Knee tremblers part 2 - the lunchbox that got away!

Back in 2016 this neglected blog featured a piece on "knee tremblers", those special seabirds that leave you trembling when they appear on a seawatch - see the original post here. For these are the Pterodromas, to me the ultimate seabird - mystical beasts that appear sweeping through and (usually) are gone all too quickly. My lack of seeing one for a while resulted in another trip to Madeira in 2018, where some great encounters were had (see photos of their two species below), in at times, very rough seas, see the write-up  here.  The same year I even saw another Fea's type Petrel at Pendeen, found by Steve Votier, apparently the site's first accepted one - which I find very strange given its position and history of amazing seabirds! So up to 2020 I've seen eight in UK and Ireland of which I found three, co-found two and latched onto three others found by others (including one found by my dear other half and seawatching companion Del); they included accepted firsts for Devon, UK and County Mayo, Ireland. Since 2015, in Devon there have been another two Fea's/Desertas I missed, both at Berry Head and both times I've been down-stream at Start Point when the phone call has come through "heading your way and you'll definitely get this". Yes, and both times I didn't!!

 I still tuned into the great vibe coming from Berry Head of their last one (25/08/20) as the assembled group enthused on their bird, with seawatching mate Dave Dawe deservedly welcomed to the 'I've found a knee trembler" club and the sheer elation of those assembled seeing it; including a delighted Mark Bailey who just got on it before it sailed off around the corner. Not surprisingly Perry Saunders and myself at Start were rather deflated, despite clocking 11 Great Shearwaters, way exceeding Berry Head's total!

Above the larger more robust Desertas Petrel on the left, the more delicate (Manx-sized) Zino's Petrel on the right - Madeira 2018. When compared, this Zino's has more white in the underwing coverts (more pro-feature for Zino's); also its more compact and shorter-necked, and has a slimmer bill (a similar bird should be a future addition to the UK list as a great candidate was seen on a Scilly pelagic in 2020!). Desertas and Fea's are inseparable in the field, but as the above 'Desertas' photo was taken off the Desertas Islands, Madeira, its a pretty solid bet it was one.

But was 2020 over for strange seabirds? No what a year! So to recap there's been a White-chinned Petrel in Orkney, Short-tailed Shearwaters Ireland and France, Flesh-footed Shearwater Azores, Zino's Petrel Isles off the Scillies, a handful of Fea's/Desertas Ireland/UK/Spain, yet another 'Band-rumped' Petrel Cornwall etc. Then take a deep breath, recently at the famous  Estaca de Bares a Great-winged Petrel!!! With supporting cast of two South Polar Skuas,  two Fea's type etc etc, in a watch that must go down as one of the best ever!

Anyway, I again had the "knee trembler" moment in more ways than one! On 27/08/20 a rather uninspiring forecast had me arrive at Berry Head for a seawatch at 12:00, winds had been due south all morning and forecast to strengthen and go more south-easterly with some rain. OK for some skuas, may be I thought? On arriving at the watch point, there was already a good passage of Manx taking place and a close Sooty in with them, then a European Storm-petrel. Dam I thought to myself, should have come down here earlier this is quite good! Manx passage increased another Sooty sailed past and a few more stormies, the wind was getting up and starting to rain. I moved a few metres to the south of the watch point for more protection as the wind was now approaching gale south-easterly and the sea very rough. Manx were pouring through sheering up and as I scanned with binoculars, sheltering under my well-seasoned brolly, what was that?!! I picked up something very different rise up amongst the Manxies. I started to shake as it was clearly something very good and not seen by me before. Wings were a bit more bow shaped, with a striking black & white underwing pattern not matching Manx, more thicker dark to towards the leading edge, was that a black ulnar wing bar?! I then convinced myself I'd got a Black-capped Petrel and rather stupidly started looking for features of Black-capped, by now just managing to get it in the scope as it was heading away from me - I was really shaking by now. But no, no big white rump, no isolated black cap and this bird was barely bigger than a Manx - too small. Although dark above, I got the impression of the white on the face and up to the forehead giving it a white highlight on the front end, and Manx like saddle-bags that joined, both very unlike Manx! The bird had gone and I'd eliminated my first thought of Black-capped Petrel. Must have been a weird Manx I told myself, but I was not happy with that scenario, I've seen 100000's of Manx and never anything like that before. I rang Mike Langman who was thinking of coming down to say seawatching was good and I'd had a weird 'Manx' I'd tried to turn into something else.

