SeaWatch SW 2011 survey is now over
The 2011 SeaWatch SW survey at Gwennap Head (near Land’s End in Cornwall) started on 15 July and finished on 15 Oct, and daily sightings can be viewed using the link above. Results from the first month of fieldwork were summarised in the previous news update, and observations from 16 Aug onwards are provided below. Seabird Observers on duty during this period included John Swann, James Wilkinson, Pete Griffin, David Norman, Kevin Bainbridge, Ken Shaw, Nick Adams, Tony John, Russell Wynn and Marcus Ward. A number of postgraduate students and volunteers also assisted as Marine Wildlife Observers during this period. We would like to say a big thankyou to all SeaWatch SW observers during 2011, particularly those who have participated in every year since 2007!
Record numbers of Balearic Shearwater arrive off southwest UK!
The SeaWatch SW team recorded unprecedented numbers of Balearic Shearwaters off southwest UK this autumn. The first significant influx occurred on 3 Sept with 101 seen off Start Point, and numbers then rapidly built up in western Lyme Bay with peak counts including 300+ of Berry Head on 5-6 Sept (part of a feeding flock of several thousand Manx Shearwaters), 376 off Orcombe Point on 11 Sept and a new Devon record of 383 moving southwest off Start Point on 12 Sept. Many of these birds apparently continued westwards, as a total of 416 were seen moving west off Gwennap Head on 12-13 Sept. Up to 200 Balearic Shearwaters continued feeding in Lyme Bay on 15-16 Sept (including counts of 50+ birds following trawlers off Berry Head) and it is possible that the westwards exodus of these birds contributed to a new Cornish record day count of 283 passing Gwennap Head on 18 Sept. Few remained in Lyme Bay after this date but good numbers continued to circulate off Gwennap Head, with three day counts of 150-200 in the period from 19-26 Sept. It is likely that over 600 birds were present off Devon and Cornwall in mid-September, highlighting the increasing importance of this region for this Critically Endangered seabird. A short note on this influx is due to be published in British Birds in early 2012.
Amazing Great Shearwater influx off Gwennap Head!
The other seabird highlight of the autumn was an incredible count of 2000+ Great Shearwaters on 3 Sept, one of the highest day counts ever made in the UK. Seabird Observer Kevin Bainbridge was on duty at the time and, despite getting absolutely soaked in the torrential rain, described it as one of his best days sea-watching ever! Most of the birds were seen in the last two hours of daylight, and at one stage there were so many passing through and lingering offshore that they were impossible to count accurately! The following day a further 154 were seen, but outside of this two-day period only five Great and nine Cory’s Shearwaters were recorded.
Other scarce seabirds seen during SeaWatch SW survey
Records of other scarce seabirds off Gwennap Head, between 16 Aug and 15 Oct, included three Pale-bellied Brent Geese on 1 Oct, a dark morph ‘Blue’ Fulmar on 22 Sept, a Leach’s Storm Petrel on 20 Sept, an adult Long-tailed Skua on 17 Sept, juvenile Sabine’s Gulls on 4 and 19-20 Sept, a Little Gull on 14 Oct and a Roseate Tern on 28 Aug. There were peak counts of 22 Mediterranean Gulls on 2 Oct and 13 Puffins on 5 Oct. Also of note were up to eight Grey Phalaropes offshore from 18-23 Sept, and totals of one Black-throated Diver, four Great Northern Divers, 18 Pomarine Skuas and seven Black Terns. Peak day counts of commoner seabirds included 7010 Manx Shearwaters on 20 Aug, 55 Sooty Shearwaters on 10 Sept, 263 European Storm Petrels on 20 Sept, 41 Great Skuas on 10 Oct and 60 Arctic Skuas on 11 Oct. Finally, an albino Razorbill flying west on 1 Oct was a major surprise!
Basking Sharks remain scarce off Gwennap Head
Only seven Basking Sharks were seen off Gwennap Head between 16 Aug and 15 Oct, with the 2011 total of 13 being the lowest of the five-year survey period. However, cetacean numbers remained normal, with peak totals of up to 22 Harbour Porpoise on 8 Oct and 100+ Common Dolphins on 24 Sept. Sightings of one or two Minke Whales were made on 14 dates and a total of nine Ocean Sunfish were recorded. Risso’s Dolphins were seen occasionally, with a peak of six on 17 Aug and 30 Aug, while Bottlenose Dolphins sightings included peaks of ten on 2 and 22 Sept. Grey Seals peaked at 15 on 29 Sept.
Unusual gulls, a raptor influx and other notable migrants
An intriguing dark-mantled Yellow-legged Gull, in third-winter plumage, was photographed in Porthgwarra Cove on 27 Sept during a period of southerly winds. Opinions vary as to its origin, but gull expert Martin Garner has suggested that it may have come from one of the Atlantic islands. A series of photos by Russell Wynn can be viewed in the Gallery. Comments on the identification are welcomed, and can be sent to the project co-ordinator via the Contact Us page.
A period of settled weather in late September and early October saw a good run of raptors passing over Gwennap Head, including Osprey (flying south on 28 Sept), Hen Harrier (adult female flying SE on 2 Oct), Marsh Harrier (four or five different birds flying south from 30 Sept to 4 Oct), Merlin (peak of four on 15 Oct), Hobby (three singles from 28 Sept to 12 Oct), Kestrel (nine migrants over the sea from 28 Sept to 6 Oct) and Sparrowhawk (peak of five overhead on 3 Oct). However, the highlight came on the very last day of the survey. A Black Kite seen by SeaWatch SW obsevers in Porthgwarra Valley on 10-11 Sept was joined by two others on 15 Sept and this trio were then regularly reported further inland for the next month or so. They waited until 15 Oct to fly directly over Marcus Ward and Alice Jones at Gwennap Head on their way to the Isles of Scilly, where they appeared the following day.
