3 Apr 2024

25 Mar 24 - To Santander For An Ice Cream With ORCA

The 2024 season of ORCA ferry survey has just started. I am now training as a team leader for ORCA and part of the training is to gain additional experience of each of the routes I could be team leading on in the future. My first team leader training was on the Plymouth to Santander route. I met the others, Karen Griffin (team leader), Terry Carne & Magda Debiec, in late afternoon of 24 Mar at the Brittany Ferries terminal at Plymouth.
Magda Debiec, Karen Griffin & Terry Carne in Santander
We quickly boarded and we were pleased to see that we were going to get the best part of an hour before it got dark. However, by the time we had cleared Plymouth Sound and been allowed onto the bridge, there would only have been the time for a thirty minute survey. Therefore, the decision was we would pop up to the top deck and run a deck survey from there for that thirty minutes.
The outer breakwater & fort: Work on the breakwater was started in 1811 & completed in 1814. Work on the fort was started in 1860 and completed in 1865 (24 Aug 24)
None of us had brought enough clothes for a deck watch and so it was a chilly early evening. But it was worth getting cold for our first Short-beaked Common Dolphins of the trip, as well as, a Great Northern Diver & good numbers of Manx Shearwaters.
Eddystone Lighthouse: The Eddystone Lighthouse lies eleven miles outside of the breakwater. To the right is the base of the third lighthouse which was completed in 1759. It was superseded in 1882, when the current lighthouse was finished (24 Aug 24)
The top of the third Eddystone Lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe: The stone from the upper part of the third lighthouse was dismantled and rebuilt to acknowledge the revolutionary design of that lighthouse (16 Aug 18)
It was an early start on 25 Mar and we were on the bridge in the half-light about 05:50. With it being an early spring trip, we had already crossed the continental shelf in the dark and we were over the deep abyssal plain. We were all pleased to find the sea was relatively calm for the Bay of Biscay: there was a large swell, but not too many white-caps, with overcast conditions which minimised the glare during the crossing. As soon as there was enough light to survey we started the bridge survey at 06:00. Within the first twenty minutes of the survey, I picked up the first of several pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins on the starboard side.
Striped Dolphin: In the books, their range extends up to the top of the Scottish mainland. But in reality, they are hard to see in UK or Irish waters
After I completed my first thirty minute survey on the starboard side, I was officially off survey and able to rest or more generally switch to Birding. This was followed by a thirty minute port survey. My final thirty minutes was spent recording the following: the start time for each rotation; the ship's position; the sea state; swell; glare and visibility. Subsequent changes to any of these conditions are also recorded, along with any sightings. This two hour cycle was then repeated until we reached Santander. As we were over the abyssal plain I didn't see many Seabirds, apart from the occasional Lesser Black-backed Gull moving North for the breeding season and a few feeding Gannets.
Striped Dolphin: The same individual
At one point we saw two distant Whale blows. Terry saw one of these Whales breach and confirmed it was a Humpback Whale. A few minutes later, we picked up one of these Whales a few hundred metres ahead and on the port side. It was good to see the crew manoeuvre the ship away from the Whale to reduce the risk of a collision. I also saw a couple of Long-beaked Pilot Whales: which unusually for Pilot Whales didn't give good views. But the clear highlight was a pod of six Striped Dolphins which came in to bow-wave the ship for several minutes. I've seen a lot of Striped Dolphins over the years, but I think this is the first time I've seen them bow-waving: although I have seen them approach the ship before.
Striped Dolphin: A close up of the same individual. I was surprised how good these pictures were considering they were photographed through the thick bridge windows
Striped Dolphin: Another close up of the same individual
Striped Dolphin: A different individual with a thinner black stripe and not showing a diffuse pale band on the top of the body in front of the dorsal fin
Striped Dolphin: One final leap before they were off
After eight hours surveying, we were about twenty minutes away from the Spanish coast and we stopped the survey and left the Pont Aven bridge before she entering the port of Santander. There was time for a late lunch in the restaurant, before we were heading off the ship. On paper the ship is in port for three hours, but with check-in closing about one hour before the ship departs, the reality is there was only enough time to have a quick stretch of the legs ashore. The custom seems to head to a small ice cream cafe which is just across the quayside park. We were all pleased to find the cafe was open, despite it being a chilly day in late March.
Magda Debiec, Karen Griffin & myself outside the ice cream shop in Santander
There was a good selection of ice cream to choose from
Lemon & Lime on Mint Chocolate: A good combination
After that there was time for a short walk around the nearby streets, to have a look at the cathedral from the outside and discover a good-looking pizza restaurant, where we only had time for a coffee. Perhaps a future venue to check out.
Santander Cathedral
The Santander Cathedral entrance
There wasn't time for more than a few minutes of watching from the top deck before it got dark. But it was pelting it down and so we skipped that option.
Leaving Santander in the rain: It was a lot worse than this photo suggests
The day before we left Plymouth, the forecast was for a low in the Bay of Biscay with a four metre swell on the return journey. I woke in the early hours of the morning to find that the swell had got up & it was choppy. Fortunately, the sea had quietened down by 05:50, when we reached the bridge in the half-light. We were all relieved to find we were ahead of the front. Again, we had crossed the continental shelf in the dark and we could see a lighthouse off the South West corner of the Brittany coastline on our starboard side. A couple of hours after dawn we were cutting between Ile de Sein and the coast. This was followed by cutting between Ushant Island and the coast, which is another spectacular journey.
The Phare de la Vieille Lighthouse on the Brittany coast (26 Mar 24)
The Tevennec Lighthouse: This is actually a small lighthouse, albeit it looks more like a small chapel on this rock near to the Phare de la Vieille Lighthouse (26 Mar 24)
Overall, it was a quieter than the previous day for Cetaceans, but we saw a few pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and three Bottlenose Dolphins. It was also great to see fifteen Bonxies in the Western Approaches, albeit some of the sightings could have been duplicates by the Bonxies flying on ahead and then dropped back onto the water. Again there were good numbers of Manx Shearwaters off both coastlines.

