Saturday 1 September 2018

Scilly Seabirds - Part One 24th August 2018

I have long hoped to go on one of the regular pelagic trips that run at this time of the year from St Mary's, the largest of The Isles of Scilly, looking for rare seabirds which arrive in British waters during July and August. Somehow though, I never managed to get  organised  and by the time I did the trips were fully booked or it was impossible to get accommodation on St Mary's.

I decided that this year was going to be different and I managed to get booked on no less than four consecutive pelagic trips out of St Mary's over the Bank Holiday weekend and by some miracle of chance even managed to find accommodation in Hugh Town on St Mary's, which is where the pelagic trips sail from.

Andy, an Oxonbirder colleague decided he would like to join me but it was too late for him to get accommodation so he bought himself a tent! 
Thus we were all set for a departure to Cornwall on the night of Thursday 24th August. Andy drove from his home in Oxford to my house in Kingham that afternoon and after a curry in the early evening we managed about four hours sleep before rising at 2am to make the four hour overnight drive to Penzance.

Friday would be bedlam on the roads as the Bank Holiday Traffic would inevitably clog the M5 Motorway that we were taking as far as Exeter but at this time of night, in the early hours, it was pleasantly deserted and all went well as we headed westwards, making two stops for coffee on the way and we arrived in a deserted Penzance at just before 7am. I had been advised by the lady who owned my bed and breakfast accommodation on St Marys that the cheapest way to leave my car for four days in Penzance was to entrust it to 'Scilly Parking' who are located up a rural lane a few miles prior to Penzance and after you deposit the car with them they will drive you and your bags to the quayside in Penzance to board the notorious Scillonian, a venerable old ship, that sails once a day in the morning to St Mary's and then back to Penzance in the late afternoon. The Scillonian was built in 1977 and is flat bottomed to give it a shallow draught which is apparently necessary for the waters around St Mary's. Unfortunately this means it tends to roll and sway on the fierce ocean currents that appear once it clears Land's End on its way to Scilly and consequently is anathema to anyone who feels the slightest bit queasy on the sea. Birders tales of seasickness and nightmare voyages on the Scillonian are the stuff of folklore. Fortunately I do not suffer from seasickness but for Andy this would be a voyage of discovery! If he survived the Scillonian experience he could survive anything. I am delighted to report he was just fine unlike quite a few others on the voyage that day.

The Scillonian at Hugh Town Quayside on St Mary's
Scilly Parking turned out to be less than sophisticated, being a farmer's grass field with a portacabin where no doubt he made a fortune from the parking fees, but the staff were friendly and helpful, the car was secure enough and after a long night drive, all I wanted to do was board the Scillonian and await departure at 9.30 that morning. 

Everything went smoothly and after checking in at yet another portacabin on the dockside we got ourselves sat on a wooden bench at the back of the ship on the upper deck - prime position for some sea watching as we made the two and  half hour, twenty nine mile crossing to St Mary's. The ship slowly filled up with other passengers, adults, children and a number of dogs. It was fully booked to its capacity of 485 passengers as this was the beginning of  the August Bank Holiday.

Andy in the queue at Penzance dockside waiting to board the Scillonian

All aboard the Scillonian and set to depart for Scilly
With a shudder the ship's engines sprung to life and a thick plume of diesel exhaust issued from the ancient funnel and we slowly backed out of Penzance harbour and were off across the sea. Soon the black flickering shapes of Manx Shearwaters, just silhouettes in the bright glare of the sun, were speeding alongside us. We passed the Runnel Stone buoy, opposite the celebrated mainland sea watching point at Porthgwarra and headed out to sea and away from Lands End. The ship  began to roll on the increasing swell as the last vestige of the mainland was left behind and the wind became stronger and a might fresher. Fellow passengers headed below deck, some looking very much the worse for the experience of rolling and swaying on the turbulent sea. It was going to be hell for them for the next couple of hours as there was no turning back. We carried on sea watching. Andy thought he saw a distant large shearwater that might have been a Cory's but could not possibly claim it on such a limited view and apart from regular appearances of Common Dolphins, which caused much excitement amongst our fellow travellers especially the children, it was hardly brilliant bird watching. Just a lot of Manx Shearwaters and a few Storm Petrels kept us entertained. I was far from concerned though, as later today we would be going out on a much smaller craft on our first of four pelagic excursions, out into the Atlantic, miles beyond The Isles of Scilly, and undoubtedly we would get to see some very good birds indeed and very close up as well.