Anyway before I could give it much more thought and had written the briefest notes, the second knee trembler moment happened. The wind just suddenly shifted through 180 degrees to north-northwest, at that moment my brolly blew inside out and four+ (carbon fibre) stays snapped and I was blown off my low three-legged seat. The wind strength was nothing like I'd experienced before, this was dangerous and I feared going over the edge. A north-westertly hits our normally protected quarry/cliff from the wrong direction and amplifies it. I was laid on the ground grabbing what I could, scope and tripod chucked on the ground and held on to my rucksack. Sandwich box and box containing items for making tea or coffee (essential long-haul seawatch gear) were both blown out to sea before I could grab them. Steel flask also blown out of sight towards the edge and disappeared. I then proceeded to crawl dragging my rucksack and crouched in the corner, while being hit by a deluge of water. This was not pleasant! All thoughts of 'the bird' had gone, I just wanted to salvage what I could and survive! I sat it out for around 30 minutes and the wind started to drop. Wow I was lucky (I recovered my flask at least that had wedged under a rock, just stopping it going over)! Had this been a Berry Head full-house with folk sat on big chairs, much of it would have gone out over, hopefully with occupants baling out first.

When I got home I looked at the data from the weather station on top of the headland, which showed a dramatic change in wind direction, southeast 40mph suddenly around 70mph north, as it went around in-front of torrential rain wind speed felt even higher! Data in knots (x1.15 for mph). Yes, 70mph is violent storm, felt like a tornado, with no protection in that direction at Berry Head! Later on in the evening after the storm, ML walking on top of the headland said, most of the cafe's tables and chairs had been blown all over the place.

Wrecked 'state of the art', indestructible brolly!

Well, I finally got around to looking at my numerous seabird books and you know what? Why didn't I think of Bermuda Petrel. It would explain the underwing pattern I saw and why I was thinking of Black-capped, BP can show a thin white rump (aka joining saddlebags) and the forehead and face gives it a white front to head look. Also Manx sized, if not a touch larger. Now on one pelagic off Madeira I remember a Zino's turning up and then a Manx and some participants thinking two Zino's as both shot around together and they were close-ish. Given the conditions at Berry Head that day, picking out features and different jizz was not easy, it was certainly very different to a Manx,  yet I've not enough on it to submit; and from experience very rare seabirds need very good notes and photos to get accepted - now if only ML had been there to help! Of course for me its another one assigned to the should have done better bin, like the brolly - no I rebuilt that with spares from another wreck, so it can fight another storm and so can I!


The 1998 Devon Bird Report - now 20 years old!

How time flies, here we are in 2020, at the time of writing I await the Devon Bird Report 2018 to arrive hopefully in the next month or so. For a few reasons recently I was prompted to pull out the 1998 Devon Bird Report to look something up (more below) and its very interesting looking back!

Like DBR 2018, 20 years ago the cycle of the Devon Bird Report (DBR) had drifted, so DBR 1998 actually came out in 2000 - realistically a year behind. For many that have never been involved in these reports, they may not realise the amount of shear graft that goes in, from the writing team, particularly the editors.

DBR1998 is much smaller than the present reports which up-sized physically in 2007, personally I prefer this smaller size, it fits my bookcase more easily. The then editors were a Dave Glaves (DJG) and Mark Darlaston! (MD), who at the time both worked full-time as scientists for the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency - so this was all done in their spare time, evenings and weekends! DBR 1998 was the last of their trilogy having taken over as editors for the 1996 report, effectively picking up the pieces of a crisis; when the DBR 1996 was literally pulled from the jaws of the printers as it was not up to standard. A bad time for DBR, as when the 1996 proof from the printers was seen by the section writers, it was considered not fit for publication or going out to the membership, so needed a re-edit / rewrite and DJG and MD drew the short straw and sorted it.

Opening the front cover of DBR1998 we see some familiar names, the recorder was Mike Langman and many of  the records committee and section writers are still about today. Sections appear more succinct and consistent in style between writers than in recent DBRs, down to a combination of factors. Despite being small in size the report has a gazetteer, edited to match the site names contained within the sections, very useful. Recent DBRs are 50+ pages bigger and lack a gazetteer!

One thing that is very apparent is the quality of photographs - as pre-digital, photos submitted were on slides or scanned from prints and this shows! Certainly one aspect that has changed dramatically with recent DBRs for the better, however, there was far more artwork in the older report that nicely supported the text than recent times.

