Pterodroma fix and tubenose quest - Madeira and SW England 2018

After a rather good run of seeing feae type Pterodromas in Devon (and Ireland) my recent form was poor, missing the last two Devon records, despite being in situ on headlands downstream of their respective flight paths. There was only one answer to rectify my need for a Pterodroma fix, another trip to Madeira. But while I was about it, why not see how many tubenoses it was possible to see in the north-east Atlantic, from the three WindBirds pelagic trips and my usual local seawatching in Devon (with the odd trip to Cornwall thrown in), in a year. In 2015 the same quest produced 14 species with one notable omission, would 2018 be better?

So 2018 started and the tubenose quest began - seawatching off Berry Head produced Fulmars from 02/01/2018, my first Manx Shearwaters (well 138 to be precise) of the year on 29/03/2018 and early Balearic Shearwaters on 15/04/2018 and 11/05/2018. So three tubenoses off Devon up to April wasn't bad, not great. Some years I've seen a European Storm-petrel or a Sooty Shearwater by then, but surely they will follow!

May arrived and we headed for Madeira for three WindBirds run pelagic trips in their tubenose-rich seas. Our 1st pelagic was booked for 23/05/2018, but beforehand seawatching from a headland near Machico on 22/05/2018 produced a fair few Cory's Shearwaters and two Bulwer's Petrels. It was quite windy (great for land-based seawatching), but in the back of my mind I was really hoping it would die down just a bit, as Del might find the next days' pelagic hard as she's not the greatest sailor! She hadn't done the 2015 pelagics with me for this reason, but after I'd completed those I thought she would have been fine - but conditions vary so much year to year.

The afternoon of the 23/05/2018 arrived and we were greeted by Catarina and Hugo (who run WindBirds) at Machico harbour. The boat which is a large rib (see picture lower down) looked new compared to my last trips in 2015, but it wasn't, just a new tube (the rubber bit) and some brand new and very expensive shock-absorbing seats imported from New Zealand. We boarded and headed to sea with a mix of nationalities aboard. Now before you embark on these pelagics you are forewarned, it might be rough and wind is good for tubenoses - I don't think some of the participants had read the pre-flight information!! Looking above sheltered Machico the clouds were rushing over at rather a fast rate!!

