30 Dec 2020

30 Dec 20 - 2020 Last Knockings

A couple of days ago, I popped out to St Aldhelms with the telescope. There had been storm force winds 24 hours earlier, albeit as the winds had moved through overnight, it failed to produce much in the way of interesting Seabirds in Dorset. However, there was a large relatively tight feeding group of about 250 Razorbills, with at least 20 Guillemots and a handful of Gannets, Kittiwakes and Mediterranean Gulls offshore. So, clearly there were a lot of fish close inshore to attract them. There had been similar good numbers of the same species off Durlston and Portland recently. I had hoped to return yesterday, but it was a wet start to the morning, so I gave St Aldhelms a miss. However, as this morning was cold and dry with a F2 - F3 SW wind, I was keen to have another visit in the hope the good numbers Auks were still present. I was hoping that a Bonxie might be hanging around, given there have been one or two off Portland Bill recently.

I arrived a bit before 11, but there was no obvious feeding flock off the Head, just a few Gannets and quite a few distant parties of unidentifiable Auks flying past a long way out. I tried scanning with the telescope further out and easily a mile out and South West of the Head, I briefly picked up two fins. It took a couple of minutes before I saw them again, but this view was long enough to confirm they were Dolphins and not Harbour Porpoises. Any sightings of Cetaceans are a real bonus for me as firstly, all Cetaceans are a treat for me and secondly, this is only my third Cetacean sighting from St Aldhelms. I had seen at least fifteen Bottlenose Dolphins back in the late 90s heading East and a Harbour Porpoise feeding a long way out earlier this Autumn.

They were only occasionally surfacing, but they were heading North East and slowly approaching the waters off the Head. Steadily I was picking more individuals up in the pod. I could see the curved fin was long, but narrow based, and they looked to be a small, slim Dolphin. By this time I was up to twelve in the pod. Their size, structure and fin shape had me leaning towards Short-beaked Common Dolphins, rather than the bigger and heavier Bottlenose Dolphins that are the most likely species in Dorset waters off Durlston and Portland. Finally, I saw the first one side on and a good look at the body shape and the pale sides. Most of the time, they were only showing their upper bodies, but every now and then, one broke the surface and it was possible to see the long pale lower body and small beaks. The pod were getting steadily closer and were more compact and I could see there were at least eighteen individuals. By now, they were under a half mile offshore and I was getting a few more views as individuals broke the surface, showed off their pale sides and reconfirmed their smaller size and less bulky bodies.

I popped up to the coastguard viewpoint above where I was watching from, to let one of the volunteers know. He had been chatting to a couple of fishermen who mentioned that had seen them earlier in the morning. After another few minutes of watching them, I decided to have a look around the nearby Quarry Ledge. As I was leaving Quarry Ledge, a large mixed group of Seabirds had gathered about a quarter of a mile offshore, involving about thirty Gannets, a couple of hundred Kittiwakes, forty to fifty Mediterranean Gulls, lots of Herring Gulls and over a hundred Auks: about a half of which were Razorbills with the rest being unidentified, but probably mainly the same. I picked up a couple of the Short-beaked Common Dolphins at the same range and a few hundred metres West, heading for the feeding Seabird party. I had a final look about 12:30 from the coastguards watchpoint as the coastguard volunteer hadn't seen them, but couldn't relocate them. After about ten minutes of looking, I decided it was time to leave.

Not having expected to see much this morning, I hadn't bothered taking the camera with me. So, you will have to make do with one of my old photos.

I've yet to confirm how good a record this is for the Purbeck coastline. It is only my second sighting of Short-beaked Common Dolphin in Dorset: the previous one was a single individual Paul Morton found off Brownsea on 5 Feb 17 and sadly which was found washed up on the island's shoreline a couple of days later. I've checked with Steve Morrison who has spent many springs in the past religiously seawatching from St Aldhelms and more erratically watching in the autumn. It is a species he hadn't seen at St Aldhelms. I've just heard from Tom Brereton that there were forty to fifty Short-beaked Common Dolphins seen off Lyme Regis this evening: so clearly an arrival into Dorset waters.
Common Dolphin:  It would have been nice to have had them give views like this, but they were more interested in feeding rather than enjoying themselves. Northern Bay of Biscay (9 May 18)