20 Jul 2018

17 Apr 18 - Atlantic Odyssey - Day Nineteen: At Sea From Tristan Da Cunha To St Helena - Short-finned Pilot Whales

There was one final highlight of the last day before we reached St Helena: a late morning sighting of our first Short-finned Pilot Whales for the Odyssey. As generally happened when we saw either Pilot Whale species, we first saw our them well ahead of the Plancius. Consequently, there was plenty of time to announce to the passengers that the Plancius was going to stop for around 30 minutes to allow everybody to see & enjoy them. The great things about both species of Pilot Whales is they usually feed in extended parties & they spend good periods of time on the surface. Additionally, they were not spooked by the Plancius & if the ship was stopped, it could then slowly manoeuvre close to the Pilot Whales to allow us good views without causing them concern. The amount of time they were happy to spend close to the Plancius made me confident that this slow approach wasn't worrying them.
Short-finned Pilot Whale: A typical initial view
Short-finned Pilot Whale: The long, low, curved-backed dorsal fin looks good for a male Short-finned Pilot Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale: Seeing this distinctive dorsal fin shape of the male on the left, confirms you are looking at a Pilot Whale & based upon range this will be a Short-finned Pilot Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale: This male is blowing, but the blow isn't something that is easy to see
Once we had stopped the Captain & bridge crew were able to slowly manoeuvre the Plancius closer to the Short-finned Pilot Whales. They were not worried by the slow & careful approach by the Plancius. She was originally a Dutch scientific ship & was build with a special 'submarine hunting' screw & with the engines mounted on rubber blocks to reduce vibrations. All this meant she is a very quiet ship for her size. This allowed us to enjoy some nice close views.
Short-finned Pilot Whale: A male blowing
Short-finned Pilot Whale: The large melon is clearly visible now the blow is over
Short-finned Pilot Whale: This is the same male as in the previous two photos. Note, how the dorsal fin profile appears to change as they dive
Short-finned Pilot Whale: The dorsal fin shape looks different now that there is a lot of the rear body visible. While it is obvious in this photo, if this individual was seen at in the distance then it wouldn't be an obvious male
Short-finned Pilot Whale: That is a tight dive
Short-finned Pilot Whale: That's about all it showed of its flat tail flippers
Short-finned Pilot Whale: A final view of the tail flipper before it disappeared
Short-finned Pilot Whale: Short-finned Pilot Whales are best told from the similar looking Long-finned Pilot Whales on range. It is not possible to identify them on the fin length as the fins in question are the flippers which are on the underside of the body. This is only really possible to see on beached individuals
Short-finned Pilot Whale: Short-finned Pilot Whales occur in all Tropical oceans from Australia, South Africa & Northern Argentina at the Southern extremity to Japan, California, most of Eastern US coast to the Morocco. In comparison, Long-finned Pilot Whales occur in the more temperate Southern oceans from Australia to Cape Horn & the seas South of South Africa. Additionally, the occur in the Atlantic from the Northern parts of America & Europe as far North as Iceland & Greenland. There is an overlap in part of the range between the two species
Short-finned Pilot Whale: This is a distinctively notched individual (in the foreground)
A final few photos to enjoy. 
Short-finned Pilot Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale
Short-finned Pilot Whale: This is a little bit of scarring on the body behind the dorsal fin
Short-finned Pilot Whale: A close up of the scarring
Short-finned Pilot Whale: After a magical half hour with these Short-finned Pilot Whales, we finally had to get on our way
We didn't have any Faroese or Icelandic residents aboard & thus we had no evil intentions to these gorgeous Short-finned Pilot Whales. It is really hard to believe that the Faroese islanders think it is acceptable to round up family groups of the equally approachable Long-finned Pilot Whales & butcher them in the shallows of the island. This summer Iceland has recently resumed Whaling & have killed over 20 Fin Whales so far with plans for to kill around another 180. They have also killed a critically endangered & internationally protected Blue Whale & when found out, have lied by trying to pretend it is a hybrid Fin/Blue Whale (as if that would make it acceptable). A number of acknowledged Whale experts have confirmed it was a Blue Whale that was killed as conservationists from Sea Shephard & other wildlife groups have been monitoring the Whales that have been killed. I would ask all readers of this Blog to condemn the actions of the Faroese islanders & Iceland & join me in boycotting both the Faroes Islands and Iceland, by refusing to visit either island while they are still continuing to kill Whales. Also please refuse to buy any fish or other produces they sell. Finally, please let the tourist boards & governments know of your decisions. The more they realise the affects on their tourist trade & boycotts of their products, then the more chance there is of stopping this vile & pointless murder of Whales.The Faroes Tourist board can be contacted on twitter @visitfaroe. Iceland's Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, can be contacted on twitter @katrinjak. Thank you.