As we headed east I could see through the gap off the end of Madeira and the small adjoining island, our first indication of what the sea was looking like, answer big! A 2.5m+ swell and a 20+ knot north-westerly to be precise - this was going to be interesting! After passing though the gap out into the main Atlantic, the boat, Oceandroma, started to cut her way through towering waves and there was a lot of hard slamming off the tops; thank god for those new seats! We were very quickly wet, very wet, as every now and again a wave would break over us. Luckily my camera gear was all in a dry bag, but was still bouncing around in the bottom of the boat. While an action camera was tucked in my pocket, which filled with seawater and had to be emptied periodically after each drenching - luckily the action cam is waterproof! I managed a few quick shots with the action cam to capture the atmosphere, but holding on and using it at the same time was difficult. Both Del's and my thinusulate beanie-hats were so soggy, they kept drooping over our eyes and had to be regularly wrung out so we could see! This was far, far rougher than my previous trips and quick look back down the boat revealed some of the participants weren't coping well - told by the grey faces and clenched knuckles hanging on for grim death. For Del this was a baptism of fire and not an easy starter! Were we really paying good money for this, we must be mad!
We take yet another wave right over us, fine if you like saltwater!
We stopped for a respite from slamming down over waves to look at some foraging Cory's Shearwaters. Nice to get some shots of them feeding in a bit of wind.
Cory's feeding in a big sea - nice!
Catching fish just below the surface.
The conditions still weren't improving and three participants in particular weren't coping well, however, spirits were briefly lifted by a quick flyby 'Fino's' Petrel hurtling through on the wind. 'Fino's' is the term we use for the birds that can't be assigned to Fea's or Zino's - of course this has become more complicated since Fea's was split into two species: Desertas and Fea's Petrel. As Desertas and Zino's Petrels are the most likely in the area, given they are breeding on nearby Bugio (Desertas Islands) and Pico do Arieiro (Madeira), perhaps these non-assigned Pterodromas would be better called 'Dino's'?
A 'Dino's' Petrel hurtles by on the wind.
We plodded on out to a 'chumming' position, known to be good for Zino's Petrels and where we'd been lucky in 2015. A chum block went in, but conditions were very difficult. Then just to add insult to injury it also started to pour with rain. This was the final straw for some participants, who now just wanted to go home! Catarina and Hugo decided to abandon the trip and we headed back to port, surfing down the huge swell with the wind on our backs - very exiting. As compensation we were promised longer at sea and extra chum blocks for the remaining two pelagics! One good thing though, Del coped admirably - far better than some of the others, three of which were so put off they didn't turn up for the next two pelagics they had paid for, a great shame as conditions proved far more bearable for the remaining two trips and I'm sure they'd have been OK. With WindBirds you pay for all three trips to give the best chance of catching up with as many tubesnoses as possible. So after day one my year tubenose total was still stuck on five - 'Dino's' Petrel not included of course!
Oceanodroma with Machico, Madeira in the background - sheltered from dominant north biased winds - Del and me upfront. New rubber tube and seats compared to my 2015 trip. Pelagic 2 sees a few empty seats as some participants are put off by pelagic 1, what's left are the 'seabirders'. Surely this one will be better!
For pelagic 2 (24/05/18) Catarina and Hugo decided that the wind was still too strong in the north so we'd head south and try for Desertas Petrel etc, hence gaining a bit of shelter from Madeira as we headed out. While heading down towards the Desertas we had nice close passes by two brutish Pterodromas. We slowed to fire off some shots. Heavy-billed, robust birds ticking all the boxes for Desertas, so more than happy they were.
About as good a Desertas Petrel as you can get, especially when you're a few miles off their breeding island Bugio. Look at the bill on that and the overall build.
When we arrived at our chumming position west of Bugio, we used three chum blocks one after another for the afternoon/evening session, really getting our money's worth, as we came home in the dark, so used every minute of daylight at sea. The resulting chum built up to 30+ 'Band-rumped' Petrels feeding on the slick. Given no wing moult, they appeared to be mostly the 'hot' season breeders, (likely to be using the Desertas Islands etc) and almost certainly most were Madeiran Storm-petrels. I'd seen a few before on my 2015 trips, but to see so many was fantastic. We also added two more species of Storm-petrel with European and a very brief Wilson's seen.

'Band-rumped' Storm-petrels almost certainly Madeiran.
Now it was interesting that two Leach's Petrels were also claimed. I have to say I saw nothing to suggest Leach's, one of the birds in question was photographed by another birder. I asked to be sent the pictures when I got home, which to me showed a 'Band-rumped' Petrel with some moult in the white of the rump. So though Leach's appeared on the day's tally for others it didn't for us!

Cory's Shearwaters and Bulwer's Petrels are almost taken for granted, but the latter are amazing birds to watch in flight especially as our chances of seeing one back home are incredibly slim.
Bulwer's Petrel, what a distinctive flight and shape - one day Start Point (dream on)!
A Bulwer's Petrel dwarfs a Madeiran Storm-petrel which aren't small compared to our European [British] Storm-petrels.


Another Shearwater you don't necessarily associate with Madeira are Manx. Yet a small population breeds in the interior mountains. They regularly come to chum on WindBirds pelagics, something I didn't find when I used to work on a fishing boat off South Devon and regularly chummed for seabirds. I can only ponder, either Catarina and Hugo have some 'secret' ingredient or our British Manx are more fussy? 
Manx Shearwater - regular on pelagics off Madeira, often coming in on chum - something I didn't find back at home when I used to do a lot of  'chumming' off South Devon
 Now one bird you hope to see off Madeira is Barolo Shearwater (they breed on nearby islands), but they are not easy, due to being relatively rare with a declining population and don't come to chum (boat shy). In 2015 I had a fleeting glimpse of one at dusk when heading back in after one pelagic. This time we were lucky again, Del and I spotted two birds initially coming head on, in 'characteristic' fast beating flight, I quickly took a camera shot. They quickly crossed the chum slick and whizzed off into the distance. Sadly none of the other seabirders got on them a part from C&H, the quick shot I took remarkably was in-focus (see below).
Barolo Shearwater coming head on - white-face and isolated eye (not always a feature), but seen nicely on this bird. Note sea is still roughish for pelagic 2 but far better than 1.
So we ended pelagic two with a very nice selection of eight tubenoses and my years' tally hit double figures - a nice round 10.
Roseate Tern - quite a bit of red on the base of the bill on his bird as some do.
Its not all tubenoses of course and it was nice to see Common and Roseate Terns and a Bonxie, the only gulls we saw were Yellow-legged and Black-headed (at Machico); as a group we definitely get a better selection back home - so don't come to Madeira if your a larophile. 
Yellow-legged Gull - often the first species to arrive when the chum goes in.

