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

 

1. Goshawks.  I've been monitoring Goshawks for a few years in Devon now (well 27 to be exact). 2017 was a very good year in that we had the highest number of fledged young so far from the areas I cover. Of course I am licensed by BTO to monitor the species and the results go to them and the Rare Birds Breeding Panel. But to me the most important part of this work is safeguarding breeding success. The birds breed in what is a mature commercial crop (conifers) often ear-marked for harvesting. Over the years I've been able to influence many in the forestry industry in the area, both forestry agents  and land owners, helping to identify nest sites and getting operations / management plans adjusted to cater for the birds. Some private foresters are so good now that they are finding new sites and then adjusting the management around the birds with only minor input from myself. So in 2017 we had amazing productivity of 2.93 young per site.
What I like to see, lots of white shed down on a nest after the young have fledged. This site fledged four. Forestry operations were adjusted to cater for the birds and as a busy public wood we closed one small section of track to good effect.
A newly fledged youngster awaits food from the adults.
Its not all highs though. With the nature of woodland management, some woods are felled as the owners need to make money. Of course we make sure its not in the breeding season, but some sites are lost. In one area, what was once a very productive site, the small woodland was sold off to become multi-owned, mainly for recreational activity; due to the increased human presence we lost the birds. Another site that has gradually become well known to birders / photographers, failed to breed - which is why we have licences for monitoring nests and keeps visit to a minimum. Some pairs are very susceptible to disturbance in the nest building, egg stage, so these things happen!

Another highlight was an interesting observation of behavior.  With Goshawks the females usually brood small young, males will do, but usually when the female is feeding. I visited a site on 26/05/17, which I knew, if still successful, would have small young. I setup my scope for a quick check on the nest and up popped the head of the male. He saw me, slowly got up and left the nest, OK I thought better leave she must be off feeding. But then up popped the head of the female. They were both brooding the young! Something I've not seen documented in books but witnessed just once before myself. I quietly left.
Up pops the head of the male, he then leaves.
Up pops the head of the female, so they were double brooding!

2. 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

 

3. 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
 
4. 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

5. 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

6. 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 952 birds in 173 hours. Which gives 5.5 birds/hr. So 2017 has been slightly above average (mean for all years 2006-2017 is 4.4 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 726 birds in 70 hour obs (10.3 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 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 is used by most conservation bodies (but not Devon Birds!) and records can be checked for distance to Devon on http://defra.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=3dc94e81a22e41a6ace0bd327af4f346.

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://defra.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=3dc94e81a22e41a6ace0bd327af4f346. 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 - updated

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. Updated 06/09/17.




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
17/08/17
0
1
05/09/17
0
1
Total
186
125
Records
5
10

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 ten days and Cory's on five so far. So a better chance (x2 for me this year) of seeing Great despite the difference in numbers. Putting 2017 into perspective with other years for Devon, for me its my best year in terms of records but not numbers - I've seen larger numbers before (i.e. one off events) for both species in Devon, though its still the best year for Cory's in west Lyme Bay.

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.
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