At long last our weather has broken with several days of westerly winds and a couple of weak fronts which- as predicted- have brought the wildlife back within sight of land! More reassuring- but harder to explain- has been the return to St Clements of our local Grey Seals – though “Sammy”/”Silverback” was not on his usual “sofa” (low rock) today we saw 3 females, 3 of last years pups and a young bull, and even “Nervous Nigel” (a young male) was on the Greeb where he spent most of last summer! Seabirds have been inshore in good numbers though the weather meant we had to watch from headlands; Wilson’s Petrels off Porthgwarra and Black Head, Storm Petrels, Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters, Skuas and good numbers of Manx Shearwaters and Puffins- the last 2 making it into the bay with 1,400 and 9 respectively passing Mousehole on Sunday evening. Today’s highlights included Sandwich Terns, a few Manx, the seals mentioned above, and, best of all 10-12 Risso’s Dolphins feeding off Penlee. These dolphins have highly variable pale scarring which makes many individuals easily identifiable so it was nice to see that at least 3 (females?) were animals we have seen in the last 2 years and which calved in the area in 2016. In fact all of the dolphins today appeared to be presumed females with 1-2 year old young!
Our first trips of 2018 had unusually calm weather. There were good numbers of Razorbills and Guillemots, plenty of Grey Seals on St Clement’s Island (including at least 15 pups from last year), a young Glaucous Gull, a single Manx Shearwater, the “mixed-up” male Eider, relatively few Gannets, Kittiwakes and Fulmars, and 2-4 small pods of Harbour Porpoise. The highlight (for me at least!) however, was the long-staying/returning Pacific Diver we saw resting with 3 Great Northern Divers about a mile offshore. It was seen briefly as we came in from the fishing trip, but obligingly remained in roughly the same area when we returned on the cruise. As the name suggests this species should only occur in the Pacific, but in the last 10-12 years there have been several Atlantic records – mostly around the UK – presumably taking advantage of retreating Arctic sea-ice. This particular bird has been returning to Mount’s Bay for years but can be very elusive, either due to conditions or it’s habit of feeding miles offshore on shoaling bait-fish. It is usually wary of boats, and is frequently misidentified due to it’s similarity to the commoner Black-throated Divers that also winter here. A good start to the new season!
The weekend’s wildlife highlights were; Minke whale, many Common Dolphin and 20++ Harbour Porpoise mostly feeding a mile or so offshore with an attendant “frenzy” of seabirds! Oddly this frenzy is mostly Shearwaters – over 2000 Manx, up to 100 Great (counted from Gwennap Head), c.200 Cory’s , 50++ Sooty, and increasing numbers of Balearic Shearwaters – 5 from our Minack trip on Sunday evening. There are relatively few Gannets associating with this frenzy which implies the birds are feeding on small prey such as sand-eel or fry, fine for the Minke Whales but unusual for dolphins. A few presumed Blue-fin Tuna have been feeding in the same area and, although still not numerous, Ocean Sunfish are increasing again with 4 on Sunday.
Seabird numbers continue to be impressive! Out of the totals mentioned above we have managed to see 3 Cory’s, 2 Great, 5 Sooty, and 5 Balearic Shearwaters amongst the 100s of Manx on the Minack trip, a few Storm Petrels are still appearing well inshore and we saw over 20 following a returning “day-boat” on our 3pm cruise. Although not many are off towards Land’s End 100s of Gannets are still in the Bay area though lately further east off the Lizard. Auk numbers have dropped sharply as the adults are now taking newly fledged young to safety offshore. Skuas are still scarce with only a couple of Bonxies (Great Skua) harassing the shearwater flocks, and although a few Sandwich Terns and Kittiwakes are in the bay there has been little movement so far. Great Northern Divers and the mad/sad Eider drake are still with us, and small flocks of Common Scoter are still passing with over 30 this weekend. A couple of Yellow-legged Gulls are still arriving , but since the strong westerlies have set in there have been fewer Mediterranean gulls.
The Grey Seals are slowly building in numbers on St Clement’s Island again, but we still see too many kayakers getting too close and disturbing them- 2 people even had to be taken off the island by the lifeboat apparently! Wader numbers are already building with Curlew, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Dunlin, an early Purple Sandpiper and Common Sandpipers all roosting on the island so this disturbance is even less welcome!
All in all it has been excellent for so early in the season and we even had a report of a Basking Shark from one lucky observer on the 1pm fishing trip! So even though the weather isn’t exactly scorching, the marine wildlife is certainly heating up!
