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

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