19 Jul 2018

6 July 18 - Grassholm Gannets

The main Bird interest on the Cetacean pelagic from St David's Head was the time spent at Grassholm Island. Grassholm is one of the RSPB's oldest nature reserves & lies about eight miles off St David's Head. After about 45 minutes of a fairly fast, bouncy ride after leaving the Short-beaked Common Dolphins off Ramsey Island, we got close to Grassholm.
Grassholm: Just a small part of the Gannet colony
Gannets: The airspace above the colony was packed with Gannets
Gannet: The Gannets were densely packed
Gannet: There were a few juveniles visible within the colony
Gannet: Adults & juvenile showing the weedy nest they build. Unfortunately, I can also see orange fishing line has been used in a nest in another photo
Gannet: They are really cute close up
The rib's crew said that Grassholm used to be home for large numbers of Puffins many years ago, but loss of the soil on the island, caused the Puffins to desert Grassholm. However, the population of Gannets benefitted from this soil loss. This makes Grassholm the third most important Gannet breeding Island in the UK: Bass Rock has 75,000 pairs, St Kilda has 60,000 pairs and Grassholm has 39,000 pairs. Bonaventure Island, off the Quebec coast is another major colony with 60,000 pairs.
Gannet: We had hundreds of Gannets overhead & had been advised to put our hats on to avoid any crapping Gannets
There were a few other Seabirds around Grassholm, although it was nearly a pure Gannet colony.
Guillemots: There were a few Guillemots among the Gannets & more on breeding ledges
Kittiwake: There were a few pairs breeding on the rocky cliffs
Herring Gull: Adult
Grey Seal: There were a few inquisitive Grey Seals in the seas around Grasholm
Great Seal: Showing the long 'Roman nose' profile
A great day out at Grassholm, although we could have done with longer there.

18 Jul 2018

17 Jul 18 - A Studland Patch First

On 16 Jul 18 I decided to pop down to Littlesea on my Studland patch for the first Little Egret roost count of the Autumn. Part of the hope was that I would also find a Great White Egret as there has been one, & occasionally two, Great White Egrets regularly around the Studland patch in the Autumn & Winter since one appeared in Sep 2014. It was a fairly quiet night with 42 Little Egrets in the roost & most were in before I arrived. At 21:30, I decided it didn't look likely that a Great White Egret would appear & so I packed up to leave. As I was walking off, I spotted another Heron coming into the roost. I stopped to check it, although I knew it would be a Grey Heron, but it looked like a Purple Heron. I only had a short view in the failing light, but enough to be happy with the identification, but not to be able to write a description on that view. It landed in the trees, but out of sight. I quickly walked back up the hill to my viewing point & fortunately, it was still there, but not close. The tripod was unpacked & bingo, it was a Purple Heron. At this point, it flew & I lost it, due as it flew behind a tree I was standing next too. I quickly returned to the high hide as that had a much clearer viewing position. I carried on scanning whilst phoning local Poole Harbour Birders. Realistically, only one had much of a chance to get there before dark from his home, but it was academic as he didn't answer his phone. Still the news was out locally so people had the chance of a pre-work visit the following morning. While I was on the phone to Paul Morton, from the Birds of Poole Harbour team, it flew back towards the roost. I cut the call to get more views as it circled the roost a few times before disappearing into the Southern most bay in Littlesea. I stayed till last light, but I had no more sightings. This was a third record for the Poole Harbour area & a Studland first.
Black-tailed Skimmer: Female
The following morning I spent a couple of hours looking around the Studland area checking South Haven, Littlesea & Brands Bay, but I drew a blank. I didn't check all the possible places as I skipped the Eastern Lake. Too close to the nudists beach to want to carry bins & a decent camera at this time of year. Annoying, as this is the most likely place it would be feeding in, if it was still around. Paul has already had the same result at Littlesea earlier in the morning. I assumed it had probably moved through. But to be sure I decided to pop down to check the roost for a second night. I arrived earlier & there were only a few Little Egrets in the roost. Checking them, one was tucked well in & only showing small parts of its bill at any time. A pale-yellow bill & looked far too thick-based to be a Little Egret. But it really was a struggle to see it clearly. At this point, Graham Armstrong arrived & I tried getting Graham onto it. Before he saw it, it had flown deeper into the trees & was only showing parts of its back. Fortunately, it flew again & sat in the open. Clearly, a juvenile Cattle Egret. This is only the fifth Studland record. I was happy as this was the second good Heron on the patch in 24 hours. The obvious question is, where is this Cattle Egret feeding during the day?
Cattle Egret (with a Little Egret to its right): Only the fifth Studland patch record
We were just admiring the Cattle Egret through our scopes, when the Purple Heron flew in. It circled briefly before landing in the treetops. Frustratingly, I hadn't set the camera up that evening & so all the flight photos were blurred as the camera was still set up from the morning.
Purple Heron: Juvenile. Surprisingly, this photo wasn't too bad given the poor camera settings
I bumped the ISO setting up (probably too high), but at least I would get something it the Purple Heron flew around again.
Purple Heron: Juvenile. It sat in the tree tops for around ten minutes while I was ringing locals as there was enough light to allow people to belt down if they wanted
Purple Heron: Juvenile. After ten minutes it flew again & dropped out of sight into the marsh in Littlesea
Purple Heron: Juvenile
Purple Heron: Juvenile. It stayed hidden out of view in the marsh, until it finally flew into the roost at 21:32 (the same time as the previous evening)
If anybody is looking for it this evening, please only view from the high hide. This can be reached by parking on the road at the entrance to Greenlands Farm. Cross the road & walk East up the obvious path up the small hillside. Follow this through a gully to the hide. It's best to stand in front of the hide, rather than look from this old hide. Please do not try getting closer to the Little Egrets as you are likely to disturb the roost & due to trees, you are unlikely to get a decent view anyway. Also keep off the heaths as there there are nearby Nightjar territories. Any time after 20:00 would be worth a look. But we still don't know where it is spending its time during the day, so there is a chance of seeing it during the day.

