13 Jul 2020

8 Jul 20 - Socially Distancing Seawatching

During the coronavirus lockdown, I stayed at home & only left the house for the weekly shop. After the lockdown was easied, I was still not travelling far. Work was keeping me busy during the week and weekends were largely revolved around the house and garden, with a few carefully chosen sites within the Isle of Purbeck, where there was little chance of bumping into people. Sadly, the Spring migration in Dorset was largely over before the lockdown was easied, which also meant I wasn't rushing to get out. The only potential British & Irish Tick was the putative Cayenne Tern in Ireland, but given that would mean breaking lockdown rules in Wales & Ireland, it was never a trip to consider. Clearly, that didn't deter a few self-centred idiots who then tried claiming after the event that they hadn't broken lockdown. Clearly, they had and should have quarantined themselves in Ireland for two weeks on arrival and also the UK on their return. But being self-centred enough to go, they clearly just don't care & just deserve the contempt of the Birding community in my opinion. Not only did these selfish twats break Irish self-quarantine rules, but they also failed to self isolate on their return. They should still have been in isolation, when at least three of the four individuals who were publicly named as having visited Ireland, turned up at Portland Bill.

From early July, there had been a good feeding party of Balearic Shearwaters feeding off Portland Bill. No surprise about that as July and early August is a good time to see Balearic Shearwaters in Dorset waters. However, the numbers had grown to about seventy which is much higher numbers than normal. On the late evening of the 7 Jul, the Portland Bill Obs website posted photos of a putative Yelkouan Shearwater which had been photographed with the Balearic Shearwaters. There have been a number of reported records in recent years, but only one accepted record of one photographed off Berry Head, Devon on 29 Jul 08. Given the Balearic Shearwater flock was sticking around, then there was a reasonable chance that the putative Yelkouan Shearwater would be relocated. But there wasn't anything I could do, due to a busy set of morning phone calls. Everything changed around mid morning, when I had three rapid calls to my landline from my Plymouth mate Pete Aley. We had already discussed options after the initial posting on the Obs website. I was on a works call with my boss so I couldn't answer any of the calls, but I could tell from the Pete's persistence, it must have been refound & confirmed. A quick check on the RBA website confirmed the fact. There was still nothing I could do until early afternoon, but after that I was free for the rest of the day. As the putative Yelkouan Shearwater was still showing, I asked my boss if I could head off for a few hours & I arrived just after 15:00. I quickly found most people were on the ledge by the Pulpit Rock. Everybody was very close & clearly ignoring the two metre rule. Two of the individuals, Steve Gantlett & Steve Webb, who were still supposed to be in quarantine after visiting Ireland were getting well into huddle. But given they broke Irish & UK quarantine rules, it's no surprise to see them in the huddle. Clearly, twitching in their eyes is as valid a reason to break social distancing rules as driving to Durham with coronavirus & then onto Barnard Castle on your wife's birthday.

I certainly wasn't going to join the crowd. I knew Pete was also following the two metre rule and found him away from the main group. I joined him at a safe distance. There were good numbers of Balearic Shearwaters off the Pulpit Rock, sitting on the sea & occasionally getting up to flying around. Pete had arrived about two hours before me, but hadn't had any sightings. It was time to set up by folding seat, scope & start scanning. After an hour, there had been a few shouts from the throng on the main Pulpit ledge, but we were too far away to have any idea if they were reliable sightings or not or to figure out where they might have been looking.

