About Two Owls

Sunday 24 September 2023

Whale's Dolphin's and Pelagic Birds

On 13th September Jackie and I along with friends Margaret & Liz headed off to Plymouth for an overnight stay as next day we were joining the ORCA Whale and Dolphin Conservation on the Brittany Ferry mini cruise from Plymouth to Santander in Spain and meeting our friends Jackie & Kit with the idea for the trip  to see as many cetaceans as possible as we pass across the deep water areas and deep trenches of the Bay of Biscay.  Of course hoping for some good seabirds on our way.

We embarked around 12:30hrs once on board we put our bags into our cabin then went to a welcome talk by ORCA then we had a quick lunch and headed out on deck. We were still in view of land when we saw our first Cory's Shearwater and by the time we were approximately 30 miles from the coast we were seeing many Cory's and mixed in were the odd Gannet and Great Shearwater, it was some time before we saw our first Manx. I suppose it was about 2 hours after sailing that we saw our first cetaceans Common Dolphin which was the species we saw most throughout the trip.

Cory's Shearwater © Nick Hull

Common Dolphin © Nick Hull

Great Shearwater © Nick Hull

Towards the end of the the day we were over the Atlantic Shelf and one of the deep trenches of Biscay and we saw our first Whale species in fact we saw one then two Long-finned Pilot Whale surface. These are a small species of whale weighing in around 3 tons with a max length of around 6 - 7 metres.

Cory's Shearwater and Long-finned Pilot Whale - Bay of Biscay © Nick Hull

A good tip when out on a cetacean watch look out for the Shearwaters and Gannets etc particularly if they are circling an area as often there are whales or dolphin below the surface or about to surface as seen in the shot above a Cory's Shearwater escorting the Pilot Whale.

A while later we saw a blow it was like a column high into the air and lasted a few seconds before it dissipated off the port-side fairly distant, I raised the camera waiting for the next blow and hoped for a view, second blow came up no view then a third blow and a back and dorsal fin came into view and I shot off a few frames in the hope I'd get something.

Fin Whale - Bay of Biscay © Nick Hull

As you can see above I managed a shot and with a bit of a crop 
a pretty respectable one at that.  This shot doesn't give the impression on the size of this species and indeed it may not be a full adult size animal.  Fin Whale are the second largest with a max length of around 26 metres and weighing in from anything from 40 to 80 tons they are an impressive whale.  A little later we had more blows and had at least three more individuals off the starboard-side of the ship.

Before it was time for dinner we managed to add Great and Arctic Skua and a Sooty Shearwater which were all around groups of feeding shearwater. Also Sunfish, Portuguese Man-of-War and quite a few Blue-fin Tuna were seen.

Next morning we were up early and out on deck before breakfast but it turned out to be very quiet just with a few shearwaters passing by.  As we were due to reach port in Santander in an hour or so we decided to go for breakfast.  By the time we had docked the weather was sunny and hot and Jackie and I decided to stay on board and watch the mountains and harbour for birds and just rest for the couple of hours before we sailed again on the reverse journey back to Plymouth.  We didn't expect to see too much in and around the Port and harbour but we added Cormorant, Yellow-legged Gull and the ubiquitous Feral Pigeon and Jackdaw. What was a little odd we had a flight of geese fly in from the sea direction which were possibly Canada Geese,  there was also a flight of Teal that flew in and headed inland. Scanning over the mountain tops that surround the port we managed and few distant Griffon Vulture moving across from one mountain to the next.

Mountains of the Cantabria Region that lay behind Santander Port

As passengers were coming back on board Jackie and I went off to lunch and we headed back up on deck prior to sailing meeting our friends again after their walk ashore and scanning the mountain-tops again managed to get a couple of Griffons for them to add to their trip lists just prior to sailing.  

Leaving Santander we had very little for possibly three hours just the odd Gannet and Shearwater. It was in the late afternoon before we had the first sighting of Common Dolphin and then shortly after a small pod of Risso's Dolphin surfaced near to the ship and then more Risso's then we had large groups of both Cory's and Great with a few Manx and a single Balearic Shearwater.  We had a small group of passerines pass going south which were possibly pipit species and we had a 'alba' Wagtail go over heading north.  It was now heading toward time for our evening meal and Jackie and friends went to freshen up for dinner and I had some extra time on deck with the ORCA team and a few other diehards.  Then came a call 'sighting' and looking in the direction the guy was pointing I saw a small whale breach clear of the water and as I went for my camera one of the ORCA team raised her camera and I had to step slightly left and I missed taking a shot of the second animal breaching. Fortunately Charlotte managed a respectable shot and shared it with me.  When analysed the photograph turned out to be a life tick for me and Charlotte a Northern Bottlenose Whale. They are the largest and scarcest of the beaked whales at around a max of 9 metres and between 6.5 - 7.5 tons and like other beaked whale species a squid hunter and found in the deeper parts of Biscay.  

Northern Bottlenose Whale breaching Bay of Biscay © Charlotte Kirchner

We had a few blows from several Fin Whale and then observation just started to slow down and Jackie is on deck telling me I had 20 minutes to be ready to go to dinner so ended another day.

Our last morning we were again up early and on deck and we were back into the Shearwaters, a Fulmar or two, one or two Manx and another Balearic Shearwater and a single Sooty and we started to see a number of gulls Herring Lesser-black and Great Black-backed Gull and as we approached the outer harbour of Plymouth Black-headed Gull and a Mediterranean Gull were seen

Great Shearwater © Nick Hull

Cory's Shearwater © Nick Hull

It was good to spend a few days with friends and do some serious sea watching and be with a group of interested people looking for Cetaceans and helping them with their seabird identification skills. and learning a little more about the Cetaceans of Biscay from the ORCA guides.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Holiday Ends & Back Home.