Cory's Shearwater - one of the most numerous tubenoses seen off Madeira, but a fantastic bird and very nice when we occasionally see them off Devon (would it happen in 2018?).
Our final pelagic was on 25/05/18. Again we would head north hoping for Zino's Petrel, one of the worlds rarest tubenoses. I also hoped we would see White-faced Storm-petrel on one the trips, particularly for Del, as they are charismatic almost comical birds to watch when feeding, but felt from previous trips we had probably blown our chances on that one as I'd only seen them on pelagics south of Madeira before - but never say never.

The final pelagic was slow, despite again having three chum blocks to play with and a nice bit of wind to carry the scent, but tubenoses seemed reluctant to respond. Of course Cory's Shearwaters and Bulwer's Petrels were ever present, but where were those special birds? Several Loggerhead Turtles were seen and quite amusing as they nibbled away at the chum block, something I didn't see in 2015.
Loggerhead Turtles like a good chew on the chum block.
Birds continued to be slow, but nice views of Common Tern, Manx Shearwaters and a Bonxie.
Common Tern
The day moved on quickly with the light starting to fade. I could tell Catarina and Hugo were looking anxious, where were the star birds? We all continued to scan the chum slick, when at 20:50 British birder Dave W, said to me "Mark what's this way down the slick?", a small Pterodroma was working its way up the long chum slick and I shouted out "Zino's". Everyone was soon on the bird as it made a series of flypasts. It was so light-weight and compact compared to the Desertas of the previous day, showing a good amount of white in the underwing coverts and slimmer bill. This one ticked all the Zino's boxes and gave amazing views in the failing light as it made several swift passes.
Lots of white in the underwing coverts on this Zino's, giving it a score firmly in the Zino's camp!
Also this Zino's Petrel is a dainty Pterodroma.
Slim bill, almost no neck, very compact body.
The Zino's behaved like a little rocket zooming around in the wind, to me they appear far more energetic than Desertas/Fea's in a strong wind. At one point a Manx joined it, causing someone to shout two Zino's, but this was really just down to the similar wingspan. I'd seen Zino's before in 2015 but could never tire of seeing such a magic bird - if you're only going to get one it might as well be a good-un - this was probably better and more entertaining than those we'd seen in 2015. Catarina and Hugo looked relieved, the seabirders were elated - oh how a day can change so quickly!
Zino's - a small compact Pterodroma
One of the best seabirds I'll ever see. Fading light ISO2000!
But it didn't stop there. Del then casually scanned the slick at 21:00 and said "What's that petrel?". Hugo was straight on it, a White-faced Storm-petrel was heading up the slick at speed (they fly quite quickly in traveling flight), then started to Pogo its way along the slick feeding. Soon to be joined by a Madeiran Storm-petrel.
Icing on the cake a White-faced Storm-petrel arrives, pogoing its way along the slick. Fading light ISO2500 for the camera buffs!

Madeiran Storm-petrel and White-faced Storm-petrel.
It was then time to head back. As we slowly moved down checking the chum slick Hugo picked up a Wilson's Storm-petrel - what a fantastic last hour. Time to head into Machico for a drink!

I've always wondered if a really good Zino's Petrel like the one we saw came past one of our south-west headlands, would we be able to tell it from a Desertas/Fea's Petrel?  Some say not, but I reckon so! But a photo would definitely be needed to convince any records committee.
Desertas Petrel vs Zino's Petrel
So Madeira had delivered 10 species of tubenose (same as my 2015 visit). Only possible with the help of Catarina and Hugo of Madeira WindBirds - I can't recommend them enough, they'll sort your accommodation and any other birding all at a very reasonable price.

