Sea and sky watching jaunt - part 1 Biscay

As the blog title suggests seawatching and raptor watching are my main interests. So in autumn 2017 we planned a trip to the western Spanish Pyrenees to catch up with some migration of European raptors (somewhere we'd not tried before!) with a return trip through Biscay to get there and back. May be a good holiday combining both passions?!

The last time I went to the Pyrenees was way back in September 1998, taking my motorbike and Del on the Plymouth-Santander crossing.

But first a bit about Biscay crossings. From the mid-90s I got hooked on Biscay trips - it was then possible to go from Plymouth (conveniently only 25 miles away) to Santander return trip and see a great selection of cetaceans and seabirds, all for a modest price, using Brittany Ferries. The summer-early autumn period being best, although that said I've had good spring and late autumn crossings. The boat at the time was the Val de Loire - still to this day the best cross-channel ferry I've been on for marine-life observation. This was down to the design of the boat, which had a small open front facing deck, giving almost 180 degrees of forward observation from a reasonable height. Coupled with this, the sailing timings meant it was possible to cover a complete transect of Biscay by adding the outward and return trips together. But as the 90's moved on the sailing got more popular with seawatchers and the front facing observation area would fill up pretty quickly - there were even squabbles for space! Luckily for me on one of these early trips I met Dave Curtis (who has/had surveyed Biscay on the Val every month March-November for over 10+ years!!), so for a few years I became involved in systematic recordings with him. For this we were allowed to sit above the bridge (so no need to fight for a place on the lower deck), which had an even better 270 degrees field of view. Another factor which made the Val so good was she only used to do around 18 knots unlike the 24 knots of the modern ferries now on the route, which meant more time in Biscay and more time for observing a passing seabird or cetacean. So for a few years the Val became a regular venue, getting to know the various Captains and the many crew as well as the ferry terminal staff on both sides. But alas in 2004 they built a bigger, faster ferry which took over, the Pont Aven; which IMO has never been so good in terms of the route timing from Plymouth (OK to Portmouth) or as an observation platform! From 2004 we persevered with the Pont Aven, being allowed to watch from the bridge, but as it no longer did a return Plymouth-Santander trip it was not as convenient. Brittany Ferries even let me put my car on free, so we could go Plymouth-Santander, then Santander-Portsmouth (which gave the best crack at Biscay) and then drive home from Portsmouth. However, soon after Orca took over the route and still survey it to this day, so we called it a day doing the original survey. So since I've had very few Biscay crossing, though I did a double header back in August 2013 - that's Plymouth-Santander-Portsmouth-Santander-Plymouth, watching with some Orca colleagues I've got to know.

Anyway back to the 2017 trip. Armed with a bit of previous knowledge we studied the ferry times and decided as we were taking a car we needed the best compromise between maximum time in Biscay and cheapest price. So ended up booking a slot that would take us on two ferries I've not been on before, both going Bilbao and returning to Portsmouth - as discussed above leaving or returning to Plymouth is not good for Biscay time anymore. I would have preferred going to Santander for old times sake, but using Bilbao was both more economic and gave us better time in Biscay.

The outward bound ferry, was the economy Baie de Seine. Leaving Portsmouth at 08:45 on 19  September. A quick investigation found it was only possible to watch looking out from the port or starboard sides, but still a reasonable view but only effectively 50% coverage. So we picked port as it had the least glare. Leaving Portsmouth we saw the new aircraft carrier  HMS Queen Elizabeth complete with police guard.

The English Channel was pretty boring with just Gannets and a few Bonxies, but as we neared Ushant we did see some Common Dolphins and a juvenile Sabine's Gull.

The next day I woke up early and went out on deck, great we were in Biscay. I'd checked on the forecast before we left which predicted a strong easterly (not good for seeing cetaceans), sadly it was right! So I opted to watch from the starboard side which was more sheltered from the wind and less glare.  Straight away we were seeing many Great Shearwaters (seeing c350 in all before reaching Bilbao). Among the Greats were a few Sooty and a few Manx and just one Cory's.
Great Shearwaters

Unfortunately the easterly built and the sea got rougher and we didn't see one cetacean! However, one consolation was we saw all four skuas. The best being a juvenile Long-tailed. It was gone rather quickly, but as well lit I did manage to rattle off some shots to catch all the diagnostic features.
At this angle it was already looking good for Long-tailed, the two pale primary shafts, pale nape and cap and slim build were all clues. Even said it didn't look a small bird!


juvenile intermediate phase Long-tailed Skua
Parallel with us and its obviously a pale/intermediate Long-tailed Skau, probably one of the more common juvenile forms. Showing a rounded head, shortish two tone bill, darkish cap against cold yellowish hind-neck and dark breast-band accentuated by paler upper chest, all classic juv Lt features. The two pale primary shafts in the upper wing become more obvious. The extensive pale barring on the underwing coverts and axillaries, upper and undertail coverts all good features. It also shows the attenuated shape of the rear, ending with the longish tail projections with roundish tips.

For me a close-ish Lt Skua I could photograph was the best bird of the crossing.

We arrived at Bilbao at 14:15 (13:15 English time) and headed off on the next part of our holiday, heading for the western Spanish Pyrenees.

Part 2 to follow.

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