A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Monday, 24 August 2015

Scilly Pelagic Birding - the quest for large Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm-petrels (Day 1)

With a wealth of fantastic seabirds regularly reported from the Scilly Pelagics each summer, me and Alex booked ourselves on to a weekend of the famous birder special pelagic boat trips running from St Marys harbour on the Scilly Isles. Organised and run by seabird expert Bob Flood, we were hoping for breath-taking views of majestic large shearwaters, with an outside but very realistic chance of a glimpse of one of the tantalising Wilsons Storm-petrels regularly seen from the boat.
The Sapphire
Running from 2000 onwards, the Scilly Pelagics offer some of the only chances of seeing this scarce species in British waters, and Wilsons Petrels are regularly and reliably recorded during the weekends. Offering the highest success rate (54% connection rate) on the second week in August, we thankfully booked well in advance, as the trips soon become fully booked with no spaces available as the year progresses. With records of Fea’s Petrel on some years, as well as mouth-watering sightings of such monsters as the first British records of Scopoli’s Shearwater and Madeiran Petrel, there is always the very real prospect that something magical could unfold from over the horizon.
Penzance
Staying in Penzance overnight and getting the early 9:15am ferry crossing to Hugh Town, the near 30 mile journey resulted in my first two lifers of the trip before I had even reached the Scillies! A Sooty Shearwater cruised past, its huge wings cutting through the waves as it soared by, the gorgeous soot-black plumage framing the silvery patches on the underwing whilst a number of European Storm-petrels fluttered past at regular intervals, gracefully darting over the water’s surface and reminding me of small swallows of the sea. Whilst distant, I wasn’t too worried, as the evening’s pelagic was guaranteed to provide much better views that night.

There also appeared to be a steady stream of Manx Shearwater passage taking place near to Penzance, and 3 dusky Balearics amongst the many crisp black and white Manxies were excellent spots, and our only ones of the week.

Arriving almost 3 hours later in a torrential downpour and feeling a little worse for wear after seasickness took hold (which didn’t bode well at the prospect of 17 hours at sea over the weekend!) there was no real opportunity to explore the islands before our first pelagic of three began that evening.
St Marys, Scilly
With evening trips taking place on Friday and Monday night and day trips on the Saturday and Sunday, the weekend offers a back to back opportunity to get to grips with the bird and marine life of the Scillies. We’d booked ourselves on to the Saturday 7 hour day trip and the two evening excursions (apparently the most successful for Wilson’s), so were definitely in with a fighting chance of seeing our main target bird. Having already seen Storm-petrel and Sooty Shearwater on the ferry, our other main targets now were the two large shearwaters (Cory’s and Great), and we were hopeful of getting good views after two Cory’s were seen the night before.
Scilly Pelagics
Setting off from the harbour, the boat left behind an enticing trail of bread and popcorn as we steamed through the water, attracting a number of gulls, Fulmars and Gannets that quickly approached from all angles. Several more Manx Shearwaters also provided great close up views as the boat cruised past, and I had my best ever views of these beautiful seabirds.
Manx Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
With a touch of wind, we headed over to a reef system to begin drifting and chumming – the boat stationary as a manner of fish pieces were thrown overboard hoping to attract large numbers of Storm-petrels, and hopefully our Wilson’s. Using Pollock caught that night, scraps of fish and oil were thrown off the back of the boat and it wasn’t long before our first inquisitive visitors were drawn in.
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
Using the wind to carry the scent, the tubenoses are attracted from all around the area to take advantage of this abundance of food. Eventually, around 50 Storm-petrels were swarming around the boat, dipping in to the water to feed on the scraps, and providing a great show for everyone on board.
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
Extremely agile and with the light now fading, they were especially hard to photograph, and a rocking boat on a choppy sea certainly didn’t help matters!
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
European Storm-petrel, Scilly Pelagic
A Sooty Shearwater also made a brief appearance, investigating the boat at close range before flying off out strongly to sea, offering much better views than the flyby on the ferry over.
Sooty Shearwater - Scilly Pelagics
The classic silver markings on the all black underside are clear to see
As well as birding, the pelagics also offer a great chance for fishermen to explore the seas around Scilly, with many fishermen on board to take advantage of the pickings whilst the boat is stationary. The Sapphire is also involved in a Blue Shark Tagging programme, where individuals are logged and tagged if caught, before being released back in to the water. Luckily, a Blue Shark was caught whilst we were on board, and we were able to watch the process of landing the catch, all the way through to the tagging and releasing. 
Blue Shark - Scilly Pelagics
Blue Shark - Scilly Pelagics
Blue Shark - Scilly Pelagics
It was fascinating to watch this magnificent beast on board, and having never seen a shark before it was an interesting opportunity to get some close up views of one of the species that can be found in British waters. With Blue Sharks often caught on the trips, as well as the occasional Porbeagle, the pelagics offer a great opportunity to get close to creatures that you otherwise wouldn’t see.

However, with time now pressing on, and sadly no Wilson’s in sight, it was soon time to head back to shore, the sunset providing a fitting setting to end our first taste of pelagic birding and with hopes high for the following three days.
Scilly Pelagic Sunset

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up Steff! I'd love to go on one of these pelagics but sadly I really don't have any sea legs at all

    ReplyDelete

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