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 three storm-petrels that fitted Wilson's shape, size and jizz from South Devon headlands (11/08/08 & very briefly 03/09/17 at 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 them 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 trip on 15/08/17, given 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




   

9 comments:

  1. superb account and what a stunning result, just a shame about camera malfunction but at least you could just enjoy the bird and savour the moment...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks John, I've a habit of destroying camera gear on boats. Good news the DSLR is running again it was a connection issue.

      Delete
  2. Well done Mark, thoroughly deserved.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Dave, of course you've been that close in Devon to a land-based sighting.

      Delete
  3. Hi Mark - great record and great write-up as always. Would have bet money on you and/or Mike getting the first off Berry Head. Sure it's only a matter of time and sure your previous 'petrel sp' were this species too. Never seen Wilsons but I'm really not good on small boats. Sick for 13 hours on a Scillonian pelagic when I was a kid. All the best. Matt

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers Matt, I think the 1st from a Kayak is the best. Of course wasn't there one off your patch recently! If it was you I'd believed it whether you'd seen one before or not. Mark

      Delete
  4. Thanks Mark. I'd want to get every last detail on a land-based sighting. Very tricky I'd imagine. Spencer had the Orcombe bird with a ESP - both not far offshore apparently. I seem to have a knack of missing the good seabirds off Orcombe but I'm limited as to when I get out and for how long. I'm crossing my fingers for some decent weather systems before going back to work in September. All the best. Matt

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good account Mark, you couldn't have been much closer to that 12 miles!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There's something about being close to that 12 mile limit off Salcombe, that's also where Rob Dart had the imm Black-browed Albatross (not accepted by BB, but I'm pretty sure that's what they saw)and the Great Shear I saw (photo on Devon Birds 68(1)). If I was organising a pelagic off Devon that's where i would take it! But it's not Devon or is it? May be I should rename my blog 'Not quite Devon'!

      Delete