So my tubenose tally was now up to 12, would I be able to increase this back home seawatching? 2018 proved to be a very hot summer, generally dominated by high pressure with little wind. Though seawatching is usually better in Cornwall, I doggedly stuck to my favoured Devon sites of Start Point and Berry Head. Both needing winds with a southerly bias. A small blow on 14/06/2018 produced my first two Devon European Storm-petrels of the year off Start Point, while a further four seawatches in June and early July predictably failed to add any new tubenoses.

Then the end of July arrived and the dominant high-pressure started to breakdown with some Atlantic fronts arriving. On the 27/07/2018 an afternoon seawatch at Start Point to coincide with an approaching front got the ball rolling with two Great Shearwaters and 28 Balearic Shearwaters. The former adding another tubenose and the latter, the first pick up of this declining species (though not as a visitor - but that's another blog post to come). The next day was even better with 10 Great Shearwaters and 19 Cory's Shearwaters in the afternoon. The 29/07/2018 saw the arrival of a better system, the resulting tubenoses were impressive (for Devon at least): 14 Cory's, 12 Great, 4 large shear sp., 14 Sooty, 60 Balearic and c1100 Manx Shearwaters. Throw in a European Storm-petrel and some Fulmars making a very nice tubenose tally of seven. This just emphasises how much better the summer/autumn months are for us, but seven in July is pretty handy and I'd seen everything I'd already seen in Devon since the beginning of the year in just one day!  One thing that also struck me, it seems gone are the days' when I see a Cory's Shearwater before Great in Devon, are Greats getting earlier?

So by the end of July my overall tubenose tally had reached 14, Sooty being the last addition - and 14 was exactly where it had remained in 2015. I wasn't really expecting to add anything new in Devon unless I got lucky with a Leach's further into the autumn, so I'd be keeping an eye on the forecast and hopefully visit one of my favourite seawatching venues, Pendeen, should the opportunity arise.

But before we leave July I must mention one notable non-tubenose sighting off Berry Head. On the 30th a c2m Leatherback Turtle surfaced about 100m off the headland, I'd only seen dead ones in the UK and small ones off Madeira before, so quite and event. Possibly the first record for Berry Head?

I only managed five seawatches in August when suitable conditions arrived, again the weather was mostly dominated by high pressure. But Balearic Shearwaters seemed to be around in good numbers, as soon as we got the right winds for birds to cross the channel from the French side. Notable counts off Start were 191 on 10th, 214 on 11th and 306 on the 12th all moving southwest. I didn't see my next influx until September, where numbers were mediocre early in the month (often the peak), but had picked up by 17th with 207. Then on the 18th I witnessed my best Balearic passage to date, when 610 came through in a 9.5hour seawatch (many in flocks up to 80), mostly in the afternoon - the Devon record had gone again!

On 20/09/2018 a big Atlantic depression arrived, storm 'Bronagh' - a watch at Berry Head delivered 122 Balearic Shearwaters supported by three Great and a Sooty Shearwater. Yet 'Bronagh' was classic fast moving Atlantic depression, so with winds forecast to switch north-west overnight, my first trip of the year to Pendeen was on the cards. Once upon a time I would have been loyal to Devon and Hartland Point on a north-westerly, but I've had to give this up as no access anymore. So I got up early on the 21st and was seawatching down the bottom of the slope at Pendeen by 06:55. Lots of seabirds were moving and relatively quickly I picked up a Leach's Storm-petrel over the 1st rock, ending the day seeing seven. The day proved to be a great seawatch with eight tubenoses identified to species: 7 Leach's & 4 European Storm-petrels; 1000's Manx, Cory's, 42 Great, 35 Sooty, c120 Balearic Shearwaters and Fulmars. And a another tubenose to group  - a distant feae type picked out by Steve Votier who managed to get me onto the bird.  My first for Cornwall! But then that's not surprising I don't watch the famous 'Fea's' magnet, Porthgwarra as I stick to Devon in southerly based winds.

So my 2018 tubenose tally had got to 15, I doubt I'll ever see more in a year in the north-east Atlantic!

