A Wilson's Storm-petrel in Devon waters at last

Just like buses after years of waiting and speculation suddenly two Wilson's Storm-petrels (WSP) are seen in Devon waters in a matter of days!

For four years I worked on and off on a commercial angling boat, fishing the Devon side of the English Channel, without a sniff of one, despite logging over 675 European Storm-petrels! This all ended in 2013 when the boat was sold as the skipper retired, but I did a write up for Devon Birds 68(1):3–13. Although I have seen two storm-petrels that fitted Wilson's shape, size and jizz from South Devon headlands (11/08/08 Berry Head and 30/07/17 Start Point), I felt I really needed them close enough to get upper wing covert bar and protruding feet etc, as such a rare seabird in a Devon context and let both go as storm-petrel species (most likely Wilson's).

Yet 2017 seems like an incredible year for them, with multiple sightings off SW Cornwall, Isles of Scilly and SW Ireland, surely it was going to be Devon's year! So I wanted to get out to sea and negotiated a trip on a shark fishing boat, which has kept getting cancelled! In the meantime seawatching friend Rupert Kirkwood saw one 2 miles NE of the Eddystone (we think its Devon waters!) on 13/08/17. What was even more fantastic about this record is Rupert kayaks out that far and even better managed to get photos that clearly show a Wilson's - and he's not sitting by a load of chum going in the sea to make it easy! All credit to Rupert and a truly fantastic record, should get the Carl Zeiss photo award IMO.

So finally I got to sea on a shark fishing boat on 15/08/17, given 11 WSP had been seen over the Herd Deep (mid-channel off Guernsey and further east), my expectations were very high. After catching some fresh Mackerel for bait we hit the fishing spot off Salcombe just before 1000hrs and the two chum bags (old mushed up Mackerel) went in to attract the sharks. Conditions for me were ideal as not flat calm, with a westerly breeze, perhaps force 3, to carry the scent of the chum. It only took 15 minutes for the first European Storm-petrels (ESP) to arrive, which steadily built up (c60 seen). As the oily chum slick built and gradually extended further and further out, storm-petrels were coming in at all distances and soon the Blue Sharks were also being caught. They are put back quickly and alive I have to add.

During the day I snapped away taking photos of the ESPs attracted to slick, most were not too close and further down the slick. However, after a couple of hours the auto-focus packed up on the DSLR camera, I had an idea what it might be, but put the camera away as I was not going to start removing lenses and cleaning contacts in a salt laden atmosphere. I also took some pictures of the guys with their Blue Sharks with my Nikon V1, until the lens packed up on that (electronic aperture went). So not a good day for my equipment! Probably a fine spray of saltwater from a constantly running hose to keep landed sharks moist (while the hook is removed), was the culprit. So camera gear dead and put away that left just trusty 8x32 bins.

So to the bird. After the boat had been chumming for approximately 5 hours, at around 15:15 I spotted a larger storm-petrel with the ESPs. A Wilson's at last this far up the English Channel! Without cameras to worry about I watched through bins. I've seen Wilson's before and gradually ticked off all the features. Appearing larger than the ESPs, hand longer than arm to give a different wing shape (and straighter on rear of wing shape), rear end more attenuated looking. Feet projecting beyond the tail. Upperwing showing grey covert bar and underwing looking dark unlike ESPs whitish covert bar. Occasionally feeding in distinctive dancing manner. Then we left and headed home (just when it was getting interesting), the chum bags were emptied and even more petrels came in to feed, I would have loved to stay and sorted through them all, but it wasn't my call and off we went, frustratingly leaving a load of feeding storm-petrels!

Of course the next question was whether it was Devon's waters. Skipper measured distance we were fishing as 12nm from Salcombe. Later Tom Brereton checked whether the lat/long I gave him was in the 12nm limit. It was just (see pics), so that's Devon for me. But whether Devon or not depending on your criteria, still yet another amazing record of what is an amazing year. With Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna and Striped Dolphins seen in the SW approaches (and Herd Deep for the latter), there is something clearly different going on this year, perhaps related to sea temperature.

