1 Oct 2018

25 Sep 18 - The UK Wildlife Sighting Of The Year

It had been a fairly quiet morning visit to St Aldhelms, an old patch that I'm spending a lot of time at this Autumn following last year's Two-barred Greenish Warbler. There were only a few migrants with singles of Wheatear & Whinchat, along with a scattering of Chiffchaffs & Blackcaps. A lone Golden Plover flew over calling as I was about to leave.
Golden Plover: This Golden Plover flying South was the highlight of a quiet morning at St Aldhelms
I had just got back home & was enjoying a cuppa of tea, whilst adding my sightings to my Birding database. When I finished that, I checked RBA & saw a message of a Beluga Whale in the Thames from Coalhouse Fort on the Essex shoreline: a message that was equally incredible & unlikely. A quick look on twitter found a shaky video of a Beluga Whale surfacing several times. I didn't know the finder, Dave Andrews (@ipterodroma), but he seemed to be a serious Birder & naturalist, rather than a hoaxer. Sadly, there are strange individuals who seem to get a kick out of posting hoaxes e.g. a recent claim of a potential ringtail Harrier in Dorset, with a photo attached of one of the recent claimed Pallid Harriers from Norfolk. Fortunately, I was away at the time & didn't waste time looking for that hoax.
Beluga Whale:A shot of the head & the front half of the body
Anyway, back to the Beluga Whale. By this time, people were already responding to the original tweet. Some comments were genuine & congratulatory or checking directions. But there was also the sort of crap I would have expected from Birdforum querying the identification e.g. it being a hybrid (but no suggestion of what kind of hybrid it was) & also it was an albino Minke Whale. I have no problem with people querying the identification, but if you are going to do that it's better to ensure you know what you are talking about first, in case it dissuades other people who think you know what you are talking about. Although the video was shaky & not close, it could be see blowing briefly as it surfaced: therefore, it was surfacing normally & all the visible body was white. Additionally, there was no visible dorsal fin. The colouration & more importantly the lack of a visible dorsal fin pretty much rules out any of the other North Atlantic Cetaceans. Seeing it blowing mean it wasn't showing a paler underside as it surfaced. The The only other potential Cetacean without a dorsal fin would be a Narwhal, but the colouration was ruling that out. Therefore, it was clearly a Beluga Whale & off Essex. I decided I was going to be leaving soon, but I had time to made some lunch while I was waiting for an update to confirm it was still showing. By the time I had finished my lunch, there had been an update to confirm it was still showing & even better, the directions looked like it would be visible just to the East of Gravesend & from the Kent shoreline. This would knock thirty minutes time of my journey & also reduce the walk once I got there. The only thing left was to phone a couple of mates who might also be interested in looking for it. They weren't interested in heading off. One was Marcus Lawson, who knew the finder & added the final confirmation that he was a sound observer. It was time to head off to Kent about thirty minutes after seeing the initial messages. It was a straight-forward journey, although the Sat Nat failed me & reported I was there despite being in the wrong location. A quick check on the mobile gave me another road to try & that time the Sat Nat got the right location. Fortunately, it was only a 1/4 mile walk along the riverbank before I reached the first group of observers.
Beluga Whale: A slightly better view of the front half of the body
Within about five minutes, it surfaced, blew briefly & dipped down again. After resurfacing a few times, it dived deeper & was gone for another five minutes. These seemed to be the pattern of it surfacing every five minutes or so, with around five or six brief appearances, before diving deeply again. It probably didn't move about twenty or thirty metres from where I first saw it over the next two hours. It was diving frequently & hopefully it was finding food during its dives. Apparently, it had been on the Kent side of the river about an hour earlier, but was now appearing on the Essex side of the deep-water channel. Therefore, it was probably 3/4 of the way across the river. There wasn't anything I could do about that. It would have been a slow journey back to the Dartford river crossing & back East to the far bank & a longer walk. Given the traffic it would have been well over an hour before I was on the opposite shoreline. While it would have been closer, the light would also have been a lot worse by the time I got there. Given my dislike for Essex having been born & brought up in Kent, then I wasn't heading to the wrong side of the river.
Beluga Whale: Again, no view of any dorsal fin & when properly exposed the colouration appeared pale greyish white, rather than white: which would suggest it was an immature Beluga Whale
There have been just under twenty previous records in the UK with the most recent sighting being a few years ago of two off the North East English coast. This is the most Southerly UK record. At the time of writing this Post on 1 Oct 18, the Beluga Whale has been present in the same area of the River Thames for a week & still appears to be feeding OK. Looking at the Marine Mammals of the World Edition II, Beluga Whales have a varied diet of Fish, Squid, Octopus, Shrimps & Crabs. They often occur in estuaries when the water depth can be only a few metres deep, although they also can dive up to 300 metres deep. If it is able to find enough food, then it might be able to survive for some time in the River Thames, but it is worrying that it is feeding in a busy deep-water channel. In the two hours I was there, two large ships passed close to where it was feeding. I can't believe that noise will be good for it.
Beluga Whale: There was no sign of a dorsal fin, thus ruling out all the other potential Cetacean species in the North Atlantic, other than a female Narwhal which can be ruled out on colouration & size
This surprise Cetacean is my 40th species seen, out of a total of 90 species. It is my 30th species that I have seen this year. I really can't see how any Bird turning up in the UK will top this Beluga Whale, unless it self-found Pallas's Sandgrouse at St Aldhelms late this autumn. I had been thinking of signing up to rejoin the Plancius for a trip to Spitsbergen this Summer, but decided against it on cost grounds & to allow me the time to investigation the best time of year for a trip. Beluga Whales would have been one of the targets for that trip. I will still be going to Spitsbergen at some point in the future as it does look to be a great trip.

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