Highs and Lows of 2017

Well where did 2017 go! As I get older the years fly by. So what were my personal highlights of 2017 and some lows? In no particular ranked order.

 

Raptors

Raptor migration.  In late September we went to the western Pyrenees to catch some raptor migration. Our destination Collado De Ibaneta near Roncesvalles in northern Spain, close to the French border. This is a major migration route as soaring birds and many passerines avoid the higher Pyrenees to east and pass through heading south. Even so its still relatively high at 1057m, a fair bit higher than Dartmoor! Different species migration peak at different times, but the end of September gave a pretty good spread. See http://www.gurelur.org/p/en/projects/migration-centre-roncesvalles.php which gives a chart for the various species. We saw 19 different raptor species, which was more than I hoped for! Of note the area is riddled with shooting butts for the big Woodpigeon migration later in October, but no shooting was taking place while we were there.

The highlights for me were seeing Honey-buzzards moving through. Most of the adults had already passed, but a few stragglers were still moving, outnumbered by the very variable looking juveniles. I really miss seeing these birds in Devon (having once helped to monitor them here).
Adult Honey-buzzard
Pale juvenile Honey-buzzard with a tatty tail

A darker juvenile Honey-buzzard with some missing secondaries
While local Griffon Vultures are numerous in the area it was nice to have several sightings of Lammergeier, without needing to travel up into the high peaks. The main migrant raptor was Red Kite with triple figure counts of birds moving through most days.
Red Kite
Local Golden Eagles showed most days, while a few each of Booted and Short-toed also passed through.
Pale phase Booted Eagle
Juvenile Short-toed Eagle
Many north European raptors pass through this site, with Marsh Harriers, Ospreys (perhaps even some UK birds), Common Buzzards; lots of Kestrels, Sparrowhawks and Hobbies seen while we were there. We even saw Hen Harrier, Goshawk and Peregrine moving through.
A Hobby skims over our heads
An immaculate juvenile Marsh Harrier
Perhaps the unexpected highlight this far north was an immature Black-shouldered Kite, sitting on a post by the road.
Immature Black-shouldered Kite
 Other soaring birds moving through included impressive numbers of Black Storks, with 113 one day. The White Storks move through earlier in the autumn but we did see a few late stragglers.

Migrating Black Storks
 On the last day we even got involved in an international watch event, as the sole UK representatives! Counts take place throughout the autumn to contribute to data on species using this important flyway. The EU funds cross-border promotion of biodiversity, environmental education and Eco-tourism, with monies from the Interreg Lindus-2 project, see https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=http://lpoaquitaine.org/index.php/2013-02-14-09-31-28/2329-presentation-du-projet-lindus-2&prev=search
This particular watch was celebrating / promoting these partnerships. We stated to our Spanish & French friends we were sorry the UK was leaving the EU, as we felt the positives of being a member outweigh the negatives, especially for linked up conservation. Out of interest when I did much at-sea survey with MarineLife of the English Channel for Balearic Shearwaters, this was a joint Anglo-French project, also with EU Interreg funding and knowledge sharing!


Seawatching

Balearic Shearwaters.  Although it was neither a poor or exceptional year for Balearic Shearwater passage off Devon I did at last hit a major milestone. On the 26/07/17 I saw my 10,000th Devon Balearic Shearwater pass by, yippee. Its taken a few years and many hour watching to get there! More on this years' passage here http://seaskywatch.blogspot.co.uk/2017/11/balearic-sheawaters-through-west-lyme.html
 
Humpback Whale Lyme Bay.  Seeing whales makes people feel good, myself included. This was a unique event and I spent a fair bit of time seeing this magnificent animal. More here http://seaskywatch.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/lyme-bay-humpback-updated.html

Wilson's Storm-petrel.  2017 has to go down as the year for Wilson's off the SW England and W/SW Ireland. I first had a tantalising view of a Storm-petrel matching Wilson's jizz off Start Point on 30/07/17, but not really enough detail! I was desperate to get to sea and on 15/08/17 I negotiated a trip on a shark fishing boat out of Salcombe. It was a great trip and after around 5 hours of chumming a Wilson's turned up in among the European Storm-petrels, giving views to be happy with. For me it was Devon's waters, but others would disagree! What was even more tantalising, was a Storm-petrel that passed Berry Head on 03/09/17, I had the briefest views (with others), it looked pretty good, but destined for the Storm-petrel sp. pile! An account of the Wilson's boat trip is here http://seaskywatch.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/a-wilsons-storm-petrel-in-devon-waters.html

