26 Sept 2022

17 Sep 22 - A Day Trip To Cherbourg With ORCA

The alarm went off very early to allow me plenty of time for breakfast & to get out of the house, in time to arrive at Poole ferry terminal just before 07:00. Today was my first trip on an Orca survey from Poole to Cherbourg & back again and there was no option to arriving late. I arrived a few minutes early & the others all appeared within a few minutes. It turns out our team leader, Moira Gainey, had driven down from Oxford & spent a cold night in her camper van, Conor Aynsley had driven down the previous night from Birmingham and stayed in a local hotel and Chris Northwood had had an early start to drive along from the Selsey area. As a result, my thirty minute drive was the shortest journey.

The nice thing about being on an official Orca Cetacean survey is Brittany Ferries kindly provide free parking & boat tickets, as well as, allowing access to the warm bridge for the survey. We were quickly through passport control and waiting to be called to board the ship. The Barfleur left about 08:30 and we headed for the upper deck to enjoy some views over Brownsea & Studland. While I've seen this views on many occasions from the Poole Harbour Bird Boats & ferries, I've not seen the views from such a high viewing position before.
South Haven & the Studland Ferry
As we were now outside of Poole Harbour, we asked if we could go up to the bridge. The drawback of the bridge is the photos had to be taken through the ship's dirty windows.
A final view of the chalk cliffs of Ballard Down with Old Harry at the right hand end taken from the bridge
It was time to start the Cetacean survey. The surveys have a team of four. This allows one of us at each end of the bridge wings, one logging our position and one stood down to give the eyes a break, for food or toilet breaks. Clearly, as a birder used to many hours of dull Isle of Purbeck seawatching, stood down meant the chance for some Birding & looking for Cetaceans. We rotated through the positions every thirty minutes.

When we were surveying we used the Orca binoculars which have a vertical grid on the left eyepiece. The idea is every Cetacean, Seal, Shark or Turtle sighting, has the vertical distance from the horizon to the initial sighting noted, along with angle to the ship's bows with an arrow marker board. This information along with the species, number of individuals, behaviour is all logged. Additionally, the ship's position, course, speed, visibility & sea state are noted. The same ship's details are noted every thirty minutes or for a change of course. This information is submitted by the team leader at the end of the survey and it helps to build up a detailed analysis of Cetaceans along the ferry routes which are regularly surveyed. It's a great system.

The only drawback being the binoculars we use are bulky 7 x 50s with focusing on the individual eyepieces: it's hard to understand why the manufacturer thinks focusing on the individual eyepieces is a good design feature. Fortunately, once the binoculars are focused, then it wasn't really necessary to refocus them. If a Cetacean is seen, it would be possible to switch back to the Swarovski's to improve the chances of identifying the Cetaceans, after the initial details are noted.

The only Cetaceans seen on the crossing were a brief sighting of a pod of three probably Harbour Porpoises as we approached the French coast. Unfortunately, I was on the other side of the bridge wing at the time. But in cases like this, the survey should continue without me racing to the other wing to watch the sighting.

We were there to look for Cetaceans, but not Birds. However, there was enough time to quickly ID & call the more interesting Birds to those nearby, before switching back to Cetacean watching, without losing any survey time. There weren't a lot of Seabirds, but on the crossing to Cherbourg I saw:
  • Five Sooty Shearwaters West (all in French waters)
  • Five Manx Shearwaters West (one in UK waters and four in French waters)
  • A Grey Heron North about ten miles out to sea off the French coast and presumably heading to the UK
  • Singles of Bonxie and Arctic Skua West (in French waters)
  • Ten Razorbills West (in UK waters)
  • Ten Kittiwakes West (six in UK waters and four in French waters)
  • Three Mediterranean Gulls West (one in UK waters and two in French waters).