Andy was very keen to see a Cory's Sheawater which would be a new bird for him although for me there would be nothing new unless a very rare Fea's Petrel showed up which was highly unlikely though not impossible. However I was just as excited as Andy for I would be getting to see Great Shearwaters, the ultimate shearwater species in my opinion, from very close range, in just a few hours from now.

The Scilly pelagics have become legendary with birders as have the two people who run them, Bob Flood, a world expert on seabirds  and Joe Pender, skipper of the MV Sapphire, the boat on which birders are taken out to sea. The first pelagic commenced in August 2009 and they have been run annually ever since, in July and August, and have proved ever popular with birders. So much so you now have to book a year in advance. Scilly is the most reliable site in Britain to see the rare Wilson's Storm Petrel and European Storm Petrels are a guaranteed sighting on any trip. The chance  of encountering much rarer seabirds adds to the attraction, with these pelagics having an impressive track record of encountering 'rares' such as Fea's Petrel, Scopoli's Shearwater, Madeiran Storm Petrel, Swinhoe's Petrel, and Red billed Tropicbird, all firsts for Britain.

The trips usually go up to nine miles beyond Scilly where there are upwellings in the sea bringing food items to the surface that attract the birds. Birds are also attracted to the boat by means of 'chumming' which is where an oily slick of fish waste is continually dispersed from the boat.

The Scillonian docked at the bustling Hugh Town quayside on St Mary's at noon, people were everywhere, a confusion of holidaymakers, local people returning home, others with connections on smaller boats to other islands, anxious parents,  excited children and people retrieving bags from large blue metal containers that were commendably quickly offloaded from the Scillonian. It was all very efficiently done  and in no time we made our way through the attractive main street of tiny Hugh Town to my Bed and Breakfast accommodation at Westford House in nearby Church Street. 

Church Street in Hugh Town and some examples of plantlife that can grow in
the mild climate
We dropped off my bags and then purchased a pasty each from a local cafe on the main street and made the very steep climb to The Garrison campsite that overlooks Hugh Town, where Andy would pitch his tent. His bags and tent had already been delivered there from the quayside, so we checked in and immediately set about erecting the tent and then were free to commence birding.

Apart from the pelagic trips, Scilly is justly famous for attracting rare birds from all corners of the globe and currently there were three rare birds visiting Scilly, a juvenile Citrine Wagtail and a Spotted Sandpiper on St Mary's and a  Solitary Sandpiper on the nearby island of Tresco. We had just under three hours to spare before our pelagic was due to leave at 5pm and as Andy had never seen a Citrine Wagtail we decided to go and look for it at a place called Lower Moors which is a nature reserve maintained by the Isles of Scilly Bird Group.

It was but a twenty minute walk from Hugh Town as St Marys, although the largest of the islands, is small enough to allow walking as an option to anywhere on the island and with few cars one that can be done in relative peace and therefore is quite pleasant. 

Not a car to be seen!
Leaving the road we followed a winding boardwalk through waving, head height reeds to a small cramped hide overlooking a large mud and reed fringed pool and looked out in eager anticipation.The pool looked deserted. Certainly there was no sign of a wagtail of any sort although the Citrine Wagtail had been reported just hours ago. Three Common Snipe were feeding on the opposite side of the pool and some Mallard and Moorhens wandered around. 