Notable birds, the 1997 Semipalmated Plover reappeared at Dawlish Warren, there was a a drake Bufflehead at Roadford and a white morph Gyr Falcon at Wembury. The latter site also hosted a remarkable record of a Long-tailed Skua 4–10 April, described as a moulting sub-adult, however, looking at the photo now is it not a moulting winter adult?!

For a seawatcher 1998 appeared a fantastic year. In September there were a whooping 1771 sightings of Arctic Skuas, including a day record count of c600 on 06/09/98 at Berry Head - surely never to be exceeded. Also due to deep low pressure systems extending way down to the south in early 1998, we saw a genuine January Arctic Skua and European Storm-petrels. Tor Bay also hosted impressive assortments of wintering ducks, divers and grebes; seemingly more diverse than in recent times.

What about Balearic Shearwaters? At the time called 'Mediterranean' Shearwater and DBR1998 states the county record falling with 78 passing Berry Head on 07/09/98, in 2018 Start Point broke the record with 610 on 18/09/18 (8x the number!). Balearic numbers have changed dramatically off Devon!

1998 was a notable seawatching year and for me for many other reasons, how time flies!

The missing Manx!

When you attempt all-year Devon seawatching, like I try to (mostly on your own in winter!), it becomes a challenge to see a particular species in as many months of the year as possible. For our summer visitors this becomes extremely hard, verging on impossible for some. Never the less, an out of season sighting I class as a rarity. Such an event happened recently on 18/01/19, when at Berry Head to my surprise a Manx Shearwater sailed past. I've seen them in Cornwall in January, but to get one for Devon was pretty special, the missing month now filled and the year full-set completed. Manx is not easy to see off Devon December–February.
This prompted me to pump out some data and see which months I'm missing for other tubenoses and skuas.

Cory's Shearwater


Great Shearwater


Sooty Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

Balearic Shearwater

European Storm-petrel


Leach's Storm-petrel

Great Skua

Pomarine Skua

Arctic Skua

Long-tailed Skua

Not surprising Fulmar can be seen in every month, the hardest month can be October, when sightings become very scarce due to birds going out to sea to moult. Strangely in 2018 we were seeing more in October than usual!

Of the two large shearwaters, perhaps its a surprise I've seen Cory's in two more months than Great (October & November), but both were just single birds. In 2018 I missed an October Great at Berry Head by five minutes - so that's one for me to go for. I have seen October Greats in Cornwall though so I'm sure it will happen in Devon for me. Also sooner or later a June Great or Cory's will sail by. I've never seen April–May birds and don't expect to either. Some have been claimed in Devon though!

There is just one month missing for Sooty Shearwater and that's March, I think it will happen with the right weather system.

Balearic Shearwater is possible to see year-round; during December–April they can be pretty scarce, especially April. In 2008 I managed a Balearic in every month from Berry Head, but I doubt that will ever happen again. In recent winters there seem less sightings off Devon than a few years ago.

European Storm-petrel, is a classic British summer breeder, so I'm missing February–March and December. The January records were surprising (see here on the background of this unusual event), but filling those other missing months is a tall order. While Leach's Storm-petrel typically is late autumn-winter bird for us; as I see very few off Devon, filling the missing months January–August is highly unlikely.

On to the skuas. I've seen both Great and Pomarine Skua every month of the year off Devon. Arctic Skua I'm just missing a February bird. Possible but looking less likely these days, given the downturn in numbers. Arctic is extremely rare in the winter and the January bird(s), occurred in the same event as the European SPs above. While Long-tailed Skua is generally an autumn bird for us. In theory of the months I'm missing, May–June at least are possible, but it's not happened for me yet. Mid-May of course being when the peak passage of breeding adults is heading north far out to sea to our west. I've been lucky to witness this off North Uist a few times, but just one in Devon in May would be nice! The April record was a bizarre one - the well-watched winter plumaged adult that took up residence in a ploughed field at Wembury.

Record Devon seabird passage counts I've witnessed!

As an interesting exercise I had a look at the highest passage counts I've witnessed for a number of seabird species off Devon. Some are perhaps unlikely to be exceeded, either due to changes in the particular species' fortunes or access to certain watch points, although two records, Balearic Sheawater and Puffin were broken in 2018. Not included are species such as Gannet, Kittiwakes and commoner auks, as on very good seawatches the counting these are often dropped in favour of recording tubenoses, skuas and less common seabirds.

