28 May 2018

28 May 18 - Bank Holiday Clubbing

Around the Bank Holiday weekend, my thoughts turned to looking at the weather for suitable sunny conditions to have another attempt to see Club-tailed Dragonflies. I had looked in June 2014 at the Goring-on-Thames site, but had been unsuccessful. I've tried to find another date in subsequent years to head back, but I've not been able to find good looking conditions on a free weekend. So I was interested when I saw one of the Dorset Birders had successfully seen Club-tailed Dragonflies at a site in Sussex on the Bank Holiday Sunday. A quick chat on social media & I had some directions. The weather looked good on the Bank Holiday Monday, so I left early hoping the traffic would be light: fortunately, it was. I arrived just before 11 & the weather forecast was spot on: sunny & still conditions. First problem was having to get past a number of young, inquisitive cattle on the riverbank. About ten minutes later, I saw my first Club-tailed Dragonfly, but it quickly disappeared out of view. Five minutes later, the next was happy to sit around for photos.
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. Club-tailed Dragonflies are initially tricky to see once the adults hatch as the teneral phase quickly head off to nearby treetops to mature
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. After a couple of weeks in the treetops, the mature adults return to the riverbank to mate
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. They range from Sussex to the Thames in Oxfordshire & across to the Severn on clean, slow-moving rivers
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. This one landed on the grass by the riverbank for a few minutes, before returning to patrolling the river
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. A couple of the males were patrolling the river over a 50 metre stretch
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. I didn't see any females so perhaps they were still to return to the river
Club-tailed Dragonfly: Male. The males were sitting around close to the river to look for the females as they returned from the treetops
There were also large numbers of Banded Demoiselles & smaller numbers of Large Red Damselflies along the river bank.
Banded Demoiselle: Male. They were very common along the riverbank, but I only took a few photos of them as I've taken a lot of photos in previous years
Banded Demoiselle: Male. They are even more stunning when seen close up
Banded Demoiselle: Female
Banded Demoiselle: Female
Banded Demoiselle: Males. I really like this photo
Large Red Damselfly
I also saw a Shieldbug which I wasn't sure which one it was at the time, but it looked familiar. But the beauty of having a decent camera meant I could photograph it & work it out later, when I had the book handy.
Coreus marginatus: This widespread Shieldbug occurs as an adult from August to July & prefers dense vegetation along hedgerows, wasteland & damper areas. I was right, I had seen it before
Coreus marginatus: I saw several without any real searching
I also saw this presumed pair of Beetles, which I've not managed to identifying yet.
Beetle sp.: Any thoughts about the identification?