Dismayed, we sat for a few minutes and then Andy located the Citrine Wagtail as it emerged onto the mud from some reeds, where it had been hidden, on the far side of the pool. We watched it, willing it to come closer and feed on the very attractive muddy surrounds right below the hide but it was not willing to leave its current location.

Juvenile Citrine Wagtail
Frustratingly it disappeared into the reeds once more but then re-emerged and with a cheery single note call flew right across the pool to land precisely where we wanted it,  right in front of us on the mud. So close it required an effort to point the camera downwards out of the hide's viewing slats. This was more like it, as it paraded in front of us, just metres away but not for long. Like all wagtails it was hyperactive and wandered into more reeds out of sight and then, with another call, flew up high and away from the pool, over some distant trees and was gone.

This was somewhat deflating but we had seen it very well and Andy had his lifer so we could hardly complain but the time the wagtail had been visible had not really been long enough.We wanted more. I forlornly suggested it might come back and remarkably after about fifteen minutes it did and landed once more on the mud right in front of us. I could hardly believe our luck and this time it remained to grant us prolonged views of its grey and white  loveliness from very close range.

Eventually it flew over to the far side of the pool again and resumed its hide and seek activity in the reeds, joining a Sedge Warbler in picking insects from the base of the reed stems.

A lady entered the cramped hide and we showed her the wagtail.We got talking and she told us she ran a bed and breakfast business and I took her details for future reference. Well you never know when such a contact might be useful, as accommodation is so hard to find on Scilly. 

Time was now drawing near for us to head for the quayside and our initiation on the MV Sapphire, so we left the hide and made our way back to Hugh Town to await our first pelagic trip with Messrs Flood and Pender.

We sat on the Hugh Town quayside to await the MV Sapphire and looked out across the bay to the houses of Hugh Town ranged around the small semi circle of sand which is Porthcressa Beach. The bay was full of many moored craft of varying sizes, the majority small launches for fishing or pleasure cruising but some larger boats that were obviously for commercial enterprises. 

Hugh Town Quayside
Looking across the bay from Town Beach to a distant Hugh Town quayside

Town Beach and part of Hugh Town behind
Other boats were arriving and departing, ferrying passengers to other outlying islands such as Bryher, Tresco, St Agnes and St Martins. Behind where we sat was a small cafĂ© that was available to purchase a coffee while we waited. The weather was now cloudy and grey with a brisk northwest wind blowing and we were glad we had donned enough weatherproof clothing as out at sea it would inevitably be even more windy and possibly wet, either from rain or flying spray or both! .

Andy all set for our first Scilly pelagic
The appointed time of 5pm arrived and we were welcomed onto the MV Sapphire by Bob and Joe. Jim and Higgo were also on board, Jim as crew and who would later do the chumming out at sea and Higgo as an extra pair of eyes, scanning the sea for birds.

About thirty birders boarded the Sapphire but there was plenty of room in the boat, with copious bench seating all around and plenty of room to move around to take photos.There was even a toilet. Bob gave a little talk on what to do and not to do when at sea and what we could expect to see this evening and where we would be going. This pelagic would last for five hours and due to the strong winds we would sail north of St Martins to where the seas were a little calmer

There was some excitement and anticipation on board due to the presence of Atlantic Blue finned Tuna in the seas surrounding Scilly and which, in the previous week, had put on a spectacular show as they hunted shoals of smaller fish, pushing them into a huge ball and then hurtling into the ball to consume the panicking fish, in the process creating a spectacle that was worthy of anything seen on Blue Planet, as the waters were churned into a huge roiling white and turquoise turbulence and small fish flew into the air in all directions to escape the voracious tuna.

Atlantic Blue finned Tuna are huge, growing to between six and eight feet long and weighing between 225-250kgs although they can reach weights of 450kgs in extreme cases. They inhabit the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas and are fearsome predators that hunt at high speed in packs, feeding on smaller fish such as Sardines, Mackerel and Herring. They have been severely over fished, almost to the point of extinction and because of this any commercial fishing of them has been banned since 2010 and now, thankfully, they are slowly recovering their numbers which as a consequence allowed  us to view the spectacle of them hunting in the seas off Scilly.