17 Jul 2018

6 July 18 - Welsh Cetaceans

After seeing the Pied Crow at St David's Head, I quickly sorted out a place on a rib out to Grassholm & the Smalls Lighthouse looking for Cetaceans, Grey Seals & Seabirds with Voyages of Discovery. It wasn't cheap at £60 for 2.5 hours, but it was a good trip. Another 30 minutes would have made it a bit less rushed. I parked the car in a car park in St David's & caught the minibus down to the lifeboat station. There is a small car park at the lifeboat station, but it had been full when I had a wider look for the Pied Crow on the headland & it was still full when the minibus dropped me off. Therefore, taking the minibus from St David's was the right decision.
Ramsey Island: Ramsey Island was the site of the UK's first Indigo Bunting. After the Wells individual was rejected as an escape, I didn't get too excited about the Ramsey Indigo Bunting in 1996. I should have shown a bit more interest
Ruined chapel: In the grounds of a private house by the lifeboat stations
The old lifeboat station
The new lifeboat station
The old lifeboat station
The new lifeboat station which houses the new Tamar class, Norah Wortley lifeboat
The Norah Wortley Lifeboat
The Voyages of Discovery ribs are study vessels
Another photo of the rib before we got to board it
It was a hot, sunny day & I was about the best prepared of the ten or so of us on the boat as I had my windproof Rohan jacket. Several of the others were surprised when we were given heavy jackets to wear & were told we had put them on once on the boat. They clearly didn't appreciate it would be cold at sea. Good to see we were also issued with life jackets. After the safety briefings, we set off. We had been told that if we saw any Cetaceans to raise a hand whilst pointing them out with the other hand. It took me about ten minutes before I picked up the first pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins which were closer inshore than they were normally seen. All my time Cetacean watching on the Plancius had clearly paid off.
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: The initial views with the mainland in the background
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: They briefly came close, but were feeding & as they didn't seem to want to play, we left soon afterwards
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: Another close pass
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: Individual Dolphins can be told by markings & nicks in their dorsal fin, so this nick in the rear of the dorsal fin will probably make this individual easy to identify
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: a different individual
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: The black V is diagnostic of Short-beaked Common Dolphin (apart from Long-beaked Common Dolphins which do not occur anywhere close to UK waters)
Puffin: I saw quite good numbers on the crossing, but the rib was too bouncy to stand a chance of any photos. This photo was snatched when we stopped to look for the Short-beaked Common Dolphins. There were few Puffins around Grassholm as the island is bare & there is no suitable breeding habitat for them to burrow into. They do breed on Ramsey Island
Moon Jellyfish: It is easy to see how marine animals mistake plastic bags & balloons for Jellyfish
Thousand Islands Rib: There was also a rib from Thousand Islands which only seemed to be on an inshore route as we didn't see them out by Grassholm. I'm glad I didn't go out with them given the subtle coloured jackets & apparent lack of life jackets
Due to the time spent with the Short-beaked Common Dolphins & at Grassholm, we never made it as far as the Smalls Lighthouse. The Smalls Lighthouse is infamous in lighthouse history. In 1801, a two man crew, Thomas Howell & Thomas Griffith, were sent out to man the original lighthouse. Neither man got on with the other. When Griffith died in a freak accident, Howell placed the body in a makeshift wooden coffin & attached it to the outside of the lighthouse to ensure that he was not charged with murder when he was finally relieved. The bad weather partially broke the coffin & resulted in the dead man's arm waving around & banging against the window for weeks. When Howell was finally relieved, although he had kept the light running, his friends found he had gone mad. After that date Trinity House changed their rules & only sent teams of three to man the lighthouses.
The Smalls Lighthouse: The lighthouse is approximately 20 miles offshore & eight miles West of Grassholm. It was erected in 1861 to replace the original wooden lighthouse build in 1776
The South Bishop Lighthouse: This is one of the lighthouses that mark out Ramsey Island & the St David's Head coastline
As we got close to Ramsey Island, the boatman slowed the rib & pointed out a couple of Harbour Porpoise feeding in a patch of choppy water between Ramsey Island & the mainland. I had a few nice, close views, but failed to get any photos. We didn't linger too long as we were running a little bit late & the boatman said the Harbour Porpoises don't appreciate the close approach of the ribs.