11 May 2018

11 May 18 - West African Pelagic - Day Eleven: Cruising In The English Channel (The Final Post)

This Blog Post covers the end of the West African Pelagic. We had enjoyed a successful day in the Southern Bay of Biscay with a Fin Whale, Short-beaked Common Dolphin & Seabirds, as well as, a great encounter with some Long-finned Pilot Whales. The day had started with flat calm seas & still conditions. As the day progressed, it had become steadily choppier as we ran into the front that was heading for the central part of the Bay of Biscay. The seas continued to increase during the evening, but for the passengers who had come up from Ushuaia it wasn't as bad as we had encountered in the Southern oceans. However, some of the passengers who joined at Cape Verde were less comfortable. By the following morning, we were in the Northern part of the Bay of Biscay. The seas were still lively & the bows were closed for most of the day. However, the rest of the decks were still open to passengers, so it still wasn't that bad. I've travelled through the Northern part of the Bay of Biscay on several occasions on ferries from Portsmouth to Bilboa & had an idea of what would be seen during the day. It is beyond the likely range of most interesting Seabirds i.e. the ones that breed around the Canaries & Madeira, especially in May. It is an excellent area for seeing Dolphins: but these would be Short-beaked Common Dolphins, Striped Dolphins & Bottlenose Dolphins (in that order). As we were now out of the deepest parts of the Bay of Biscay, we had a lower chance of seeing some of the more interesting Whales & Beaked Whales, which occur in the Southern part of the Bay of Biscay. Therefore, with the expectation of nothing new from the decks & the choppier seas making it unlikely to see many Cetaceans, then it was a day of mainly sorting photos from the trip. Bob Flood was interested in copies of my photos of the Zino's Petrels & a number of the Storm-petrel photos from the Atlantic Odyssey. I had only installed a copy of Adobe Lightroom a few days before joining the Plancius & so I was still trying to get used to it. Having edited all the photos from the Plancius, it would only take me a few hours to sort all these photos for Bob. However, it took me most of the day to sort the photos, plus the time I had spent off Northern Portugal. I wasn't missing anything, as reports from those on deck were confirming the only Seabirds that were being seen were species I could see off my local Dorset coastline. There was the occasional Short-beaked Common Dolphin sighting, but they were few & far between and not being seen well in the choppy seas & 20 knot winds. By the following morning, the photos had been sorted, the winds & sea had moderated & we were sailing steadily up the English Channel. By late afternoon, the seas were flat calm.
There was a large number of ships constantly passing in both directions: Boulogne-sur-mer is in the background
The seas were very busy: especially as we had been used to one or two fishing boats a week
A fair bit of the day was spent enjoying the cruise up the English Channel. There were few Seabirds to watch & the ones we did see were easy to identify.
Gannet: These are a common sight off the Dorset coast, although the nearest breeding colony is on Alderney
Fulmar: When the most exciting Seabird is a Fulmar which breeds on my local Studland & St Aldhelms patches, then you know you are close to home
Kittiwake: Another local breeding species in low numbers
Floating Seaweed: We saw a few small patches
Many people were on deck enjoying the views & just chatting. By now I had made a number of friends with the new Dutch passengers, as well as, the friends who had travelled all the way up from Ushuaia. Unfortunately, it was hazy which combined with the distance, reduced the quality of the coastal photos. We were several miles at least off the French coast & probably around fifteen miles or more off the English coast.
Dungeness: The power station & lighthouse were miles away in the distance, but easily visible for migrants on a good day
Boulogne-sur-mer: It was a hazy day
The Cap Gris-Nez Lighthouse: At 21 miles away, the Grey Nose headland is the closest point of France to the UK
The French equivalent of our Border Force off Cap Gris-Nez
The clear wildlife highlight of the day was a couple of Harbour Porpoises: my twenty sixth & final Cetacean on the Plancius (until I return for another trip). Unfortunately, both were short sightings. Despite the perfect flat seas & I only managed to get one worthwhile photo.
Harbour Porpoise: One day I will manage to get a good Harbour Porpoise photo
Earlier in the day, I had packed & sorted my bags for my departure the following morning as I needed to be off the Plancius as soon as possible. By early evening, we all headed down to the Observation lounge for a final wash up for the trip & to hear the plans for our arrival into the Dutch port of Vlissingen the following morning. This is the home port for Oceanwide Expeditions who own both the Plancius & Ortelius, which we had last seen in Ushuaia. Everybody was happy that evening as there were a few free drinks with the meal. I hadn't been ready to get off in Cape Verde, but now finally felt like the right time.
The final supper: (left to right) Roy, Lorraine, Hadie, Neil, Ian, Mike, me & Henrik
The following morning, I packed the last few items in the bags at first light & headed up on deck. Vlissengen is on the North bank of the River Scheldt river which continues to Antwerp.
Entering the channel leading to Vlissingen: We must be here will all these modern Dutch windmills
I had been told by Wildwings to expect we would be docking & able to disembark around 09:00. We were now being told by Inezia that while they were expecting us to be docking by 09:00, the likelihood was that passengers would not start disembarking until 10:00 or 10:30. The first passengers allowed off the Plancius would be passengers who were going to be dropped by coach at Vlissingen station. The coaches would then be returning to collect the remaining passengers who wanted to go to Schiphol airport. By the time, everybody had got off the ship, found their bags & got loaded onto the coaches, it was clear that it would be close to lunchtime before the coaches were finally leaving Vlissingen for Schiphol (about three hours away by road or rail). This was far too late for me, given I had taken the times I was given by Wildwings as accurate & had a mid-afternoon flight booked for Southampton. I had the tightest flight of any of the passengers. As a result, Pieter, the Inezia coordinator, had arranged with the Plancius, that my passport would be checked first by Dutch customs. Once checked, he would escort me to the dock gate where a taxi would be waiting to take me to the station. The taxi got me to the station with perfect timing: the twice hourly train to Schiphol & Amsterdam was just pulling in as I got on the platform. By the time the coaches were finally leaving Vlissingen for Schiphol, I was checking in for my flight, with enough time for some lunch. The taxi had cost me a bit more money, but it was much cheaper than the costs to rebook a missed flight (if that had been possible). Just over an hour after we took off, we were landing in Southampton airport. It was a short walk to the station & a short wait, before the train to Wareham arrived. A final taxi ride & I was home after six & a half weeks of travelling from Ushuaia. A number of my mates were still at Schiphol waiting for their flights when I was drinking for first English cuppa for three months. The end of one of the most amazing trips I've been on since my first foreign trip in 1983.