Spring continues to be a bit of a mixed-bag in the Bay. We have had worse weather lately than we saw for much of the winter and sea temperatures are lower than this time last year. As a result we have not managed to get out as much as we’d like and there are major differences in what we are managing to find! The lack of jellyfish and sunfish is presumably due to the colder water and less extensive plankton blooms, but on the upside we have seen several Basking Sharks – probably for the same reason- which is a vast improvement on the last two years. Common Dolphins have remained offshore, now in smaller pods, and the less predictable group of Bottlenosed Dolphins have put in welcome performances off the Mount in the eel-grass, hunting cuttlefish. Risso’s Dolphins haven’t done that this May, and Porpoise have only been further west out of the bay. It is tempting to think the latter may be avoiding the Bottlenoses , but choppy weather always makes Porpoises harder to see.
Sea-birds have been more predictable with the usual resident Fulmars, non-breeding Gannets, auks and Manx Shearwaters regularly feeding in the Bay, though we have yet to see Storm Petrel. Puffins have been scarce. Recent strong winds pushed in a few migrating skuas and an early – or late – Balearic Shearwater! There were fewer sea-birds generally as the winds were more easterly – even producing more Swifts and Swallows arriving on migration than the hoped for skuas and terns. As last year, there are still many “winter visitors” lingering in the bay notably Great Northern Divers, one or two Black-throated Divers and Common Scoter. Our wintering Turnstones have mostly left but a few in stunning summer plumage are still delaying departure for the Arctic as well as over 30 Purple Sandpipers a couple of 100 yards from the Mermaid shop around Battery Rocks, occasionally joined by other waders such as Whimbrel, Dunlin, Sanderling and Common Sandpipers all pushing north.
Then there is the Eider….! “Frankie” as some people are calling him (after Frankie Howard “OOOOOaaw!” etc) is still sexually harassing the local black-backed gulls, Greater mostly but he has tried it on with Lessers too! When not eating crabs off the harbour mouth Frankie seems to like nothing better than chasing Great Black-baked Gulls to St Clement’s Island where he serenades and displays to them, and he has even taken to trying to soar over the quarry with the Lesser Black-backed. He has managed to get a response from some of them! Disturbing, sad, or sweet depending on your point of view!
Things can only get better……!
At around 4pm yesterday the Mermaid II cruised into the small bay on the lea-ward side of St Clement’s Island looking to show the 20 or so passengers on the 3pm “Seal Cove” trip the resident Grey Seal bull “Sammy”. I have no idea if they saw him because Adrian and crew were amazed to see a large white bird with a long, pointed, slightly down-curved orange bill, and long white tail-streamers sitting above Sammy’s usual spot. It almost immediately took flight over the island. I would probably have heard no more about it had Adrian and Billy not already kindly sent me down-loaded photos of a Red-billed Tropicbird they claimed to have seen as a wind-up a week ago when I was stuck on the Scillonian III, the same day as a genuine bird had been seen from Porthgwarra! Remembering this however, Adrian immediately recognised this as the real thing, and they steamed around to the eastern side of the island hoping it had landed again. There was some confusion as an orange-billed bird took off and was snapped by one of the passengers, but this was an Oystercatcher, and sadly it seems the initial sighting took everyone by surprise and the Tropicbird was already out over the bay! Readers may well wonder a) what all the fuss is about, and b) how on Earth we can be sure this is the same bird as that seen last week!? The answer is the same – this is an incredibly rare bird in British terms with only 3-4 previous records; Red-billed Tropicbird breeds all around the tropics with the nearest to us in the Cape Verdes or Caribbean. As there have been virtually nothing but north-north-easterly winds since the Porthgwarra sighting it is highly unlikely a second bird has arrived! And how do I know this is a definite second sighting? Because I am sitting writing this in North- blooming – Oxfordshire – that’s why!! Today’s 3pm trip was the first wild-life trip I have not been able to do since the tropicbird sighting a week last Friday, and if readers are wondering what that distant crunching noise is it is the sound of me grinding my teeth down to the gum-line!! Of course- I am really pleased for all the lucky folks on the trip (AM I HELL!!!), and I hope the bird is seen again, as the Mermaid II is probably the best place to start! Here’s hoping!
Disgruntled of Banbury/ Martin Elliott
It may look like we are always making excuses for our pelagics this year, but we really have had no luck at all with conditions except- adding insult to injury- the one trip we had to cancel because of low bookings! The 29th looked like being even worse because the wind was wrong and yet this came after one of the best week’s sea-watching of the year so far locally, so expectations were higher than usual right up to the late night forecast on Friday. Add to this the fact that 3 of our passengers were “coming-down” after the highs of seeing Red-billed Tropicbird and Hump-back Whale from Porthgwarra on the Friday and you will understand why I worried about our trip.
