Winter seawatching past and present

Winter seawatching is hard going, I used to do far more than I do now - as I seem to feel the cold more - age! Compared to other times of year the rewards are slim, a Great Skua or even a Pomarine Skua or a Balearic Shearwater if you're lucky. A good winter watch is usually dominated by a good movement of auks, Gannets and Kittiwakes which can be spectacular. My simplistic definition of winter is December–February. So what were some memorable watches and some snippets of information from my experiences?

Ah 1998!! In early January that year we had a series of SW to W winter gales (winds 80-100mph at times) that went on for a few days pushing birds up into the English Channel and Lyme Bay, blowing from way out in the Atlantic. On the 3rd Hope's Nose watchers had an amazing 77 Great Skuas, while I only managed to get to Berry Head for 2 hours that afternoon, I still saw 30. The next day we had 64 past Berry Head. There was probably c150 during early January 1998 through west Lyme Bay - pretty good for winter. Great Skua is a nice bird to see in winter but quite regular, although the January 1998 numbers were exceptional. When I worked on a boat fishing in the English Channel (2010–2013), in the winter Great Skua was a frequent attendant, showing the channel to be a regular wintering area. The most we had around the boat at any one time was 15 on 10/12/2011, which included a colour ringed adult (breeding bird from St.Kilda), a nice 'at sea' recovery.
St.Kilda ringed Great Skua off Devon from angling boat 10/12/2011
In January 1998 seeing the Great Skuas was good, but there were some more unusual visitors driven up in those storms. While Pomarine Skua is also regular in winter, it is less so than Great Skua; when I worked on the fishing boat I only saw one winter Pomarine. Back in January 1998 Hope's Nose recorded three on the 4th; while at Berry Head  I saw five different birds between 5th–9th ranging from adults (with and without spoons), immature and first-winter. Although Pomarine isn't an exceptional winter sighting Arctic Skua is. We had two sightings from Berry Head on the 5th and 8th. I'm usually quite sceptical about January–February (even December) sightings of Arctic as they winter much further south than Pomarine (and you need to be very careful to rule out a small Pom), but these were witnessed by a few of us. Adding further evidence as to how far away these winter storms had originated was an unprecedented influx of European Storm-petrels (also usually wintering further south, e.g. off southwest Africa). We saw one on the the 4th which was good, then 10 on the 5th (amazing), followed by an exceptional 41 on the 8th and three the next day. Just to put this in context, below is a graph plotting the monthly average number of Great Skuas and European Storm-petrels attending the boat (attracted to 'chum') I worked on 2010–2013. As you can see Great Skua was regular, but European Storm-petrel was absent in winter from the channel. So early January 1998 was pretty special off South Devon for out of context seabirds.
European Storm-petrel and Great Skua: monthly trip average of birds attending angling boat 2010–2013. Two very contrasting yearly distributions. European Storm-petrel is usually absent in winter, while Great Skua's lowest numbers are June-July in the English Channel and regular through the winter.

Shearwaters in winter off South Devon are a fairly scarce sight and can be the highlight of a winter seawatch. Balearic Shearwater being the most likely. Over the years I've had 15 winter Balearic sightings, but only two were of multiple birds, both in February 2008 (a two and a four). 2008 was perhaps the best year for Balearics wintering off Devon in small numbers and is still the only year when I saw a Balearic Shearwater in every month! Manx Shearwater is much rarer in winter off Devon and I've only seen three winter Manx to date in 2005, 2007 and 2018. Sooty Shearwater again is pretty rare in winter and to date I've had six winter sightings. Probably the most bizarre was one flying past Brixham breakwater heading out of Torbay on 01/01/2011 - a great and unexpected start to that seawatching year!
A 'pale' Balearic Shearwater, Berry Head, 30/01/2009. A pale bird like this might be mistaken for something else! But a Balearic it is on structure.
 In winter there can also be some good movements of Fulmars (our normal 'light' phase birds) and amoung them if you're lucky some 'blue' phase birds. I've seen most (23: 14 from land 9 from boat) of my 'blue' phase birds in this time of year, always a nice variation to look out for. Best count was six in a good passage on 31/12/2012. But by far the most striking bird was a 'double dark', that came past Berry Head on 29/01/2009. What a cracker, a bird worth getting cold and wet for!

'Double dark' Fulmar, Berry Head, 29/01/2009.
 But what was my best ever Devon winter seawatch? Well there is one that beats all others really due to one species! In early December 2006, a series of early winter gales hammered the UK. Winds remained in the SW-WSW for days with low pressure systems following on one after another. Being persistent with an WSW average direction, meant many Leach's Storm-petrels from far out in the Atlantic were driven up into the Bristol Channel, being seen from a number of locations - it effectively acts as massive 'heligoland trap'. I continued to watch the forecasts, hoping the wind would go NW or WNW and ease and allow an exodus of Leach's. The forecast for 08/12/2006 looked like it was going to do exactly that, so Hartland Point seemed a must. I managed to get to the lighthouse just after first light around 08:00, there was an ideal NW5 blowing and within minutes of setting up the telescope Leach's were moving through. I rang some of the locals who came down later to witness the event. In all I counted 155 Leach's passing by 14:00, setting a new record count for Devon. But the supporting cast wasn't bad ether: 51 Red-throated Divers, 18 Great Skuas, two Little Auks and a Puffin (rare bird in winter) in with the usual winter fare. It still remains my best Devon winter seawatch to date!  

This winter has been fairly quiet, although a strong force 6 southerly blow on 02/02/2017 was worth the effort of walking out to Berry Head. A Pomarine Skua, two Great Skuas and 'blue' Fulmar were the best of it, with supporting cast two each Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Red-breasted Merganser, c250 Fulmar (normal phase), c500 Gannets, c200 Kittiwakes and many auks.

Hopefully before February is over there will be another good winter seawatch, but really looking forward to spring!



  1. A brilliant round-up of your winter's past! Fingers crossed you get this year's cracker seabird soon.

    1. Thanks Gibster, glad you found it of interest.