23 Apr 2024

18 Jan 23 - The Antarctica Trip - I Will Check The Time On The Hourglass

I covered the Seabirds seen on our first day at sea between the Falklands and South Georgia in the last Blog Post. There had been nothing unexpected on the Seabird front. But just to show that you always have to be on your toes, out of nowhere a pod of four Hourglass Dolphins appeared. Within three minutes, they were gone again. But like other Hourglass Dolphin sightings I've seen in the Southern Oceans, they were superb Dolphins to see.
Hourglass Dolphin: Suddenly, there were Dolphins breaching close to the Plancius
Hourglass Dolphin: With their small size and such a distinctive appearance, then the identification was straight-forward
Hourglass Dolphin: They were repeatedly jumping
Hourglass Dolphin
Hourglass Dolphin: Showing the distinctive hourglass markings
Hourglass Dolphin: The only other black & white Dolphins in range are Dusky Dolphins and Peale's Dolphins, which are larger and have grey and white markings. There is also the much larger Southern Rightwhale Dolphin, but that has a simple black upperparts and white underparts and no dorsal fin. The other potential species is the inshore Commerson's Dolphin, but they have a white body with a broad black head and black from the dorsal fin to the tail
Hourglass Dolphin: They are gorgeous and my favourite Dolphin
Hourglass Dolphin: They were clearly the wildlife highlight of the day
Hourglass Dolphin: This was the final breach I photographed. I watched them again with the bins, but soon we were leaving them behind

25 Mar 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.

20 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 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.

14 Dec 2023

14 Dec 23 - A Photostudy Of A Common Species

I was checking the Waders and Wildfowl from the Brands Bay hide, when three Goldcrests appeared on the Gorse within a metre of the front of the hide. I couldn't resist taking some photos.