Large shearwater day at Berry Head.  On the 21/07/17 I was lucky to be at Berry Head most of the day where we had what was one of Devon's best passages of both Cory's and Great Shearwaters. Some of the birds were close enough to photograph with a 300mm lens! I ended up seeing 181 Cory's and 82 Great Shearwaters. I've seen more of both species before (in a day from Devon) but never such close views. In fact in Devon terms it was a pretty good summer/early autumn for both species. Some pictures were on an ealier post, see http://seaskywatch.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/west-lyme-bay-large-shearwaters-2017.html

And yes there was a seawatching low and a big low at that! I love Pterodromas and while sitting at Start Point on 11/07/17 I had a call from Mike Langman that a Desertas/ Fea's Petrel had passed Berry Head and was on its way to me. I was already trembling at the thought and sat watching in anticipation. About 40 minutes I reckoned and it would appear?  But then the conditions deteriorated at the wrong time when it probably passed through, so I never saw it! But.....one small consolation was that I did see it in the end, on the fantastic bit of video Mike manage to get, so I finish with Devon's video of the year  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50POYa7vyTM . And my favorite photo. Hey ho!

Looking down a Humpback's blow hole, from shore, in Devon, whatever next!!!

Balearic Sheawaters through west Lyme Bay in 2017 compared with previous years.

As November draws to a close and I've seen no Balearic Shearwaters on the last two seawatches from Berry Head despite being ideal conditions (although we did have a record November count of Sooty Shearwaters)! It appears the Balearic Shearwater season is pretty well over, so I thought its time to look how the passage through west Lyme Bay (WLB) compares with previous years. But first a bit about that data. From previous years observations, the key months for WLB (from Berry Head / Start Point) are June–November, with on average peak numbers between 21 August–20 September (see graph, based on 2006–2015 data). While I have data going back to 1998, only since 2006 have I been able to put in at least 100 hours seawatching into the June–November period each year (an average of 175 hours per year), so I limit any comparisons to 2006 on. For comparing years, I take the total number of birds passing June–November and divide by hours watched. This gives an effort based measure of birds / hour (usually not possible from Bird Reports such as Devon Birds as nil events aren't recorded, which are on my system).
Balearic Shearwaters (birds/hr) through west Lyme Bay 2006–2015, by 10 or 11-day period (NB. When I get a chance I'll redo this graph adding in 2016–17).
 So my 2017 final June–November totals are 1144 birds in 185 hours. Which gives 6.2 birds/hr. So 2017 has been slightly above average (mean for all years 2006-2017 is 4.5 birds/hr). Of the the 12 years 2006–2017, its actually the 4th best year, only beaten by  2011, 2013 and 2015. See graph below.
Balearic Shearwaters (birds/hr) through west Lyme Bay, by year, 2006–2017.
But no two years are ever the same with Balearic passage through WLB and 2017 was certainly different.  2017 showed  a relatively slow pickup through June and early July and in fact I didn't get my first double figure count until 22/07/17, usually its a bit earlier, sometimes in June. But things changed dramatically from late July to early August, when WLB's biggest peak occurred earlier than normal.  In fact I saw my best July passage day of 185 birds on 28/07/17. The best day of the year was shortly after on 03/08/17 with 203.  This year the period 22/07/17–17/08/17, produced the majority of this years' passage, with 778 birds in 75 hour obs (10.4 birds/hr). There was another smaller peak in early September, traditionally the peak time, but not matching the earlier peak. There were four three-figure counts and the general trend was more birds moving through outer Lyme Bay - so bigger numbers at Start Point rather than Berry Head.

What will next year bring?

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! !ell  as usual I ran out of time to write this, but partially covered Here

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 and 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 (body-tail) more attenuated looking than ESP. 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 and flight less fluttery, both different from the ESPs. 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
Thanks to Tom Brereton, for producing these two graphics for me.