Species Highest Date Site 2nd  Date Site 3rd Date Site
European Storm-petrel c1000 22/05/06 BHd c500 12/07/98 PPt 450 09/10/97 BHd
Leach's Storm-petrel 155 08/12/06 HPt - - - - - -
Cory's Shearwater 301 08/09/95 HPt 181 21/07/17 BHd 102 30/07/08 BHd
Great Shearwater 320 23/09/99 BHd 140 08/09/95 BHd 82 21/07/17 BHd
Sooty Shearwater 582 02/09/09 BHd 326 02/10/12 SPt 89 07/09/02 HPt
Manx Shearwater c25000 13/08/05 HPt c15000 19/07/05 HPt c15000 19/08/15 HPt
Balearic Shearwater 1068 04/07/20 SPt 610 18/09/18 SPt 528 26/08/15 SPt
Little Gull 153 11/11/13 BHd 57 27/10/04 HN 21 20/11/12 BHd
Mediterranean Gull 66 27/07/18 SPt 60 29/07/18 SPt 50 28/07/18 SPt
Common Tern 1018 05/08/08 BHd c600 19/08/16 BHd - - -
Black Tern 80 24/08/99 HN 24 25/08/15 BHd - - -
Great Skua 91 06/09/98 BHd 86 06/10/09 BHd - - -
Pomarine Skua 79 23/10/11 BHd 64 24/10/11 BHd 63 08/11/14 BHd
Arctic Skua c600 06/09/98 BHd 389 07/09/98 BHd 167 10/09/04 BHd
Long-tailed Skua 10 27/08/12 BHd 7 28/09/91 HN 5 07/09/98 BHd
Puffin 98 11/05/18 BHd 66 09/04/09 BHd 62 19/05/09 BHd
Little Auk 16 02/11/03 BHd 4 29/12/06 BHd - - -

Codes for sites: BHd = Berry Head, HPt = Hartland Point, HN = Hope's Nose, PPt = Prawle Point, SPt = Start Point.

So what's in the table above? Those highlighted in bold blue represent Devon record counts I've seen; followed by my 2nd and 3rd highest counts, which for many species also represent the counties' 2nd and 3rd highest. Over the years I've put in considerable time seawatching at all the above sites, but in more recent times just concentrate on Berry Head and Start Point. The former site is where more Devon record passage counts have taken place than anywhere else. In this blog piece I go through the species and sites and pass comment on whether I think the county record is likely to be raised in the future.

The highest European Storm-petrel count was not witnessed by me and occurred after the famous 1987 storm when c5000 were seen off Hope's Nose on 18/10/87. My highest count in the table is probably Devon's 2nd highest, and unusually took place in May after a storm when an estimated 1000 were lingering and passing Berry Head on 22/05/06.

I feel the highest count for Leach's Storm-petrel is unlikely to be exceeded in a long while. For one, there is no longer access to Hartland Point, once owned by Trinity House it has been sold to a private owner - where before access was possible its now a definite no no. The circumstances that led to the Leach's record, were days of persistent west to south-westerly gales, driving many birds up into the Bristol Channel. On 08/12/06 I saw the wind was predicted to ease and go north-westerly, Hartland seemed the perfect place if birds were going to move south-west out of the Bristol Channel and it certainly was, witnessing one of best winter seawatches of all time (more on this watch here). Could these numbers occur on the South Devon coast, perhaps? But unlikely! There would need to be a lot of birds driven into the south-western approaches; there would need to be a concentrating effect of prolonged south-westerlies pushing them up into Lyme Bay, with the winds ideally switching southeast, then may be Dawish Warren or Hope's Nose (if anyone is watching there!) would come up trumps. But with the loss of Hartland Point access, its going to be difficult to repeat on the North Devon Coast - may be Morte Point if the same circumstances as 2006 ever occur again?

Cory's Shearwater, another record achieved at Hartland Point, when 301 passed on 08/09/95, however, I feel this one will go sooner or later on the South Coast. In fact I thought it was going to go on 21/07/17 at Berry Head. Of course potentially the highest count was on 20/07/05 at Prawle Point when 280 moved west, however, there was incomplete coverage of day  - almost certainly in excess of 300 would have been counted if someone had been stationed at Prawle or Start all day, but they weren't. Interestingly that day I'd wrongly opted to go to Hartland Point as the wind was west-northwest (more a wind for the North Devon coast), we only saw 28 there and 71 the previous day. But for now Hartland hangs onto the record!

Great Shearwater, for now the honors go to Berry Head with 320 on 23/09/99. Like Cory's I'm sure this record will go sooner or later from a south coast watch-point: Berry Head, Start or Prawle. Unlikely to be the north Devon coast with Hartland out of the equation, but that site still retains Devon's 2nd highest count for now of 140 (also the only other three figure count), which also occurred on the record Cory's day - as a whole will that day ever be bettered?