Another thing that struck me and I've heard this said before, when chumming you must stay with the chum slick for at least 2 hours, this took 5!
Position of Wilson's Storm-petrel sighting and 12nm limit.

Position of Wilson's Storm-petrel sighting 11.49 nautical miles off Bolt Head




   

What’s a Devon record, or not, in terms of the sea?

Yep, an old topic I know. but this little bit I wrote in Devon Birds 68(1):14 back in April 2015 suddenly got quite topical again, after Rupert Kirkwood's excellent 'at sea' sighting, with photograph of a Wilson's Storm-petrel c2 miles NE of the Eddystone Rocks (lighthouse) on 13/08/17. So here's the piece regurgitated.

Edit. On talking to Tom Bereton a long-time researcher/surveyor for MarineLife 12nm is the one to go for. This limit already has a GIS layer to check records.

What’s a Devon record, or not, in terms of the sea?
We may see a pelagic seabird such as a passing Sooty Shearwater from Berry Head or from a boat ten miles out at sea. In both situations the bird was at sea (its natural foraging habitat) and not flying over land; it’s just the position of the observer that is ‘land-based’ or ‘at sea’. But at what point does it count as a Devon record and when not? In 2011, the Devon Birds Records Committee (DBRC) decided that point was 5 nm from the coast, and that any records beyond this would not count; they can be included in the Devon Bird Report (DBR) for interest but do not contribute to the county’s statistics. Yet a 5nm limit follows no scientific or any other logical rationale, such as limits already in place for conservation or fisheries!
A much better option would be to use a limit already in place for the UK. The most logical approach would be to include records for Devon where its coast represents the closest county within the UK Economic Exclusion Zone (which is equivalent to the UK Continental Shelf area and broadly similar to the British fishery extent, see http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-1478). Off the south coast this boundary extends halfway across the English Channel to France, and in terms of conservation the UK has responsibility for this area under the Habitats Directive. This rule of thumb could be applied
to all counties with sea areas. When reporting, records could be subsequently recorded as ‘land-based’ or ‘at sea’ (when boat-based any distance from land up to this limit), but they still count as what has been seen over the sea off Devon. This could easily be represented in the DBRs by adding an ‘at sea’ row in tabulated data for more abundant species (as in DBR 2010); then ‘at sea’ and data from regular land-based watch points could be compared for seasonal variation. Even using the UK territorial waters boundary of 12 nm would make more sense than 5 nm, as this is at least a recognized limit already in place. Interestingly, prior to 2011, and perhaps wisely, no attempt was made to define a recording area for Devon’s waters. Both Tyler (2010) and Moore (1969) made no distinction of Devon’s sea area and include ‘at sea’ records. There is no consistent approach with other counties, which use a variety of options. At a national level, BBRC and BOURC consider
records from the UK Economic Exclusion Zone (as defined above). The Isles of Scilly, renowned for their pelagic birding trips (which have made several additions to the British List) include ‘at sea’ records well beyond 5 nm with no apparent problem. Under the DBRC 5-nm rule the Lundy crossing makes an interesting case. If applied, around 7 nm of this crossing would be more than 5 nm from both the mainland and Lundy, and therefore not count as Devon. In this instance. however, DBRC state that all sightings on the Lundy crossing count as Devon records – which is at odds with any other Devon boat-based sightings! If the proposed UK Economic Exclusion Zone rule was applied, this captures Lundy and its boat crossing as well as the surrounding area of sea, with no need to make a special case. In recent times, short-range pelagic trips have been made out of Brixham; however, no attempt was made to record when inside or just outside the 5-nm limit as participants were more interested in birdwatching.
It is interesting to note that in past Devon Bird Reports, sightings from the Plymouth–Santander ferry up to the Eddystone have been attributed to Devon. Under the 5-nm rule these would not count for Devon, and even if the rule of ‘closest county coast’ were to be applied, most of these records should go to Cornwall, as once the ferry has left Plymouth Sound it is actually closest to the Cornish coast. However, the Eddystone rock has long been considered part of Devon, even though actually nearer Cornwall (some 9 miles off Rame Head). So where should records from here go?
At the time the DBRC applied the 5-nm rule, a review of past ‘at sea’ records should have been made, with a list of those no longer acceptable published in the DBR so as to amend the county’s statistics. Since this appears not to have been done, it may just be simpler to use a more logical limit, as suggested above.

