is so often the case with WBD reports in the north and west, this one turned out to be a waste of time- either the birds in this part of the world are incredibly mobile and have moved on by the time I arrive or visiting birders are often duped by pale-billed great northerns- unfortunately an annual occurrence . Of course, with a number of experienced birders visiting this part of the world too, some birds turn out to be genuine white-bills, but unfortunately nowhere near as many as the various reports on the bird news services suggest. On arrival I saw a nice Iceland gull sitting on the loch alongside the approach road. From the car park I scoped 5 great northern divers- four with black bills and a lone pale-billed individual. A single black-throated diver was a nice bonus. The bay also held cormorants, black guillemots and a couple of razorbills. On the beach with the common, herring and great black-backed gulls was a magnificent glaucous gull- this bird allowed for some of the best views I have ever had of this species in Britain. Other notable birds included a splendid snow bunting- my first record at this site since November 2010 and a pair of shelduck- another unusual record for the north-west coast. Two sand martins were my first true spring migrants of this year. Singing skylarks and calling lapwings and snipe coupled with displaying ringed plovers made for a very enjoyable birding session- and it was so refreshing to have to wear a beanie and gloves! ;)

glaucous gull
glaucous gull
Iceland gull
common gull
snow bunting

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Olive-Ridley turtle

Last day of my survey work today, so lots of 'computer work' to tidy up and finish- spreadsheets, day report, weekly report, monthly report, final report…….after sorting that lot out I then had time to do what I'm supposed to do and actually survey marine fauna!

Anyway, we had a nice close pass from an Olive-Ridley turtle today. Also a mini-surge in bird migration with pomarine, arctic and long-tailed skuas past the vessel- also a few more Sabines gulls and my first Arctic terns of the voyage. In very calm conditions I also saw a few rafts of grey phalaropes sitting on the sea, a number of black terns and a couple of Leach's petrels.

I should get off the vessel tomorrow and commence my 3 day journey home- looking forward to getting back to the UK for some spring migration and much anticipated visits to the Outer Hebrides and Cornwall! Hopefully catch-up with some cracking migrants at PG and the Lizard!!

Olive-Ridley turtle
close-up showing the scute layout
Black tern
Sabine's gull

Friday, 21 March 2014

El Dorado

The dorado (Coryphaena hippurus)), also known as the dolphin- fish or mahi- mahi,  is one of my all time favourite marine fish species. They are often seen associating with large tuna, billfish and dolphins- particularly during feeding frenzies when they often leap high out of the sea. They also frequent floating objects where they lurk in the shade- ready to pounce on unwary prey. Spectacularly coloured, fast and agile, these fish can often be seen pursuing flying fish that rise up from the sea surface in an attempt to avoid being eaten! Dorado often accompany ships in tropical waters- frequently riding the pressure wave off the bow. The chromataphores- cells in their skin, allow them to change colour like a chameleon when they become excited or agitated. Yesterday I saw two of these awesome ambush/pursuit predators slowly swim alongside the vessel, burst into an incredible underwater sprint, then explode through the sea surface as they attempted to catch the flying fish that were being constantly flushed ahead of the ship- difficult to capture the explosive nature of the hunt on film (especially with no polarising filter) but a few shots were achieved. My next big challenge is to try and photograph the flying fish! 

It has gone very quiet on the seabird front with just a few transient pomarine and long-tailed skuas. 

long-tailed skua
long-tailed skua

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Pilot whales- up close and personal.

We have moved south to a newish survey area- further from land and in water circa 2500 metres deep. Seabird activity is much lighter here as we are away from the shelf edge and there appears to be little or no upwelling- just the occasional surface 'slick'. The only birds have been an occasional arctic skua and a couple of Leach's petrels- always good to see as they work their way erratically across the waves, careering drunken-like ahead of the ship. 

We had a very close encounter with a pod of 15 or so short-finned pilot whales this morning. I first saw a large dorsal fin approximately 350 metres directly ahead of the ship as we were doing a slow turn to port. The animals were in classic pilot whale mode- just 'logging' or gently resting at the surface. As we approached they appeared to wake up from their late morning snooze, gave a couple of deep blows then swam to the bow for a brief bow-ride before they undertook a deep dive and disappeared from view. These delightful and often gentle animals appear to be very inquisitive and readily approach vessels- I suppose that is why they got their name. I also had distant views of a Bryde's/Sei whale- with these two species being very similar in size and structure, the dorsal fin is often the only key to their ID but as this animal was so distant it was impossible to pin it down to species level. It made a spectacular start to my morning watch as it breached three times in quick succession. 

breaching Brydes'/Sei whale

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Royal visit?

Had a fleeting glimpse of a couple of 'large-billed' terns today. I need to check my seabird ID guide when I return home (limited weight allowance for this job so my seabird reference library has been severely curtailed) although I think they were Royal terns- I'm hoping they were, as that would be a seabird 'lifer'. I have also seen a number of flocks of small terns feeding on and around the floating mats of sargassum seaweed that I think are black terns in non breeding/transitional plumages. A couple of days ago a probable Olive Ridleys' turtle also put in an appearance. Unfortunately my camera is playing up quite badly now with limited functionality- probably due to the excess temperature and humidity, so I'm not getting images to my usual high standard! ;)  A swift pass by a white-crowned lapwing was an unexpected bonus bird!

Royal tern
Royal tern
black terns feeding over sargassum algal mat
putative Olive Ridleys' turtle
white-crowned lapwing

Friday, 7 March 2014

Skua passage

Skua passage has been building slowly over the last week with 20-30 birds seen most days- usually single birds but occasional flocks of 3-4. Yesterday morning the pace increased and I counted 250+ birds passing the ship  in the first two hours of daylight. Most of the individuals concerned appeared to be pomarine skuas, although a few arctic skuas were also noted. The highlight however was the presence of several long-tailed skuas. Interestingly I saw a flock of 30 or so skuas that appeared to be migrating low over the water in the company of Cory's shearwaters- all the birds working their way WNW using lazy, languid wingbeats in the almost still air. At one stage the birds rested momentarily on the sea before resuming their passage. It was also interesting to see 3 poms. scrapping over an eel that had been caught by one of the birds. The bright tropical sunlight is very flat and I am struggling to find a suitable camera setting but have managed a few shots.

a great spectacle!
long-tailed skua
Arctic skua
long-tailed skua
Poms at play!
long-tailed skuas
pomarine skua