Sooty Shearwater, the 582 birds we saw at Berry Head on 02/09/09 is a phenomenal record. I remember pushing the old record to a mere 89 at Hartland Point on the 07/09/02 and thought that was good at the time. The 2009 record took this to a whole new level, which was exceptional so far up the English Channel and really will take some beating - as more akin to a good count we'd witness off west Ireland! The 02/10/12 Start Point record of 328 was pretty good though and it could happen again?

Manx Shearwater, back to good old Hartland Point. In 2005 there were exceptional numbers off there no doubt from the Welsh breeding colonies, peaking with a passage count of c25,000 on 13/08/05. Not surprisingly similarly big numbers are also being seen off Lundy now folk are looking harder at the sea there.

Balearic Shearwater, this species has become of particular interest to me. Though in recent times the species is meant to be declining the passage record gets pushed higher and higher. Start Point has a lot to answer for this, and I've found its the best site, on the right winds, if, big numbers are on the French side of the English Channel. Start has pushed the record through the 400s and then 500s in 2015 with 406 and 528 respectively, and then in 2018 pushed up again to 610 on 19/09/18. Is that as high as its going to get, perhaps? Well no, unprecedented 1068 past on 04/07/20, think this a new national record too!

Little Gull, always hard to predict. We saw a record 153 go past Berry Head on 11/11/13, this would have been far higher had we not diverted to see a Dusky Warbler on top of the headland, so only started seawatching at 11:30. Around 1,000 had gone past Portland that day, so what would the total have been at Berry Head with all day coverage? Certainly a record that must go if the right circumstances come together again.  

Mediterranean Gull, without doubt the record passage counts of this year will continue to increase along with this species. While we saw movements of around 60 off Start Point in July on Slapton Sands there were far more (three figure counts) resting.

Common Tern, there have been far higher counts at Dawlish Warren, but away from there Berry Head is good for passage when the conditions are right, so I'm sure the count of 1018 on 05/08/08 will be bettered sooner or later. I've not included Arctic Tern as though we have passage counts this species is far rarer on the South Coast and difficult to separate at range making assessment of what's a true passage record difficult.

Black Tern, a record count still residing with Hope's Nose, once the favored South Devon seawatch venue. On 24/08/99 we saw 80 fly past. Hope's Nose probably is still the prime spot for terns and skuas in a south-easterly, this record might last a while though!

Great Skua, unless I'm missing something it appears the 91 we saw off Berry Head on 06/09/98 is a county record. I have to say I'm surprised 100 hasn't been passed in a day, I've certainly seen in excess of 100 a few times in N Cornwall. Perhaps with Great Skua there is a chance the record will be broken in suitable conditions - as a whole the species is adapting to changes in food supply so breeding populations aren't as affected as Arctic Skua (see below).

Pomarine Skua, the highest counts from Berry Head are relativity recent. We do best in late autumn after a good breeding year when juveniles pass back down the English Channel, as happened 23-24/10/11. If its a good Lemming year and the birds breed well, and favorable weather systems occur during mid-late October there is no reason why this record shouldn't be exceeded at Berry Head or Hope's Nose.

Arctic Skua, sadly I can never see the record counts from 1998 ever being broken. This species has undergone huge declines in its British range related to food shortages affecting breeding success. A day count of over 100 is unlikely these days, so the heady heights of c600 on 06/09/98 is unlikely to happen again.

Long-tailed Skua, the rarest of our four skuas, with one record count just getting into double figures on 27/08/12. Like Pomarine a good breeding season is needed, though passage is earlier. If everything comes together, breeding season and weather, a good tally of juveniles is possible and the record could go, again Berry Head or Hope's Nose the most likely sites.

Puffin, away from Lundy where breeding, Berry Head appears to be the best site for spring passage April–June. On 11/05/18 we nearly broke into three figures, being just shy at 98. Again a long watch in the right conditions and this record could go, but its taken me along time to get close to the ton!

Little Auk, not Berry Head again! Yes, as long as there's a good movement of birds down the North Sea in October–November and we then get some southwesterly winds, Little Auk is on the cards. This was the scenario on 02/11/03 when we saw 16 pass, not huge by North Sea standards, but still Devon's record passage to date. Will it get broken, why not, given the right conditions and you like a cooler long seawatch!
Updated 02/09/20