My fears seemed well founded at first; there was a very light south-westerly that dropped to almost nothing, a deceptively big swell still running after the previous high winds, and almost inevitably the 100s of Gannets which had been feeding around the Runnel Stone the day before, along with a few Cory’s Shearwaters (not to mention the Tropicbird and Hump-back!) were nowhere to be seen. We did come across our first Grey Phalarope – a moulting adult- off Tater Dhu which instantly meant this trip could not be as bad as the infamous 8/8, but again we could not get as far west as we hoped due to the swell so our chum “drift” would barely clear Longships.
Despite the wind, we did attract several Storm Petrels at first, but as time wore on the wind died to nothing, the sun came out, and the trickle of Stormies dried up.
However, it was then bought to our attention there was a pod of Pilot whales close by. There followed an anxious and intense journey to catch up with these great mammals. Finally we glimpsed them away to our south-west. Despite the relief, Adrian was almost too cautious in approaching them and I thought they would leave us behind – but we need not have worried! We stopped a couple of hundred metres off the group and then began one of the most amazing wildlife encounters we will probably ever have!
No sooner had we stopped when more than half the pod started to swim straight at us- lead by the females with calves (4-5 in this group). There were about 19 animals and soon all of them were surrounding the Mermaid II within touching distance as the males (about 7m long and with distinctive “elbowed” dorsal fins with deeply down-curved and rounded tips) joined in. They may have been trying to drive the females and calves away from the boat as a couple of times they went under our hull and released huge columns of bubbles. However, the youngsters wouldn’t be put off and they began spy-hopping (to look at us?) and the whole pod seemed to relax. We then had almost an hour where you did not know where to look; the 2nd group of about 10 animals rejoined our pod (the only time there were signs of aggression as a couple of males began tail-slapping, but this was brief), youngsters were spy-hopping, many of the older animals began rolling on their backs waving their long, tapered pectoral fins in the air (conveniently identifying them as Long-finned Pilot Whales – Globicephala melas melas), there were whales constantly rolling and jostling all around the boat, and all this accompanied by what I can only describe as a chorus of comedy farting noises!!!!
I have no idea if these were deliberate “vocalisations”, or just an unfortunate consequence of blowing through partially submerged blow-holes, but as the whales only made the usual puffing noises when producing a blow it is tempting to think these noises were deliberate. There seemed to be two main types; a short, relatively soft “raspberry”, and extremely loud, almost percussive “wet-farts” that sounded like the slapping of a huge cow-pat, apparently given by the males – and the first clue I had that the second group were approaching- like a herd of marine Spike Milligans!
To put this into context I, and especially Adrian are used to seeing dolphins playing around the boat, and we will never tire of it. But this was different! Common Dolphins are more cat-like; they come to the boat to bow-ride, surf the stern-wash or even scratch their backs on the hull, but if we slow or stop they usually drift off, and – if they are feeding- ignore us altogether. The pilot whales were much more laid-back and seemed both interested in and accepting of us. I will regret to my dying day that I didn’t at least reach out and touch one as I doubt I’ll ever have another chance, but it seemed wrong at the time and is probably un-ethical. However, knowing that these whales are the species prone to mass-stranding, and worse are murdered by the Faroese for the sake of tradition, made the encounter all the more special.
It was a real wrench to have to leave the whales behind in the end as we were running late, and I was almost emotional when we did head off as for the first couple of hundred metres a few followed us and rode the wake. But these whales live in extremely tight-knit social groups and they clearly didn’t want to go far. The rest of our pelagic was therefore a bit of an anti-climax, and I have to admit the excitement and media chaos meant I forgot to tally up our sea-bird totals; we saw about a dozen Storm Petrel, 5 Balearic Shearwaters, 6 Grey Phalaropes, a couple of Bonxies, Common Dolphins, Harbour Porpoise etc, but I can’t remember if we saw Sooty Shearwater or Arctic Skua and I don’t think those lucky enough to be on board will mind either! Thanks to them for coming, thanks to Geoff for guiding us whale-wards, and thanks to Adrian for sticking by the pelagics when he could have made more money from mackerel-fishing. This will be the last pelagic of the old format- we will do shorter, early morning/ late evening trips from now on, but what a season’s finale this was!
3 day forecast
wind: 4m/s NNE
H 14 • L 12
Weather from OpenWeatherMap