References
 Moore, R. 1969. The Birds of Devon. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
Tyler, M. 2010. The Birds of Devon. DBWPS.

West Lyme Bay large shearwaters 2017

I've always found it interesting looking at the relative ratio of the two large shearwaters occurring in west Lyme Bay (or Devon). For some reason this far up the English (western) Channel, Greats usually outnumber Cory's, in terms of both numbers and number of records. So I thought as 2017 is looking like a good year for us (we can never can compete with Cornwall or W & SW Ireland!), I'd keep a tally for the ratios I have seen for west Lyme Bay this year.


Cory' Shearwater
Great Shearwater
21/07/17
181
82
22/07/17
2
3
26/07/17
1
2
28/07/17
0
17
02/08/17
0
3
03/08/17
1
3
07/08/17
1
1
11/08/17
0
12
Total
186
123
Records
5
8
 
So far its unusual in that Cory's have outnumbered Great. But that's really just down to one big Cory's day (21/07/17). So looking at the ratio of records, I've recorded Greats on eight days and Cory's on five so far. So still a better chance of seeing Great despite the difference in numbers. Hoping this good summer / autumn continues and I will revisit and add to the table and this post.

Out of interest both large shearwaters are listed a 'A' species by Devon Birds Records Committee, hence requiring a description from observers for all birds seen. It might be time to at least move them to a 'B', requiring brief notes if requested. Neither is really a rare bird in a Devon context. Perhaps what constitutes an 'A' and 'B' should be assessed using a statistical assessment inline with BBRCs approach. Yes, they are possible to miss-identify - there's a tendency to turn distant Greats into Cory's and we shouldn't be worried about using large shearwater sp., but with experience quite distant birds can be identified correctly. Recommended reading is Mike Langman's excellent guide to: Large Shearwaters at distance. Devon Birds 65(2): 32–37.

Of course views off headlands are never as good as from a boat!
Great Shearwater - West Lyme Bay
Great Shearwater - West Lyme Bay
Cory's Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater
But sometimes they're not too bad from a South Devon headland
Great Shearwater (underside) Berry Head
Great Shearwater (upperside) Berry Head
Cory's Shearwater (underside) Berry Head
Cory's Shearwater (upperside) Berry Head





Lyme Bay maritime natural area and notable species

There seems to be some confusion as where / what Lyme Bay is and a definition of its boundary! Some (e.g. BirdGuides) assume its just the sea area off Dorset (close to Lyme Regis) and therefore records are attributable to Dorset only (e.g. recently Birdguides attributed sightings from a short-range pelagic from Brixham, Devon to Dorset). However, conservationists have long been using the definition as the area of sea between Start Point (Devon) and Portland Bill (Dorset). See Natural England's  Lyme Bay Maritime Natural Area  document. Recent short-range pelagic trips from Brixham are referred to as Lyme Bay pelagics (run by NatureTrek and local guides, often posted on Devon Bird news); tend to focus on the Devon side of Lyme Bay as Brixham is the port of embarkation.
Lyme Bay
Lyme Bay is an important staging area for many seabirds, particularly through summer-autumn. It is one of the best areas in the UK to see the critically endangered Balearic Shearwater - a species in which I have taken great interest (with over 10,000 land-based sightings over the years). From participating in at sea surveys (transects of Lyme Bay / English Channel) for MarineLife and JNCC and shore based observations (e.g. SeaWatchSW / RSPB and my own ongoing study), it appears the west side of Lyme Bay is a particular hot spot. Arrival of good numbers from late July onward usually follow a period of onshore winds with a southerly to south-westerly bias, usually if good numbers first appear on the French side of the English Channel (having tracked up around Biscay). If there is a good food source present they may linger, but as with all seabird events some years are better than others, So far 2017 is looking very good.
Any of the headlands on the west side of Lyme Bay are good, perhaps Berry Head (near Brixham) being the best in terms of sightings and access (parking etc), although Portland in the east can also be very good in some years. Berry Head has another bonus, being by Brixham which has a resident fishing fleet. Balearic Shearwaters will often follow Otter (day) trawlers back in from outer Lyme Bay, often breaking away and passing close to the headland as the boats head for port. Most notably in September 2011 I witnessed the amazing sight of 63 Balearic Shearwaters behind one trawler and 54 behind the next!
As these shearwaters are at sea, sometimes distant offshore, I tend to refer to the sighting area as west Lyme Bay in terms of a conservation area.
Balearic Shearwater - Lyme Bay
The bay also hosts a small population of White-beaked Dolphins which I've been lucky to see by boat several times and occasionally (if you're very lucky) while seawatching from Berry Head.