After about an hour, I picked up a smaller Shearwater sitting on the sea in front of a line of Balearic Shearwaters. It looked consistently smaller and slightly paler brown with a long, slim bill. That was all I could see for the several minutes as it bobbed up & down on the choppy water. I tried giving Pete directions, but unfortunately, he failed to get onto it. Then it flew, briefly circled when I could see a shorter tail, trailing legs & heavy wing moult before flying towards me. I quickly lost it in the scope, so switched to the camera & fired away in the right direction. As it wasn't particularly close, it wasn't too hard to point the camera in the right direction. Fortunately, it continued to fly towards me before banking & finally flying out of shot. The photos aren't great, but they do confirm that I had seen the putative Yelkouan Shearwater.
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: This first uncropped photo provides an idea of how far it was: the effective magnification of my 100-400 lens & Canon 7D is about 13 times. It is the small Shearwater image in the foreground. The brown dots behind are the line of Balearic Shearwaters
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: The first of a number of harsh crops with this one being from the previous photo. All the photos were taken in the same sequence & nearly all were consecutive frames. Each looks different to the last & if one photo is seen in isolation, then it's easy to think there might be more than one individual involved. Therefore, it's easy to see how some visitors have claimed that there was more than one individual present, ignoring the misidentifications of Balearic and Manx Shearwaters
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: Note the clean underparts, short tail, collar patch & trailing legs. The trailing legs has been stated as a variable feature & but given it had just taken off, it might not have tucked them in yet
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: Clearly signs of heavy moult on the outer secondaries & inner primaries
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: The wing moult is more apparent & looks very similar to much better photos on the Obs website on 7 Jul, 8 Jul and 9 Jul. But I'm still happy to have some photos of my own
Putative Yelkouan Shearwater: Again showing the wing moult
Soon after this sighting, I suggested to Pete we try & get a bit higher up & ended up climbing onto the rocks above the start of the Pulpit ledge. Pete had already been forced to move one when some unknown Birder had decided to stand close to him. When Pete moved, the guy asked why he had moved & seemed surprised when told why. Clearly, another twat who doesn't seem to have been aware of coronavirus & was also wanting to stand close to others to help him find the right bird. Self-isolating was a lot easier once we had found comfortable positions on the rocks. The next hour resulted in a lot of unsuccessful looking for me & I missed a sighting Pete got onto as it flew close past the Pulpit Rock. Around 17:00, the Balearic Shearwaters all seem to get out & fly about a kilometre or more off out to sea, with only a few finally returning. By 18:10, I started thinking I really needed to head home, given I had a lot of work I needed to do that evening & the Shearwater flock didn't look like it was going to return. I said goodbye to Pete & a few others, before walking a bit closer to the Obelisk to find an easier path up to the top of the slope, another ten metres above where I had been sitting. My mate, Pete Moore, saw me & gave me a shout. I hadn't seen him since the lockdown, so wandered back for a natter with him. He was standing with a few other Dorset locals & it was good to see they were being sensible with their social distancing. I had only been there two or three minutes, when Wyke Regis Birder, Dave Foot announced he had just located it sitting on the sea in a group of about twenty Balearic Shearwaters and a Manx Shearwater. We all got onto the putative Yelkouan Shearwater on the water & then enjoyed a flight view. It was closer than my earlier sighting and the added elevation helped to confirm we were looking at the right individual. As I lost it in the telescope, I picked up the camera and took a lot of shots in the area of the Shearwater flock. Three were good enough to confirm the identification, despite turning out worse than the photos above. It must had taken off again without us seeing it & headed towards the Obelisk. Suddenly, there was a charge past us, from people closer to the Pulpit Rock. We carried on looking from where we were, when two Birders appeared next to us, looked quickly & got very excited when they found it sitting in the Balearic Shearwater flock. They had seen & strung the lone Manx Shearwater in the flock and ignored our quiet comments about it being a Manx Shearwater. This was emphasised by their comments of how distinctive it was. Well the Manx Shearwaters did stand out from the Balearic Shearwaters off the Bill, but despite looking a bit browner due to wear than previous sightings, the Manx Shearwaters were still fairly distinctive (unless you were desperate to claim it & fairly clueless about what you were looking for). It sounds like they were the only people to misidentify the bird during its stay at the Bill. After another ten minutes when we had failed to relocate it & people at the Obelisk we looking in different directions, it was clear it had disappeared & that was a sign I should also leave.

I've only seen Yelkouan Shearwater once before, back in 1986 on a crossing from Turkey to Turkish Cyprus. Clearly, not a species I can consider to be familiar with. Reading up about identification of Yelkouan Shearwaters before heading to Portland & looking at the photos on the Obs website, helped me a lot on the features I should be looking for. Yelkouan Shearwater is an Eastern Mediterranean breeding species which is geographically separated from Balearic Shearwaters which breeds on the Balearic Islands of Mallorca & neighbouring islands. However, what also became clear is identification is clearly complicated by a population of Shearwaters that breed on the Balearic island of Menorca. The excellent Petrels Night and Day by the Sound Approach team, states the Menorcan Shearwater population look like Yelkouan Shearwaters, but DNA studies have indicated that may be a hybrid population. That book was published twelve years ago & it will be very interesting to read the thoughts of Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher in their new Shearwaters, book which should be arriving in the next few days. Whether it will be possible to identify the Portland individual definitively & whether it will be finally get accepted, are still questions for the future. However, it was a nice opportunity to get me to look at the Balearic Shearwaters & clearly it will be an interesting learning experience. Finally, after four months since the start of lockdown, my fuel gauge is showing half full. At this rate I might need to fill the fuel tank up by the end of August.

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