The best of the rest at Gwennap Head included an adult Spoonbill flying west on 5 Oct, two Little Egrets on 28 Sept, a fem/imm Black Redstart on 30 Sept and up to six Choughs on several dates. Sightings in nearby Porthgwarra Valley included a Short-eared Owl on 26 Sept, Wrynecks on 18 Aug and 2 Sept, Pied Flycatcher on 2 Sept and a juvenile Red-backed Shrike on 4 Oct. Migrant moths included Rusty-dot Pearl, Vestal, Hummingbird Hawk-moth, Dark Sword-grass and Silver-Y, while small numbers of Clouded Yellow and Painted Lady were also seen.
Update on sightings from SeaWatch SW sister sites and partners
In addition to the intensive survey work at Gwennap Head, our partners at Marinelife have continued to undertake small-boat surveys off southwest UK; full details of their recent offshore sightings are at http://marinelife-charm3.blogspot.com/. Notable species recorded in the period 16 Aug to 15 Oct included Common and Risso’s Dolphins, Harbour Porpoises, Great and Sooty Shearwaters, Grey Phalarope, Pomarine Skuas, Sabine’s Gulls and Black Terns. A satellite-tagged Great Skua from Shetland or Orkney was photographed on 12 Oct. The Marinelife website also includes sightings from the Berry Head and Start Point sister sites in Devon, where the most notable record was an impressive 53 Pomarine Skuas on the early date of 16 Aug.
Pendeen came to life in September with a Madeiran Storm Petrel amongst 155 European Storm Petrels on 6th, and at least 16 Great Shearwaters and 376 Sooty Shearwaters on the same day. The following day saw Red-necked Phalarope, Grey Phalarope and Long-tailed Skua recorded, while 12 Sept saw Wilson’s Storm Petrel and Buff-breasted Sandpiper heading a long list of notable species as well as 18,000 Manx Shearwaters. A further four Wilson’s Storm Petrels were reported between 13 and 18 Sept, and the peak count of Balearic Shearwaters was 160 on 6 Oct.
The highlights at Strumble Head were a Humpback Whale on 27 Aug, a White-billed Diver on 1 Sept, a Leatherback Turtle on 17 Sept and a good variety of scarce seabirds between 1 Aug and 15 Oct that included 170 Balearic Shearwaters, 275 Sooty Shearwaters, 1 Cory’s Shearwater, 8 Great Shearwaters, 73 Leach’s Storm Petrels, 25 Grey Phalaropes, 42 Long-tailed Skuas (with excellent numbers of commoner skuas), 80 Sabine’s Gulls, 15 Roseate Terns and 104 Black Terns.
On the North Sea coast at Whitburn, a total of 10 Balearic Shearwaters were seen, with other seabird highlights including the long-staying adult Bonaparte’s Gull, six Red-necked Grebes, one Cory’s Shearwater, 11 Long-tailed Skuas, seven Roseate Terns and a peak day count of 80 Sooty Shearwaters. A pod of 10 White-beaked Dolphins were seen on 18 Aug and an excellent run of scarce land bird migrants included American Golden Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Red-flanked Bluetail and Barred, Icterine, Greenish and Yellow-browed Warblers.
Update on SeaWatch SW activities in 2012
As originally planned, this will be the final year of effort-based monitoring at Gwennap Head in southwest Cornwall, and by the end of 2011 we will have collected almost 5000 hours of observations from this strategic watchpoint! Regional context for the data are provided by several thousand hours of observations from our sister sites at Berry Head, Pendeen, Trevose Head, Strumble Head and Whitburn. The SeaWatch SW dataset is increasingly being recognised as a unique resource by the science and conservation community, and a team of postgraduate students at NOCS are currently assisting with data analysis and interpretation. The aim is to rapidly generate a number of scientific publications and reports that can be used for conservation purposes in the region. SeaWatch SW will continue to undertake fieldwork in southwest UK in 2012 and beyond, but this will be in a more targeted fashion in order to tackle some of the scientific questions thrown up by the existing survey data!
Balearic Shearwater recording in 2011
One of the main aims of SeaWatch SW has been to provide a focal point for land-based recording of the Critically Endangered Balearic Shearwater in UK and Irish waters. Our partners at Marinelife are also leading intensive boat-based recording of this species in the English Channel. Data collected between 2007 and 2010 are feeding into ongoing conservation efforts, for example SeaWatch SW have recently provided input to the updated Balearic Shearwater Species Action Plan and have submitted a report on the species status in UK waters to JNCC. We are grateful to all observers who have provided us with records, and are now in a position to generate a research paper based on data collected in the last four years. We will therefore not be collating UK and Irish records from 1 Jan 2011 onwards, but urge all observers to submit their records to Birdguides so they can be extracted and used in the future. A summary of all 2010 Balearic Shearwater sightings will be included in the 2010 SeaWatch SW Annual Report, and the key results of the research paper will be available here once published.
SeaWatch SW Annual Report 2009 available online
The SeaWatch SW Annual Report 2009 is available online (download above). This 118-page report, illustrated throughout with colour images, includes a summary of all Balearic Shearwater records from the UK and Ireland during the year. The report also contains all the data from the SeaWatch SW survey that took place between 15 July and 15 Oct 2009, with intensive effort-based observations at Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra, supported by sister sites at Berry Head, Pendeen, Trevose Head, Strumble Head and Whitburn. Finally, a summary of boat-based observations in the western English Channel has again provided by our partners at Marinelife. A shorter version containing a summary of key results is also available. Note that the 2010 report is currently in production and will be available online in the next few weeks.