After a rather good run of seeing feae
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 two Manx Shearwaters of the year on 16/03/2018 (Start Point) and early Balearic Shearwaters on 15/04/2018 and 11/05/2018 (Berry Head). 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'?
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!
|A 'Dino's' Petrel hurtles by on the wind.|
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.
|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! |
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.
|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.|
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!
|'Band-rumped' Storm-petrels almost certainly Madeiran.|
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)!|
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?
|A Bulwer's Petrel dwarfs a Madeiran Storm-petrel which aren't small compared to our European [British] Storm-petrels.|
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).
|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|
So we ended pelagic two with a very nice selection of eight tubenoses and my years' tally hit double figures - a nice round 10.
|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.|
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 ('Azorean') and Black-headed (at Machico); as a group we definitely get a better selection back home - so don't come to Madeira if you're a larophile.
|Roseate Tern - quite a bit of red on the base of the bill on his bird as some do.|
|Yellow-legged Gull - often the first species to arrive when the chum goes in.|
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.
|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?).|
|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.
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. |
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!
|Slim bill, almost no neck, very compact body.|
|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' feed its way along the slick. 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!