9 May 2018

9 May 18 - West African Pelagic - Day Nine: Long-finned Pilot Whales In Biscay

During our time in the South Western corner of the Bay of Biscay on the West African Pelagic, we had had some early morning views of a Fin Whale, as well as, some nice encounters with Short-beaked Common Dolphins & feeding Seabirds. In addition to these Cetaceans, we encountered a small pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales after breakfast which we passed fairly quickly. However, it was good to see them, as it was the twenty fifth Cetacean that I had seen since boarding the Plancius six weeks earlier in Ushuaia.
Long-finned Pilot Whale: There is a male at the front & a female behind
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male
Just after lunch, we bumped into a larger, more extended pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales. The Expedition staff & Captain agreed to turn the Plancius around & slowly approach them as they were hanging around on the surface. As we had found on a number of occasions during the Atlantic Odyssey & the West African Pelagic, the Plancius is a great ship to allow a slow & careful approach to Cetaceans on the surface without causing them to want to disappear. The combination of the quietness of the Plancius & the expertise of the Captain & crew really helped us to have another enjoyable Cetacean experience. I have seen Long-finned Pilot Whales on a number of occasions from ferries in the Bay of Biscay, but the ferry was always sailing to a timetable & didn't allow the close views we experienced from the Plancius.
Long-finned Pilot Whale: This is just five of the twenty five or so individuals in this extended pod
Long-finned Pilot Whale: This male went through a close dive for the cameras
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male. They are hard to separate from Short-finned Pilot Whales in areas where they might overlap. In the North Atlantic, the Canaries & Madeira are around the Northern Limit for Short-finned Pilots Whales & from the Bay of Biscay & further North, then Long-finned Pilot Whales are the expected species. Any Pilot Whales seen off Portugal, Southern Spain & North Africa would need more care to identify the particular species
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male
Long-finned Pilot Whale: Male. A final wave of the flippers & he has gone
Long-finned Pilot Whale: This spyhopping individual gives a great view of the melon, beak & relatively small eye considering the head size
Identification of the two Pilot Whale species is difficult as the fins that are long or short are the flippers which on the underside of the body. This is only really possible to see on beached individuals or very rarely on exceptional views in clear water.
Short-finned Pilot Whale: I was lucky to get this photo of the shorter flippers on this Short-finned Pilot Whale. This photo shows the right-hand flipper which is shorter in length than the overall length of the dorsal fin. Long-finned Pilot Whales have a flipper length that is similar to the overall dorsal fin length (At sea between Ascension Island and Cape Verde 28 Apr 18)

9 May 18 - West African Pelagic - Day Nine: Feeding Frenzy In Biscay

After my lazy day the previous day, I was on deck at first light & enjoying the sunrise in the Southern part of the Bay of Biscay. It was flat calm & still conditions: perfect for Cetaceans. I was scanning hard in the outside hope of a Pygmy Sperm Whale or another Dwarf Sperm Whale, given the perfect conditions: but it was too long a shot. Still it was a great few hours on deck enjoying the unusually flat in the Bay of Biscay.
Sunrise over Spanish Biscay
It's fairly rare to see the Bay of Biscay like this
The plan for the day was we would sail North East from the South Western corner of the Bay of Biscay, before turning North. I do not have a copy of the route, but I suspect we were still to the West of the route that the Santander ferries take from the UK. Although the forecast at first light was for still conditions, we knew the seas would be getting significantly choppier during the day, as there was a front forecast for later in the day. Before breakfast, we encountered a Fin Whale & our first pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins.
Fin Whale: Initially, all we saw was a large back
Fin Whale: When it resurfaced, it was possible to see the dorsal fin shape to confirm the identification
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: A small pod put on a close display. It is a pity the early morning light was really harsh
Short-beaked Common Dolphins
By late morning or early afternoon, we had left Spanish waters & entered French waters: another country visited, even if we didn't set foot on land. By this time, the seas were choppier, but it wasn't too bad on deck. We spotted a couple of feeding parties of Short-beaked Common Dolphins during the afternoon & changed course a bit to get closer before stopping. As often happens at Dolphin feeding frenzies in the Bay of Biscay, we first picked the feeding party up by spotting diving Gannets and as we got closer, we found good numbers of Manx Shearwaters, as well as, ones or twos of Sooty Shearwaters, Fulmars, Storm-petrels, Puffins, Arctic Skuas, Lesser Black-backed Terns, Kittiwakes & Arctic Terns.
A Gannet & 2 Manx Shearwaters look on as a Short-beaked Common Dolphin dives underwater
Gannet, Manx Shearwater & Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
Short-beaked Common Dolphin
There were a good selection of Seabirds in the feeding frenzy.
Manx Shearwater
Manx Shearwater
Gannet: Adult. There were at least eighty in the feeding frenzy
Puffin: Immature. This distant immature Puffin was one of two I saw in the Dolphin & Seabird frenzy
Lesser Black-backed Gull: There was a lone in the frenzy
Kittiwake: Adult. My first Kittiwake from the Plancius
Arctic Tern: We had seen them regularly on the Plancius from St Helena onwards. However, this was the first individual I had seen close enough to photograph