It was hardly busy for Seabirds, but it helped to keep scanning. I heard the next day that there had been a really good seawatch off Gatteville on the Cherbourg Peninsula involving over five hundred Sooty Shearwaters during our crossing, so it looks like most of the Seabirds were off the French coast and being pushed by the wind in the direction of the Normandy beaches.
It got fairly busy as we crossed the main shipping lanes
After a few hours we were close to the Port of Cherbourg. There is a large outer breakwater which is five and a half miles in length including the two large entrances. This breakwater is protected by a number of historic forts which date to about 1860.
Cherbourg: The main shipping channel into the outer harbour passes the Fort de l'Est
Cherbourg: The Fort de l'Est was totally destroyed during the WW2 Battle of Cherbourg
Cherbourg: The Central Fort appears to have largely survived the WW2 Battle of Cherbourg, but there is clearly a fair bit of battle damage when looked at carefully
One of my local Birding mates, Rob, works on the Condor ferry which also runs into Cherbourg. He said he sometimes sees a pod of up to six Bottlenose Dolphins in the outer harbour. Although we had finished the survey just before we reached the outer harbour, the ship's Captain was happy for us to stay on the bridge. As we entered the outer harbour, I picked up a pod of three Bottlenose Dolphins in the main channel between the inner and outer harbours. We watched as they headed for the fish farms to our right and inside the outer harbour wall. They were noted as an incidental sighting, as they were not seen during the formal survey.

It was time to leave the bridge and join the passengers heading for Cherbourg. We got on one of the three or four coaches for foot passengers heading for the arrivals terminal. We were quickly through immigration & my nice new passport now has two passport stamps: thanks to the dogmatic stupidity of the tories & their poor brexit deal. We had around three hours before we had to return to the ship. It is about a mile and a quarter walk into the town centre and it was a good opportunity to stretch our legs.
Saudi Fast Patrol Boat: I had assumed this was a French Navy Patrol Boat, but apparently it's one of a large order of Fast Patrol Boats being built in Cherbourg for the Saudi Navy
The Sailing Ship Gunilla: She was built as a motorsailor in the 1930s and used as a cargo vessel until 1997, when she was rebuilt into a three-masted barque. She is now used as a Swedish sailing ship for sailors ages 16 to 18 to learn to sail
It was a bit run down in parts on the walk into the town centre, but to be fair, that's typical for a number of ports I've visited over the years. There was time for a leisurely lunch in the sun at a street restaurant in Cherbourg, before rejoining the ship for the return crossing.
A French street lunch for Moira, Chris, Conor & myself (taking the photo)
Titanic Memorial Stone: I wasn't aware that after the Titanic left Southampton, she visited Cherbourg on 10 Apr 1912, before her last port visit to Cobh (formally Queenstown) in Ireland
We were back on ship with plenty of time before we sailed. We waited for the Barfleur to leave the harbour, before asking for permission to return to the bridge.
Cherbourg: Despite a good search before & after the Barfleur's departure, we failed to see the Bottlenose Dolphins again
We didn't see any Cetaceans on the return crossing, but did see a further four Sooty Shearwaters heading West before it got dark. It was dark just before we reached mid channel. We thanked the bridge team and headed to the restaurant for an evening coffee. My first ORCA Cetacean survey had been a lot of fun & I will look forward to the next one.
This sunset confirmed the survey was nearly over

24 Sept 2022

22 Sep 22 - Head & Shoulders

This Southern Hawker posed nicely by the track by Trev's Quarry at St Aldhelms. It makes a change from seeing a Southern Hawker constantly flying around with no intention of stopping.
Southern Hawker
Southern Hawker: Dragonflies look so good when seen this close & I always wonder what the world looks like through these amazing eyes

22 Sept 2022

16 Sep 22 - Migrant Hawker

This male Migrant Hawker posed nicely by the track by Trev's Quarry at St Aldhelms. A few years ago, I was struggling to understand why I was regularly seeing Migrant Hawkers at Trev's Quarry, given there appeared to be no water source nearby to the quarry. Then a conversation with one of the quarrymen who works there confirmed they breed in a couple of small water tanks in the quarry: mystery solved.
Migrant Hawker: Male

5 Sept 2022

26 Aug 22 - 22 Spots

I have seen a number of the lovely 22 Spot Ladybirds over the years, but this is the time I've taken a photo.
22 Spot Ladybird

3 Sept 2022

3 Sep 22 - Lightning Strikes Twice & It Feels Good

I moved down to live in the Swanage area in July 1996 to spend more time watching the St Aldhelms & Winspit patch. However, after a few tough years of Birding without a lot of reward, I switched to spending more time watching Durlston. By the early 2000s, I had moved my focus to Studland & Poole Harbour, and largely avoided the Purbeck coastline.

In Summer 2017, I decided I should return to watching the St Aldhelms & Winspit patch again as it really was neglected with few Birders watching it. Soon after I returned to St Aldhelms, the Two-barred Greenish Warbler was found & that was the final confirmation that St Aldhelms needed a lot more of my time.