31 Mar 2024

20 Mar 24 - Brownsea Common Lizards

It was good to be starting my third season as a volunteer on the DWT Brownsea reserve. As a bonus it was the first warm & sunny day of the spring. On of the visitors spotted my first Common Lizards of the year on one of the paths. There were six half grown individuals along with a full-sized adult.
Common Lizards: Shame about the piece of vegetation at the front of its head
A close up of the adult Common Lizard

20 Mar 2024

20 Mar 24 - A Brownsea Avocet

It was good to be starting my third season as a volunteer on the DWT Brownsea reserve. In an early morning check of the lagoon before the reserve opened up to the public, I ran into this Avocet that was really close to the Tern Hide: previous called the Mac hide after a previous warden.
Avocet: One of twenty nine of the reserve on the day. It's easily the best Avocet photo I've taken

20 Mar 24 - Back On Squirrel Island

It was good to be starting my third season as a volunteer on the DWT Brownsea reserve. As usual, I arrived before the island opened to the public. One of the benefits of the early arrival, is this is a good time to see the island's most popular resident: the Red Squirrels. The first one was running along the boardwalk towards me. This was the opportunity to kneel down & wait for it to get closer.
Red Squirrel: Was it going to share its nut with me?
Finally, the Red Squirrel saw me and stopped to looked at me.
Red Squirrel: I've been clocked
Red Squirrel: It got a bit closer & I hoped it would come past me. However, it decided to head off the boardwalk instead & was clearly not going to give me the nut