After our few days resting and celebrating Jackie Birthday in Normandie where we had our first real rain of the holiday we didn't really add anything new but I did managed to get a shot of a Zitting Cisticola.  

Zitting Cisticola - Normandie © Nick Hull

Not such a bad bird to finish the holiday with.  We made our way back to Cherbourg and had a pretty uneventful crossing back to Poole.

We finished our holiday with 116 species of bird, 37 Butterfly and 9 Odonata.

The rest of June was spent catching up on things we needed to do around the garden and bungalow and for me getting back into the surveys on the Purbeck Heath National Nature Reserve (PHNNR) and Reptiles surveys at Arne.  I also lead a few of the RSPB Nightjar walks which I have to say very well attended and the Nightjar performed well.  With often a few plus species like Spoonbill, Woodlark,  Barn Owl and even a Hobby putting in an appearance on my walks.  We also went back to doing Osprey watch with Birds of Poole Harbour with the three young doing well after hatching whilst we were away.

We had visits to Badbury Rings, Wareham Forest, Longham Lakes and Holton Lee the latter was a Heathland bird survey. We didn't record anything outstanding and only managed 64 species before the end of the month.

July followed in much the same vein with surveys for me and then local birding with Jackie.  Though on the 7th July Jackie and I headed off to Wales to visit Jackie's Aunt and had a long days birding Anglesea catching up with Black Guillemot, Chough and Puffin at South Stack.  We also visited Cemlyn Bay to check out the tern colony there, though they had been effected by bird flu it had appeared to have passed and there were still good numbers of Arctic, Common and Sandwich Tern breeding also a pair of Avocet which was the first Welsh breeding record with three youngsters. 

Arctic and Common Terns - Cemlyn Bay Wales © Nick Hull

Back in Dorset again we didn't get out to do much birding, but I was still getting out doing survey work on the PHNNR doing Pond Surveys, which include checking for counting Dragon and Damselflies, Raft Spider, Pond Hopper, and one or two pond plant species.  Also counting numbers of Purbeck Mason Wasp, Heath Tiger Beetle and Heath Potter Wasp and any of the native reptiles and anything else that looks interesting which may not necessarily be scarce or rare but not recorded before or often.   A few shots of the species mentioned though they have been represented here before but it will save you time looking them up.

Purbeck Mason Wasp Pseudepipona herrichii collecting water at a pond © Nick Hull

Heath Potter Wasp Eumenes coarctatus flying off with clay/mud to make her
nesting pot © Nick Hull

Freshly completed Heath Potter Wasp Eumenes coarctatus pot © Nick Hull

Heath Tiger Beetle are a ferocious predator as a larvae and as well as an adult. The larvae sit in its burrow and ambushes anything that passes by, drags it in and eats it.

Heath Tiger Beetle Cicindela sylvatica at the entrance to its burrow
awaiting prey © Nick Hull

The adult beetle is a bit like a cheetah they run really fast to catch prey. They can also fly very well but doesn't fly very far usually landing a metre or so away when disturbed.

Adult male Heath Tiger Beetle Cicindela sylvatica © Nick Hull

For one of Britains largest spiders Raft Spiders can be fast across the water when they need to be and is one of the top pond predators. 

Raft Spider Dolomedes fimbriatus waiting for prey on a small pond © Nick Hull

Here are a couple of the flowers that we also look for and count when we find them.  Yellow Centaury loves to grow in disturbed ground and has often grown up in vehicle tracks.

The diminutive Yellow Centaury Cicendia filiformis © Nick Hull

lesser Butterfly Orchid is a scarce rare orchid and they like to grown in wet marshes which are drying out or that's what it seems to like here in the PHNNR. However they are subject to being eaten at times by deer and perhaps by the cattle so it's important that we monitor these beautiful flowers to make sure the impact by the cattle isn't having an adverse effect.

Lesser Butterfly Orchid Platanthera bifolia © Nick Hull

Sothern Damselfly are a very particular species in that it is often found on heathland but where water has passed through or from chalk downland which does restrict them from spreading further from there breeding site. Plus they are not the strongest of flyers.  It is said that they also like grazed areas so it is hoped they may benefit from the open cattle grazing in the future.

Possibly one of the rarest of UK s Odonata
Southern Damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale © Nick Hull

There is also two bee-fly species that we record which are found on the heathlands, as they are parasitic one on mining bees and the other on a scarce species of Ammophila Wasp. They are the Heath Bee-fly and the Mottled Bee-fly.

Heath-Bee-fly Bombylius minor © Nick Hull

Mottled Bee-Fly Thyridanthrax  fenestratus © Nick Hull

We also helped out on a couple of bird boats with Birds of Poole Harbour on the Osprey boats which cruise the Wareham channel where we saw 7 different Osprey and two White-tailed Eagle which have been residing in the Wareham Channel area for over a year now though they do go off on a jolly on occasions elsewhere.  

CJ7 with fish off back to the nest site © Nick Hull

On one of the boats we had time and good weather to cruise up the Wytch Channel along Shipstal Beach and view the small gull and tern roost and was able to catch up with the presumed returning Forster's Tern in the roost.

Distant shot of the Forster's Tern on the marsh roost at Shipstal Beach © Nick Hull

Forster's Tern - Arne Shipstal Beach © Nick Hull
We also made a visit to Lodmoor during August and had a pretty good day and I managed a couple shot of one of the Great White Egret as it few in and pitched up not that far away from us.

Great White Egret - Lodmoor © Nick Hull

From the birding perspective by the end of the month we had recorded 84 species from very few locations our year list stands at just 183 and we still have some birds that we haven't connected with which are relatively common so hopefully August will see us picking up a few migrants and catching up on a few we have missed.