White-beaked Dolphin - Lyme Bay

  

Lyme Bay Humpback - updated

Setting the scene
Western Lyme Bay including Start Bay and Tor Bay
Start Bay is the area between Start Point (bottom left) and the entrance of the Dart (middle). It is a smaller bay within Lyme Bay, which stretches from Start Point to Portland Bill (see natural area profile here).  There was a large concentration of shoaling fish in the area during February, in fact Mackerel (and some Anchovy) were being caught in large numbers even in the entrance of the Dart, very unusual in the winter. While Herring (Sprats and Anchovy) are more regular winter visitors, clearly all species were around in large numbers. The topography of Start Bay meant these fish were getting concentrated in large shoals close to the shore. The beach is of small pebbles and shelves quite steeply, while further out the skerries bank acts as a shallower barrier. On 22nd-23rd February the UK was hit by a big winters' storm 'Doris'. By 23rd the winds had gone round to a northwesterly. Perhaps 'Doris' had nothing do with what appeared in Start Bay around the same time and might have just have been a red herring (pardon the pun) of the food driven event that was about to happen.

One Humpback only!!
 On Thursday 23rd February two friends (Mike Langman and Perry Saunders, who know I'm particularly interested in seabirds and cetaceans), both phoned to say there was a whale off Slapton beach, presumed to be a Minke Whale. A whale close inshore was not to be missed so we set off straight away, arriving mid-afternoon. There was clearly a large food source close inshore with many Gannets and gulls feeding (probably in the hundreds spread-out in Start Bay). Underneath were many cetaceans, mostly Harbour Porpoises but further out we were also seeing Common Dolphins attracted to the food. All a great spectacle in itself.
The Start Bay Humpback Whale dive sequence 23rd February. The front of the animal appears with the blow, the back arches revealing the hump (with reduced dorsal fin) and then the tail flukes appear as the animal dives. As the water off  Slapton beach is relatively shallow, the flukes were only seen occasionally as many feeding dives were shallow.
 We met a few people telling us the 'Minke' was still there and we located the whale feeding southeast of the memorial car park. Expecting to see a 'Minke' I was very excited to see the whale was actually a large Humpback feeding on the shoaling fish. I quickly phoned a few people saying what it was, as this was in a different league. We watched the Humpback until dusk and hoped it and the food source would stay, so others would be able to witness this unique event.

Now it was interesting a probable 'Minke' had also been claimed on the 22nd, as well as a 'Minke' feeding close in on the 23rd February on local online 'Wildlife in Devon' news service. My own theory is it was the same animal all the time, a Humpback, but would love to be proved wrong. So if anyone has any photos of the 'Minke' please put them on Devon Birds News to prove me wrong. As there has been no evidence of a Minke, let's assume its the same animal from at least the 22nd February.

In later days there were also reports of two Humpbacks! Also a Humpback and a calf! Given the speed the animal was moving at times it was easy to think may be two, but all my photos and those of others show unique markings on either side of the animal consistent with one Humpback only. The reports of a calf, once again I believe this was confusion with Harbour Porpoises which at times were close to the Humpback. From what I've read given the time of year it would be exceptional for a mother and calf to be this far north; a few non-breeding Humpbacks do winter further north but most of the breeding animals are further south.