The plan this evening was to try and locate the area where the tuna were feeding. To do this Bob and Joe looked for the tell tale sight of huge numbers of seabirds congregating above the tuna to take advantage of the disoriented or injured fish not eaten by the tuna.  We sailed six miles north of St Martins and soon located a huge congregation of birds milling around above the tell tale white breaking water, caused as the tuna broke the surface in their feeding frenzy. We stopped just short of the feeding tuna and I gazed in awe at the spectacle before and above me. A maelstrom of thousands of frenzied seabirds milled and whirled in the air or sat on the huge rolling waves, rising and falling, awaiting the next charge by the tuna. 

The birds consisted mainly of  Gannets, Greater black backed  and Herring Gulls but amongst them, with careful scrutiny other species could be found. Manx Shearwaters were there in good numbers and the occasional chocolate brown Sooty Shearwater came into view as it floated up and down between the wave troughs. Stiff winged Fulmars planed above the waves and a few Great Skuas, attracted by the throng of gulls came in to investigate the commotion. 

Northern Gannet
Fulmar Petrel
Then, finally, what I had been hoping for and anticipating, a longed for Great Shearwater was found sat on the sea, slightly apart from the throng. My favourite shearwater, large and impressive with its  upperpart patterning of greyish brown and its prominent  half white half brown head.

Like the Sooty Shearwater they only come to British waters in July and August, making a huge circular migration that leads them from Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible, Nightingale and Gough Islands in the southern hemisphere and where they breed, along the eastern coasts of South and North America, crossing into the northern hemisphere and then across the Atlantic to arrive in British waters in July and August, before flying south once more to breed in the southern hemisphere summer. To see them here and realise what a journey they are on and what a life they lead cannot but fail to grip one's imagination. 

Manx Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Great Shearwater

We spent quite some time here admiring this natural spectacle but eventually the feeding frenzy abated and the tuna had obviously departed and the huge numbers of birds also dispersed. It was estimated that around fifty tuna had participated in the frenetic feeding we had just witnessed but 
now the bounty was over. I confess it was a bit of a trial taking photos on a constantly moving boat, as maintaining one's balance was far from easy as it was impossible to anticipate where and when the boat would next roll with the waves but I did my best propped against the guard rails.

I contemplated the desolate scene before me of the endless grey waters of the Atlantic and pondered the lives of the birds that permanently live out here and are forever in motion either flying or floating on the ceaseless moving seas, apart from the brief time when they come to land to breed.  It is a truly alien environment and one that cannot fail but impress sat in a small boat far from land.

Now it was time to go searching for petrels, Wilson's Petrels to be precise, but with the guaranteed bonus that we would definitely see European Storm Petrels. To achieve this requires considerable patience as the routine is to create a fish oil slick across the sea from the fish waste we had loaded on the MV Sapphire back at Hugh Town. This is dispersed from the back of the boat to form a trail across the sea for some miles. Petrels have highly developed olfactory glands which can smell the fish oil from miles away but it takes some time for them to follow the scent trail and come in to view - often an hour or so passes before there is any sight of them. European Storm Petrels breed on the uninhabited islands of Scilly so are reasonably common but everyone really wants to see the rare Wilson's Petrel, which breeds in Antarctica in the southern hemisphere, between November and May and then leads an entirely pelagic existence coming to northern hemisphere waters, such as around Scilly, only at this time of the year. Although rare in British waters they are one of the most numerous bird species in the world with an estimated population of fifty million pairs. At this moment on the MV Sapphire just one would do, as Andy had never seen one and I would  certainly not say no to seeing another one, having only ever seen one before, off Cornwall many years ago. 