10 Mar 2024

10 Mar 24 - A Devasting Fire Reveals Some Old History

On 12 Aug 22, a devasting Heath fire started at Studland. Subsequent investigation suggested it was down to a disposable barbeque and campfire. It was a very dry period and there were many warnings up telling people not to start fires of any kind on or near the Heathland. But sadly, there is an irresponsible group within the public, who refuse to follow these warnings or just don't care, as long as they can have their barbeque and drinks as planned.
Looking towards Brands Bay from the top of the Heath
The fire destroyed about twelve acres of high quality Heathland and clearly burnt very deep in the dry conditions. The National Trust had an old interpretation centre & bird hide at the top of the hill which overlooked Littlesea. That centre was totally destroyed in the fire, with only the bricks and concrete base surviving. While it was rarely used in recent years, it's a shame to see it destroyed, especially, as it provided a good windbreak and it allowed Birders to stand by it without their shape breaking the skyline. It destroyed at least one Dartford Warbler territory, which I generally heard calling at dusk right by the old interpretation centre & bird hide. I will miss their evening calls, albeit I've not been up to the area in the evenings since the fire.
The remains of the old interpretation centre & bird hide
The area destroyed also formed part of, or the majority of, the territories for three pairs of Nightjars. Given the mid-August date, then it is likely that the chicks from a first brood should have fledged, however, they can have a second brood and potentially, any nests and chicks would have been lost. While adult Birds can fly from a fire, there is little chance for the Heathland Reptiles or other invertebrates. I've seen a number of the more interesting Heathland Insects in the area in the past, including at least one species of ground-nesting solitary Wasp (which I've never photographed & identified) in the burnt area.
Looking towards Littlesea from the top of the Heath
Nineteen months on, there is very little signs of recovery. At the time, there were statements that it could take twenty years before this area of Heathland recovers back to its pre-fire state. There were a few shoots of Gorse reappearing suggesting that some roots survived and a few other plants: but I'm not a plant person & couldn't tell you what they are. Other than that, it was just the grassy tracks between the Heath that were in reasonable shape.
Nineteen months on, the only area that has recovered are the grassy tracks
I made my first visit to the area, nineteen months after the fire and kept to the main grassy tracks. One of the reasons for visiting was I had heard that there were signs of some of the WW2 trenches that had become visible following the fire. I assume these date back to the post-Dunkirk era when they were dug with the risk of a German invasion. The beach at Studland could have been a potential landing site, which would probably have been lightly defended in Autumn 1940.
This appears to be the remains of a straight trench facing towards Littlesea: This trench covers the Southern end of Littlesea and potentially the ground looking towards the road
Looking North along the same trench
This looks to be a small machine gun trench pointing towards the Harbour mouth
A satellite view of the burnt area shown on Google Maps (with copyright remaining with Google Maps): The trench that was photographed in in the centre of the photo. The potential curved machine gun trench above & to the left of the first trench
One of the problems for the fire-fighters was the risk of exploding ordnance caused by the fire. Studland was a live fire exercise area in WW2 and not all the munitions exploded at the time. I did hear that there were a few explosions during the fire. There was a specialist munitions team who spent many weeks after the fire searching the area for munitions that were still left in the ground, before the area was declared safe. It does make me wonder how many other shells are still buried in the rest of Studland.