The right side of the Humpback showing characteristic marking. All photos of Humpback show the same animal not two and no calf!

A Herring and Mackerel - two casts worth!
The Humpback was feeding on the abundant fish which were attracting the feeding frenzy. It was covering quite a large area quickly, the shelving beach forming the perfect fish trap. At times it would appear just off the beach with the blow being quite audible. Watching a local angler on 23rd February confirmed what it was feeding on - he was catching Herring and Mackerel on every cast and described it as highly unusual to be catching Mackerel in such large numbers in winter.

The food source remained in the area and so did the Humpback making use of the glut of fish. I personally went down to watch the Humpback Whale on 23rd, 24th, 25th & 27th February; 3rd, 6th & 9-10th, 20th & 22nd March. On the 25th February it is was ranging over a large area going down to Blackpool Sands to nearly off Start Point, but at times was still coming in close to feed. I also noticed at times it would go further out and rest near the surface. I believe on the Sunday 26th it was mostly distant but did come closer to shore feeding late afternoon. On Monday the 27th February we went down again to see if the Humpback was still present. It had not been reported all morning and there were still no sign in the afternoon despite much feeding activity in Start Bay, with Gannets, gulls and many Harbour Porpoise still present. Then at 15:30 Adele picked up a blow in the deeper water at 80 degrees from the memorial car park, probably 2-3 miles offshore. I managed to pick up two more big blows in same area, consistent with Humpback, but saw no more despite scanning.

I believe this was the last sighting until 2nd March when seen feeding again off Strete Gate late afternoon close in. We went down again on 3rd March and picked it up by the blows, distantly north on the 'bell buoy' from Torcross around 11:00. It headed north towards Blackpool Sands / Dartmouth, being lost for long periods before picking up the blows again. In the afternoon it came in closer (viewed from the memorial car park), when seabird feeding activity increased and was there until early evening working its way south feeding. Same pattern 4th-5th March with best views towards evening (off Strete Gate 16:30).

We went down gain on the 6th March. The whale was difficult to see being picked up very distantly around 14:00, well to the northeast. It slowly worked it way in closer in north Start Bay, only getting in as far as Blackpool Sands direction in the failing light. A huge number of gulls and Gannets starting feeding in the north end of the bay during the late afternoon with several Harbour Porpoise. Obviously the food source is still there.

On the 7th March it was seen feeding between the memorial car park and Strete Gate from 15:15.

Talking to Stephen Marsh of  BDMLR on 7th March he was asking for good photos of the underside of the tail flukes. These markings act as a finger print. The best I could find were taken by Bob Telford (see last photo here) . Bob  kindly sent on some more copies which have been sent to the The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue (NAHWC) at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbour, Maine, USA. (http://www.coa.edu/allied-whale/research/) . There are some very distinctive marks on the left fluke, I was unable to find a match, but hopefully NAHWC will, or at least they've got a new animal for the catalogue. We'll post the results if there's a match.

On the 8th March it was seen feeding between memorial car park and Strete Gate 16:45.

I went down again on 9th March. I located the Humpback off Strete Gate late morning where no one seemed to be watching! The animal was feeding  mid-distance, but even better it did two full breaches coming right out of the water, showing the whitish pectoral flippers (fins) as it span. The first time I'd seen this behavior in all the days I've watched it. It was also doing more deep diving today (and tail slapping) with tail flukes appearing high out of the water more often than I'd seen on previous days. The Humpback then moved south in Start Bay getting close to memorial car park and appeared to feed off Torcross  / Beesands for some time, where the main seabird activity increased. It ended up coming back, very close past the memorial car park heading for Strete Gate. Due to calmness of the sea a series of 'footprints' could be seen just off the beach markings its progress. An amazing day's watching in more benign conditions and great to meet Henry Kirkwood (who's dad I used to seawatch with at Hartland Point). Excellent photos and a video of the dive sequence (actually showing the animal's head and blow), taken by Henry can be seen here.