My first reward for the Birding visits was finding an Ortolan on 6 Sep 18 in the top of Pier Bottom Valley. I hadn't taken my scope that morning & I was struggling to figure out a Bunting sitting in front of the bushes at the back of the field. Fortunately, I had the camera & grabbed some photos. Looking at the back of the camera shots, the Bird looked like an Ortolan. I looked at the area again, but I couldn't see it. I pinged a couple of photos off to my mate Marcus, not really wanting to accept that I had just found my first local Ortolan. He responded quickly with a thumbs up which was good to know I hadn't just made a total balls up of the Id. Looking at the cleaned up photo, it was a blatantly obvious Ortolan, but I sometimes struggle with small images on the back of the camera. I ended up spending the next two or three hours trying to relocate it, with no joy.
Ortolan: St Aldhelms (6 Sep 18)
Fast forward to Sep 22. The alarm went off far too early, but I was keen to get out to St Aldhelms after a few days being side-tracked with Brownsea & Brands Bay Waders. I knew my mate Phil Saunders would be out early & also knew it can be dangerous to leave Phil looking at St Aldhelms when I wasn't there: just too much chance of missing something good that he had found.

Phil had arrived a few minutes before me & between the two of us, I think we covered the area pretty thoroughly by the time we reached & then checked Quarry Ledge and the sea. We also hadn't had that much reward, apart from two distant Wigeon that Phil picked up flying East over the sea, when we were at Trev's Quarry. They were clearly the Birds of the Day as they were a long overdue Patch Tick for both of us. Otherwise, all I had to show for about 4 hours effort was a few Whinchats, a Wheatear and a few common Warblers. We decided to knock it on the head, with Phil walking back on the main track, while I planned to walk along the coast path and return up Pier Bottom Valley.

Soon after saying goodbye to Phil, I heard a call I couldn't figure out or pin down the source. I could see a Bird perched in a bush about 90 metres away. I was struggling to identify it and I'm still not sure if that was what I heard calling. After another scan, I still couldn't see anything else calling & grabbed a few photos of the Bird I could see. Checking them, they were of little help as the Bird had turned away & I could only see the back of the head and the wings. I tried again & blew up the images on the back of the camera. Lightning struck twice as I could see a pale eyering on one photo & a pale moustachial on the other photo. I looked again & the Bird had gone: lightning really was striking twice. A couple of calls to Phil went unanswered and I figured he was probably out of range by Trev's Quarry. I left a message & followed up with a text.

I started searching for the Ortolan, but drew an initial blank. But at least Phil had rung back & was on his way. He joined me & we repeated the search. Just as I think we were both thinking this wouldn't turn out well, Phil heard it flying over our heads & he recognised it from the many months he spent living in Cyprus in his younger days. We both got onto the Bird and watched in dismay as it kept flying and flying, before circling and dropping into the top of Pier Bottom Valley. Phil found the flight call on the excellent Xeno-Canto website & that sounded a good match for what we had just heard. We had a good look in the fields around the top of Pier Bottom Valley, but failed to relocate it. It was time to call it a day, given we had both spent over six hours covering St Aldhelms. In addition to the Ortolan, there had been a bonus Pied Flycatcher and I also had a Hobby over the car park just before I left.

It had been hard work, but a rewarding day in the end. According to Steve Morrison's All Time Birds of St Aldhelms List on Bubo, this is only the ninth record he is aware of for the St Aldhelms/Winspit patch.
Ortolan: The best photo showing the pale eyering
Ortolan: The best photo showing the moustachial stripe

1 Sept 2022

26 Aug 22 - The Makings Of A Good Day On The St Aldhelms Patch

I am not going to win any photographic prizes with this Pied Flycatcher photo, but it always is a good day when I find a Pied Flycatcher on one of my Isle on Purbeck patches.
Pied Flycatcher

22 Aug 2022

1 Aug 22 - A Garden Wall

As I got back from a morning visit to Studland, I had brief views of an interesting-looking Butterfly in flight, that landed just outside my garden gate. Initially, I couldn't see it until I got closer, when I realised it had its wings closed. It was a Wall. When it opened its wings, it was a lot more obvious. Fortunately, it didn't flush & allowed me the opportunity to get some photos with the IPhone, as I couldn't get my Canon camera from the house without flushing the Wall.

They are an erratic species in the garden. I saw in Aug 21, but the one before that was May 15. It's good to know they are still around locally.