Saturday 16 June 2012

Storm Force Petrels at Severn Beach 9th June 2012

Unseasonal westerly gales for two days heralded the arrival of storm driven seabirds in the Severn Estuary on 8th June. Frustratingly, work duties provided an impediment to any thoughts of heading to the estuary on that day. The subsequent reports that evening also brought on a gloom nearly as bad as the weather. Pomarine and Arctic Skuas plus numbers of Storm Petrels had been seen throughout the day by those lucky enough to be present. I called Badger that afternoon but he was of a mind to go to Otmoor the next day. I knew there would be nothing there so, although in two minds and incapable of coming to a decision that night I sort of decided, before going to bed, to go to Severn Beach the next day depending on how I felt when I woke up.

The next day thankfully was a Saturday and by way of novelty in this awful Spring it would, according to the forecast not be raining, and possibly even be sunny and the wind would drop. At 5.30am I awoke. It was light, sunny and still windy. Decision time. Lie in or up and about? I arose and pointed the Audi west at just after 6am. The roads were empty of traffic at this time. We were at Severn Beach an hour later but I had made one crucial mistake. I forgot to check the times of the tide.

A vast expanse of mud and shingle greeted me plus a Force 6 westerly wind blowing directly into my face although it was still dry and sunny. The tide was miles out, so was the sea and so was my miscalculation! No birds. No birders. I had time on my hands. I retreated to an old fashioned and friendly bakery just off the promenade, the same one where I celebrated on my last visit some two years ago after fortuitously having seen a Black bellied Storm Petrel. Fortified by a pasty and a slice of apple pie I headed back for the seafront. The tide was now obviously coming in and it comes in fast here so it would not be long before I had some seawater to scan over and hopefully some birds would appear. I started scanning the sea but nothing appeared apart from two Common Shelduck and a pair of Peregrines.

An hour slowly passed, five Sanderling flew upriver and a few other birders who had sensibly noted when the tide was suitable turned up and spread along the seafront. Suddenly in my scope on one of my scans I found a Storm Petrel, the first of the morning, heading downriver out to the estuary. Now my attention slipped into top gear. Two dark shapes on the sea – male Common Scoters- and then another Storm Petrel flying up river over them. It’s looking good! As the tide came in, more and more Storm Petrels appeared, as did birders, until there was quite a crowd spread along the seafront and considerable numbers of Storm Petrels coming up river. Bemused passers by enquired what all the fuss was about. They were informed about the winds and seabirds. 

The Storm Petrels seemed to be flying up river from the estuary and possibly even under the new Severn Road Bridge and others or the same were coming back down river. It was impossible to accurately assess how many there were but I had around one hundred and fifty sightings, (I stopped counting after I reached a hundred), between  when I commenced watching at 7.30am until I left at 1.30pm and estimated that I had seen getting on for a hundred Storm Petrels. It may have been more it may have been less. Who really cares. I was getting probably the best views I have ever had of Storm Petrels, better even than at Pendeen. It was just brilliant and another birding gamble had paid dividends.

Many were close into the shore, giving exceptional and prolonged views, even flying along the tideline and they moved surprisingly fast. It was noticeable how many coming up river did not feed but just flew at speed often almost shearing over the waves but on the way back down river many would foot patter on the water feeding and at the peak time there were at least five or six birds visible at the same time fluttering over the sea, feeding head into the wind. One bird settled on the water looking tired and dejected just off the sea defences. I could clearly see its down curved bill and tubular nostrils. It drifted in towards the shore a picture of discontent but then lifted lightly off the sea and commenced feeding as if nothing was untoward.

The petrel bonanza and adrenalin rush became even better when the shout went up that there was a Sabine’s Gull out there somewhere in the estuary. Panic. Where? Instructions were shouted out but got lost in the wind. I just could not locate it even though the guy sitting on a bench in front of me could see it clearly. Patiently he gave me really explicit instructions involving distant pylons, radio masts and turbines on the far shore but still I could not locate it. Then it apparently settled on the sea and was lost to sight. Oh no! I followed his continuous directions as it apparently floated fast up river occasionally visible on the incoming tide as it rose on wavecrests then descending to become invisible in the wave troughs. Why could I not see it? It became all too apparent why when the gull much to my relief lifted into the air and it was obviously far closer to us than where I had been searching. The instructions had been that it was distant but it was anything but. Never mind. What a beauty and now well and truly in view. An adult in full summer plumage. Black ,white and grey wings and a beautiful black hood were visible as it rose ever upwards apparently going to fly over the Severn Road Bridge. A birder who I never actually saw, as I was glued to my scope, ran up behind me gasping for breath. “Where is it mate”. I gave him instructions about it flying up near the top of the bridge. Unlike yours truly he found it quite quickly. “Cheers mate. Nice”. He disappeared with me still glued to the scope. As I watched, the gull, like so many seabirds do, baulked at crossing over the bridge and retreated down river eventually settling far off on the sea never to be seen again. What a relief and what a great bird to see. The Storm Petrels meanwhile just kept coming up and down the river.

Cameras including mine went into overtime as the birds were so close. They were however very hard to capture in the camera lens as they moved surprisingly rapidly across the water. Eventually the tide turned, the birders slowly disappeared and the petrels declined in numbers. A Yellow Wagtail calling loudly landed behind me on the only patch of grass available. An Arctic Tern put in a brief appearance. It was time to go. It was1.30pm. What a morning.

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