On the 10th it was foggy clearing late afternoon. Had the briefest of views 15:19-16:00 from memorial car park, although later heard  it was off Strete Gate until dusk. Not so many birds feeding but still plenty of Harbour Porpoise in the bay.

Still present Start Bay on the 11th March.

On the 12th it was seen east off Berry Head up to 09:30, disappeared, then reappeared in Tor Bay during the afternoon to evening. Breaching more now and tail slapping - a change in behaviour! On the 13th March it was still off Berry Head from 07:05 then gave fantastic views to people up until 12:45, see photos here and videos here and here. Then headed off south 13:30 and was back in Start Bay 15:45-18:30.

Sightings then became less predictable with no confirmed sightings on 14th March, but on the 15th it was back in Start Bay 16:30-19:00 at least.

The Humpback makes it into its 4th week with sightings in north Start Bay late on 16th March in mouth of the Dart and off Blackpool Sands and a similar pattern from 17th-19th.

Just a distant blow seen mid morning on 20th March while we were seawatching at Start Point, was the only possible sighting reported. On the 21st March it was off Strete Gate 16:40 then  Slapton memorial car park from 17:12, then by off Torcross 18:40.

On the 22nd March we headed down again, as it was the Humpback’s one month anniversary of being in Lyme Bay (Start Bay). Sadly things took a turn for the worse when the animal was reported to be tangled in static pot gear (one of the ropes with pick up buoys) off Blackpool Sands, from around 12:00.  The fishing boat Maverick stayed with the whale (at distance) until help arrived from the British Divers Marinelife Rescue with the RNLI (Dartmouth inshore rib and later the Salcombe lifeboat), supported by the Coastguard on shore. Putting many rescuers on Maverick ferried out by the RNLI rib, they pulled the whale in close to the boat using the offending rope with buoys. After several attempts, at around 17:20 Chris Lowe (of BDLMR) managed to cut the rope wrapped around the whale and we watched it swim off fast. The inshore RNLI rib then monitored its progress, after two passes up and down (probably re-orientating itself after the ordeal) it headed south towards Slapton. Fantastic work by these two great charities, we're are so lucky to have their expertise to deal with these situations. A blow by blow account by BDMLR can be read here.

Humpback Whale off Blackpool Sands entangled in rope with BDMLR attending on Maverick with RNLI in support.
BDMLR cutting rope
 
RNLI monitoring Humpback Whale after freed.
Markings on the whale show its the same animal that has been around since 23rd [22nd] February and there is no calf, despite yet more claims on the 22nd March there was. Folk are getting mixed up with Harbour Porpoise, a Humpback calf is a big animal, much larger than a porpoise and would stay with its mother, this just wasn't happening! The whale has been around for a month now with no sign of a calf, so why should one turn up now? On calm days such as the 9th March, when the whale has been easy to watch all day (including using high powered telescope) we've seen no calf. Also the BBC started calling the animal 'she', I cannot see how it can be sexed. It is just as likely to be a 'he'. In fact its been called Doris, Horace and Engelbert! I'm sorry I started the name Doris, it was joke after the storm!!

There were no sightings on 23rd-25th March. With a run of northeasterly–easterly winds over the next two days, which will make Start Bay rough. It will be interesting to see if this breaks up the food source and the whale moves on.

Well the Humpback is still around, with sightings on 26th March from memorial car park and again on 27th March, when it was also seen breaching, showing its fit and well after it entanglement. Also seen distantly evenings on 29th–31st March.

On 1st April it was reported caught in static pot gear again around 17:30, at first I thought it was a bad April fool, but Pete Moore (FaB) confirmed it was correct! Freed by RNLI at 18:00 with images of the rescue appearing on their twitter feed. Getting caught up a second time in not good news and there is now more pot gear going out!

Not seen on the 2nd April but then distantly in morning on 3rd. Then mainly afternoons on 4th–7th - all Start Bay.
On the 8th April it (or a Humpback at least) was seen distantly breaching off Bolt Head at 11:10. Given the seasonal increase in static pot gear going out in north Start Bay it might be a blessing in disguise, if it moving off at last. There was a possible sighting late on in Start Bay on 9th April.