Joe turned off the Sapphire's engine and we floated on the huge swell and waited for the petrels to arrive. The sea was quite rough but we had every faith in Bob and Joe's judgement. It was just a case of waiting to see. Jim carried on ladelling chum from the back of the boat whilst Higgo kept an eye out for any approaching petrels. A Grey Phalarope flying in and out of the wave troughs was a bit of a surprise as were two Sanderling so far out to sea. There was also the occasional appearance of Manx, Sooty and Great Shearwaters, sweeping past the boat but not stopping. Herring Gulls and Fulmars were constantly present on and over the slick as we awaited the arrival of the tiny black specks that were the petrels.

Standing on the boat was far from easy as it was a precarious balancing act as the boat was in constant motion due to the huge swells passing under it. Unbalanced with a heavy camera and lens slung around my neck, it was at times hard to maintain my upright position and occasionally it became downright dangerous as the boat would make a sudden lurch as a larger wave than normal came broadside onto us. Somehow though it all worked out and no harm came to me or anyone else.

A lady birder beside me was being violently sick over the side of the boat. In between bouts of vomiting she told me she had been fine while we had been moving across the sea but the wait for the petrels with the boat just floating on the swell had finally been too much for her and she had no choice but to be sick. Everyone discreetly looked away to save her being embarrassed and said nothing as there is little you can say or do to make things better.

Finally some Storm Petrels arrived, tiny black specks against the vastness of sea, with a pure white rump and vertical white stripe on their underwings. They were devilish hard to follow with a camera as they skipped and flickered at high speed across the tops of the waves. Andy was much better at this than me, but I did my best. Their flight is supremely erratic, the birds dodging hither and thither, never in a straight line but diverting from side to side and then disappearing only to re-appear from amongst the wave troughs. The flight is very fast and they soon disappear from view. To my mind they are just like pelagic House Martins, similar in both their plumage and flight.

Storm Petrel
I cannot remember how many had arrived and passed through before an excited shout came from Joe, Bob and Higgo, seemingly all at once. 


It came in from the right, fast and low and quite close to the boat. Slightly larger than a European Storm Petrel and with a different flight action that included numerous scudding glides over the wave tops as opposed to the Storm Petrels constant fluttering. The Wilson's passed the length of the boat and was gone in less than a minute. In the excitement I can only recall a brief impression of a distinct pale carpal bar across both dark wings and then it was gone. It was over in less than a minute but I had seen it well. as had Andy. Granted prolonged views, it is apparent that its longer legs mean that the feet protrude beyond the tail and the webs of its feet, when spread as it patters on the water, are yellow but this is not always possible to discern with such brief views 

Everyone was elated, as an appearance of a Wilson's Petrel is never guaranteed and it is now getting towards the time of year when they are departing on their long journey back to Antarctica. Even the lady being seasick managed to see the Wilson's Petrel, as fortunately she was being sick over the side of the boat along which it passed. 

Now the atmosphere on the boat became more relaxed amongst us as we awaited more and we duly got another Wilson's a few minutes later which, although further out, gave the same brief but adequate views before it disappeared into the vastness of the sea.

We waited for another thirty minutes but there was to be no more encores and as the light began to seriously fade we set off back to Hugh Town. It took an hour to get back, by which time it was dark and once on shore I bade goodnight to Andy and made the short walk to my accommodation.

Never was a cup of tea and bed more welcome as I was very, very tired having been awake since 2am but now it was midnight and time to switch off and catch up on my sleep as tomorrow we would be out at sea from eleven in the morning until six in the evening for another seven hour pelagic odyssey. I could hardy wait as today had been just fantastic.

This is what we saw on this pelagic

Great Shearwater 12
Sooty Shearwater 20+
Manx Shearwater 1000+
Northern Gannet 1000+
Fulmar Petrel 3
Wilson's Storm Petrel 2
European Storm Petrel 50+
Grey Phalarope 1
Sanderling 2

Atlantic Blue finned Tuna 50+

Also seen but not counted

Greater Black backed Gull
Lesser Black backed Gull
Herring Gull
European Shag

To be continued