1 Mar 2024

17 Jan 23 - The Antarctica Trip - Leaving Port Stanley, Falklands

It was time to leave Port Stanley. Personally, I would have liked a full day around the area. But the distances meant if we left at lunchtime, we would be able to enjoy two landings on the first day in South Georgia, whereas, a full day in the Falklands, would mean losing a landing in South Georgia. It's always a compromise in planning landings in the Southern Oceans, before the ship has to plan for any adverse weather. Another factor is the landings need to be booked months in advance with the South Georgia authorities to ensure that there wouldn't be two expedition ships looking to land passengers at the same location on the same day. Only one hundred passengers are allowed to be ashore at any time, which was fine as that allowed all our passengers to land together. But some of the larger ships have twice that number of passengers and their landings have to be staggered and shortened. The logistics of having two ships at the same location would be far more complex to manage and most importantly there would be a bigger impact on the wildlife.
One of the outer bays in the channel leading to Port Stanley: I was scanning all the bays and beaches as we left Port Stanley, in the hope of a Commerson's Dolphin. One of the Peale’s Dolphins is just visible in front of the beach
As we sailed out of the bay leading to Port Stanley, I picked up a pod of distant Dolphins. They were near to the beach (in the previous photo) and they clearly did not wanting to come & check out us. Initially, all we could see were they had prominent dorsal fins. There are several potential Dolphin species in the Falklands: Risso's Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Dusky Dolphin, Hourglass Dolphin, Peale's Dolphin, Southern Rightwhale Dolphin and Commerson's Dolphin. The first two species are right on the edge of their extensive world range.
Peale's Dolphin: All it is possible to say on this view is it is either a Dusky Dolphin or a Peale's Dolphin
Very quickly most of these species can be eliminated. The colouration and shape rules out a Risso's Dolphin. The lack of a distinctive beak and the patterning rules out Bottlenose Dolphin. Hourglass Dolphin can be ruled out as they don't have the well-marked patterning on the sides of the body. Southern Rightwhale Dolphin is very distinctive black and white marked species and it doesn't have a dorsal fin. Finally, Commerson's Dolphin has a very broad-rounded dorsal fin & looks more like a Porpoise, than a classical Dolphin. This just leaves Dusky Dolphin or Peale's Dolphin as the only likely species.
Peale's Dolphin: The dorsal fin shape looks different as it starts to go under
Peale's Dolphin: Further into the dive
Peale's Dolphin: Another individual came up at the left hand side of my view through the camera. It seems to have a pale stripe behind the dorsal fin
Finally, one of the Peale's Dolphins jumped out of the water and it was possible to see the dark facial pattern which confirmed this was a Peale's Dolphin.
Peale's Dolphin: The dark facial pattern, pale sides to the body and lack of a pronounced beak rules out the other candidates
Dusky Dolphin: One of the Dusky Dolphins from the first evening in the Beagle Channel which shows the short beak, but the pale stripes that continue through the face (14 Jan 23)
We didn't see any other species of note until we reached the open sea. Here we were greeted some large feeding flocks of Sooty Shearwaters.
Sooty Shearwater: A large feeding flock of Sooty Shearwaters
Sooty Shearwater: Another party of Sooty Shearwaters on the sea just before we reached them
Sooty Shearwater: About one hundred thousand pairs of Sooty Shearwaters breed on the nearby Kidney Island. They also breed on the temperate & Subantarctic Islands from South Chile & the Falklands to South Australia & Tasmania, Macquarie & the New Zealand Subantarctic Islands
The numbers of Seabirds quickly dropped off as we left the coastal parts of the Falklands, but we stuck it out on deck anyway.
Southern Royal Albatross: Southern Royal Albatrosses can be separated from the similar looking Northern Royal Albatross by the narrow white leading edge to the wings
Southern Royal Albatross: A second individual. This is the nominate epomophora subspecies of Royal Albatross according to Clements. The other subspecies is Northern Royal Albatross which IOC split and is another future armchair Tick when I switch to IOC taxonomy
Southern Royal Albatross: A third individual. This is an immature & I think it's a 1st year individual. Adult Southern Royal Albatrosses have a white band on the inner secondary coverts which narrows as it reaches the bend in the wing: this area remains black in Northern Royal Albatrosses
Southern Royal Albatross: The third individual. Southern Royal Albatrosses breed on the Campbell & Auckland islands and Northern Royal Albatross breed on Chatham Islands & New Zealand's South Island. Both Royal Albatrosses range throughout the Southern Oceans
Snowy Wandering Albatross: This is a Snowy Wandering Albatross and it is the nominate exulans subspecies which breeds on South Georgia. Clements lumps all the Wandering Albatross subspecies, whereas, IOC splits Wandering Albatross as Snowy Wandering Albatross, Antipodes Wandering Albatross, Tristan Wandering Albatross & Amsterdam Wandering Albatross. This is a third cycle which I think corresponds to second (Southern) summer based up the more commonly used UK moult terminology
Soft-plumaged Petrel: We saw the first Soft-plumaged Petrel of the trip & one of my favourite Pterodroma Petrels
Soft-plumaged Petrel: This monotypic species breeds on the subtropical to subantarctic islands including Tristan da Cunha & Gough Islands, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen & Amsterdam islands in the South Indian Ocean, to Maatsuyker Island, to the South of Tasmania and Macquarie & the Antipodes Islands to the South of New Zealand
We would have two more full days at sea before we reached South Georgia.