Confirmation the Humpback has moved on with sightings in Falmouth Bay on 11th April. The animal was beaching and the scars from the recent entanglements in Start Bay were visible on the base of  the tail.

Summary of events:
  • A perfectly healthy single Humpback Whale was/is feeding in Lyme Bay.
  • The whale was most likely present in Start Bay from 22nd–27th, at least 23rd–27th February, then re-sighted 2nd–11th March. It then visited Tor Bay 12th–13th March, but was back in Start Bay later on 13th and 15th–22nd, 26th–27th & 29th March, 1st & 3rd–7th April. Seen off Bolt Head on 8th April. It was then off Falmouth on 11th April.
  • On the 22nd March the whale became entangled in pot gear off Blackpool Sands, but was released by the BDMLR with the RNLI. But the same thing happened again on 1st April with RNLI releasing the animal! There was some scarring to the tail stock following these events, but otherwise the whale seemed none the worse.
  • Humpbacks are known predators of shoaling fish such as Herring, Mackerel and Anchovy, known to be present in large numbers and will enter shallower water to hunt them.
  • The topography of Start Bay and Slapton beach was acting as a fish trap, so close views of the Humpback Whale were afforded at times.
  • This was a unique event for the public to witness from land close inshore, with no risk to the whale.
  • There was a possibility boats might spook the animal into beaching, generally watercraft were well behaved and a warning for them to stay away was issued by the Police and Marine Management Organisation. One cabin cruiser (there's always one!) was reported on morning of 24th February getting too close. Also on 13th March another was getting too close to it off Berry Head.
  • People have been thrilled by this unique sight, including the local primary school children and many families, hopefully inspiring a new generation of conservationists for the future
  • Slapton beach was the perfect arena for watching such a spectacle, with good parking and plenty of space for people to spread out.
Start Bay Humpback showing double blow hole, which is why they have a 'bushy' or 'mushroom' shaped blow. That's close for a big whale, but it not in trouble, its feeding!

The hump and dorsal fin of Humpback Whale
Last updated 10:00 12/04/2017

Winter seawatching past and present

Winter seawatching is hard going, I used to do far more than I do now - as I seem to feel the cold more - age! Compared to other times of year the rewards are slim, a Great Skua or even a Pomarine Skua or a Balearic Shearwater if you're lucky. A good winter watch is usually dominated by a good movement of auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes which can be spectacular. My simplistic definition of winter is December–February. So what were some memorable watches and some snippets of information from my experiences?

Ah 1998!! In early January that year we had a series of SW to W winter gales (winds 80-100mph at times) that went on for a few days pushing birds up into the English Channel and Lyme Bay, blowing from way out in the Atlantic. On the 3rd Hope's Nose watchers had an amazing 77 Great Skuas, while I only managed to get to Berry Head for 2 hours that afternoon, I still saw 30. The next day we had 64 past Berry Head. There was probably c150 during early January 1998 through west Lyme Bay - pretty good for winter. Great Skua is a nice bird to see in winter but quite regular, although the January 1998 numbers were exceptional. When I worked on a boat fishing in the English Channel (2010–2013), in the winter Great Skua was a frequent attendant, showing the channel to be a regular wintering area. The most we had around the boat at any one time was 15 on 10/12/2011, which included a colour ringed adult (breeding bird from St.Kilda), a nice 'at sea' recovery.
St.Kilda ringed Great Skua off Devon from angling boat 10/12/2011
In January 1998 seeing the Great Skuas was good, but there were some more unusual visitors driven up in those storms. While Pomarine Skua is also regular in winter, it is less so than Great Skua; when I worked on the fishing boat I only saw one winter Pomarine. Back in January 1998 Hope's Nose recorded three on the 4th; while at Berry Head  I saw five different birds between 5th–9th ranging from adults (with and without spoons), immature and first-winter. Although Pomarine isn't an exceptional winter sighting Arctic Skua is. We had two sightings from Berry Head on the 5th and 8th. I'm usually quite sceptical about January–February (even December) sightings of Arctic as they winter much further south than Pomarine (and you need to be very careful to rule out a small Pom), but these were witnessed by a few of us. Adding further evidence as to how far away these winter storms had originated was an unprecedented influx of European Storm-petrels (also usually wintering further south, e.g. off southwest Africa). We saw one on the the 4th which was good, then 10 on the 5th (amazing), followed by an exceptional 41 on the 8th and three the next day. Just to put this in context, below is a graph plotting the monthly average number of Great Skuas and European Storm-petrels attending the boat (attracted to 'chum') I worked on 2010–2013. As you can see Great Skua was regular, but European Storm-petrel was absent in winter from the channel. So early January 1998 was pretty special off South Devon for out of context seabirds.
European Storm-petrel and Great Skua: monthly trip average of birds attending angling boat 2010–2013. Two very contrasting yearly distributions. European Storm-petrel is usually absent in winter, while Great Skua's lowest numbers are June-July in the English Channel and regular through the winter.

Shearwaters in winter off South Devon are a fairly scarce sight and can be the highlight of a winter seawatch. Balearic Shearwater being the most likely. Over the years I've had 15 winter Balearic sightings, but only two were of multiple birds, both in February 2008 (a two and a four). 2008 was perhaps the best year for Balearics wintering off Devon in small numbers and is still the only year when I saw a Balearic Shearwater in every month! Manx Shearwater is much rarer in winter off Devon and I've only seen two winter Manx to date in 2005 and 2007. Sooty Shearwater again is pretty rare in winter and to date I've had six winter sightings. Probably the most bizarre was one flying past Brixham breakwater heading out of Torbay on 01/01/2011 - a great and unexpected start to that seawatching year!
A 'pale' Balearic Shearwater, Berry Head, 30/01/2009. A pale bird like this might be mistaken for something else! But a Balearic it is on structure.
 In winter there can also be some good movements of Fulmars (our normal 'light' phase birds) and amoung them if you're lucky some 'blue' phase birds. I've seen most (23: 14 from land 9 from boat) of my 'blue' phase birds in this time of year, always a nice variation to look out for. Best count was six in a good passage on 31/12/2012. But by far the most striking bird was a 'double dark', that came past Berry Head on 29/01/2009. What a cracker, a bird worth getting cold and wet for!

'Double dark' Fulmar, Berry Head, 29/01/2009.
 But what was my best ever Devon winter seawatch? Well there is one that beats all others really due to one species! In early December 2006, a series of early winter gales hammered the UK. Winds remained in the SW-WSW for days with low pressure systems following on one after another. Being persistent with an WSW average direction, meant many Leach's Storm-petrels from far out in the Atlantic were driven up into the Bristol Channel, being seen from a number of locations - it effectively acts as massive 'heligoland trap'. I continued to watch the forecasts, hoping the wind would go NW or WNW and ease and allow an exodus of Leach's. The forecast for 08/12/2006 looked like it was going to do exactly that, so Hartland Point seemed a must. I managed to get to the lighthouse just after first light around 08:00, there was an ideal NW5 blowing and within minutes of setting up the telescope Leach's were moving through. I rang some of the locals who came down later to witness the event. In all I counted 155 Leach's passing by 14:00, setting a new record count for Devon. But the supporting cast wasn't bad ether: 51 Red-throated Divers, 18 Great Skuas, two Little Auks and a Puffin (rare bird in winter) in with the usual winter fare. It still remains my best Devon winter seawatch to date!  

This winter has been fairly quiet, although a strong force 6 southerly blow on 02/02/2017 was worth the effort of walking out to Berry Head. A Pomarine Skua, two Great Skuas and 'blue' Fulmar were the best of it, with supporting cast two each Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Red-breasted Merganser, c250 Fulmar (normal phase), c500 Gannets, c200 Kittiwakes and many auks.

Hopefully before February is over there will be another good winter seawatch, but really looking forward to spring!