27 Feb 2024

17 Jan 23 - The Antarctica Trip - Some Gorgeous Geese

My cabin mate, Steve Preddy, & I teamed up to search for some Ruddy-headed Geese when we got off the Plancius in Port Stanley. We didn't have any specific sites, but asked as the tourist information & they quickly directed up to an old boy who had lived all of his life on the Falklands and had a beaten up old Land Rover. He had a few ideas for sites we could try & we were quickly heading off towards the airport area. It was good to bump into a couple of Two-banded Plovers and a South American Snipe.
Two-banded Plover: This monotypic species occurs in South Chile & Argentina, as well as, the Falklands. They winter as far North as South Brazil
Two-banded Plover
South American SnipeThis is the magellanica subspecies which occurs from central Chile & Argentina to Tierra del Fuego & the Falklands. When I convert my World List to using IOC taxonomy, I will get a bonus Tick as I saw the other subspecies of South American Snipe at the two lagoons I visited near Buenos Aires earlier in the trip. IOC calls this species Magellanic Snipe and the other species is called as Pantanal Snipe
The airport sites didn't work out, but we were undaunted and carried on looking on rough tracks to the South of Port Stanley.
One of the beaches on our search for some Ruddy-headed Geese
We carried on searching to the South of Port Stanley and eventually bumped into a party of seven Ruddy-headed Geese in a larger party of Upland Geese.
Ruddy-headed Goose: This monotypic species is resident on the Falklands. They also breed in the South of Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego and this population migrates North as far as Southern Buenos Aires
Ruddy-headed Goose: They are a bit smaller than Upland Geese, however, that might be tricky to figure out if only one species is present
Ruddy-headed Goose: Both sexes have similar markings and they have finer black barring on the body which continues further up the neck and a very conspicuous ruddy coloured vent
Ruddy-headed Goose
Ruddy-headed Goose
Ruddy-headed Goose
Ruddy-headed Goose: A more appropriate name might be Ruddy-vented Goose as this is the most obvious feature, especially at a distance
Upland Goose: Pair. Female Upland Geese do not have the ruddy coloured vent and have bolder black barring on the body. It's is also easier if they are accompanied by a similar-sized male
Upland Goose: Male. The males are very obvious
Having succeeded on the Wild Goose hunt, we were dropped back in Port Stanley. It didn't take long for either of us to agree to a coffee & some celebratory cake in one of the local cafes. Excellent cake eaten & coffee drunk, there was time for a quick look along the waterfront of Port Stanley.
The Cathedral: It looks about a big as large town church. However, the population of Port Stanley is only about two and a half thousand people
Having closely followed the Falklands campaign whilst at university, then it was good to see the respect and recognition for the guys involved in liberating the Falklands.
The War Memorial
The War Memorial
The War Memorial
Memorial to HMS Coventry: Having subsequently worked on the IT systems and spent many days onboard some of her sister ships, HMS Liverpool, HMS Cardiff, HMS Edinburgh, HMS Glasgow, HMS Nottingham & HMS Exeter, then this memorial to HMS Coventry felt special to me. The lessons learnt from the Exocet attacks on HMS Coventry were quickly responded to by the Royal Navy. Some of my colleagues had already implemented the design changes requested by the Royal Navy from those lessons learnt, before I had joined Ferranti
Winners of a Local Art Competition: There were a number of large posters of the winners of a local photo competition. This one complemented the remembrance of some of the sacrifices of the Falklands campaign
Maggie Thatcher: Thatcher is clearly a decisive figure to anybody who lived through the period of when she was Prime Minister. She was a disaster for the coal mining communities, union recognition etc. Many of today's problems with the railways, water and other public companies in the 1980s are a result of her government's failed privatisation plans to make money for her friends at the country's expense. However, the one thing she was right on was her backing for the Falklands campaign & it's good to see this statue in Port Stanley. It's the only place there should be a statue to Thatcher in my opinion
Brunel's famous SS Great Britain was left abandoned near Port Stanley in 1886, until it was rescued, returned to the UK in 1970, renovated and ultimately turned into the world class museum it is today.
SS Great Britain's Mizen Mast: I wasn't aware that part of the Mizen mast from the SS Great Britain had stayed in Port Stanley, but it seems appropriate that it did
SS Great Britain's Mizen Mast: She was the largest ship in the world when she was launched in 1843
Signs like this mean 'you are a long way from everywhere else'
On the far side of the bay are several white-painted stone monuments to the ships that have long served and protected the Falklands. There are similar painted signs on St Helena.
Protector: The current HMS Protector (A173) has been the temporary replacement for the Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS Endurance since 2013. However, these stones were laid to pay tribute to the previous HMS Protector which supported the Falklands in the fifties and sixties
HMS Protector (A173): Off South Haven, Studland (20 Aug 15)
Endurance: These stones pay tribute to the Royal Navy ice patrol ship HMS Endurance (A171) which served the Falklands from 1991 to 2008
Dumbarton Castle: HMS Dumbarton Castle (P265) was a Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel tasked with protection of the offshore assets of the UK including the Falklands between 1982 and 2010
Clyde: HMS Clyde (P257) was another Royal Navy offshore patrol vessel tasked with protection of the offshore assets of the UK between 2006 and 2019 and she replaced the HMS Dumbarton Castle in the Falklands. She spent nearly all of her working life in the Southern Oceans
Barracouta: This HMS Barracouta patrolled the islands in the early nineteenth Century
We headed back to the quay to find that there had been a couple of Commerson's Dolphins around the quay area earlier in the morning. Unfortunately, they had passed through and a good look failed to relocate them. I decided to grab an early zodiac to the Plancius as it would give me a better elevated position to continue my search for some Commerson's Dolphins. This provided a better viewing position, but I was still unsuccessful. Two Night Herons distracted me while I was waiting for a zodiac to the Plancius.
Night Heron: This is the falklandicus subspecies which is endemic to the Falklands
Night Heron: A second individual
South American Sealion: The front two are South American Sealions. I'm uncertain whether the back two are also South American Sealions