Archive for July, 2012
Friday was our final Royal Quays evening pelagic for this summer, and we were heading once again on to the North Sea in search of a species that has come to occupy much of my time; White-beaked Dolphin. My first encounter with them was in 2003, on an evening pelagic, and we’ve found them many times since then.
I’ve spent long, difficult days offshore in the winter, researching their distribution while leading the North East Cetacean Project, I’ve stood on a clifftop with clients (on an Otter and Badger Safari!) as a pod covering several square miles of the North Sea passed by, I’ve taken photos like this one on flat seas in beautiful weather
and I’ve had brief encounters in conditions where I was surveying but would never have taken clients out. I’ve spent several hours watching them bow-riding
and I’ve laid on the front of a boat, looking down at a dolphin that was bow-riding upside down looking at me.
On Friday though, we witnessed behaviour that myself and Andy (who was also on board) had never come across before. We think that what happened was a small group, including a tiny calf, were resting near the surface and we inadvertently woke them up. The first indication we had that there were any dolphins around was when an adult crossed close to our bow, tail-slapping. Another adult (or possibly the same one) then began breaching and for 20 minutes we found ourselves shadowed by a pod of about 10 animals. No bow-riding, no interaction other than escorting us as we travelled slowly through their area, and a rare insight into the behaviour of a pod of dolphins protecting the next generation. Eventually the pod dropped away from us and, as we headed south, we saw them for the final time as they milled about distantly in our wake.
We’ve got just one place still available for our September Royal Quays trips (that space is on September 22nd), our Whale and Dolphin Cruise from Seahouses on September 8th is filling rapidly and we’ve got a few spaces on our Farne Deeps trip from Royal Quays in search of White-beaked Dolphin, Minke Whale and seabirds on August 15th and our evening RIB trips from Seahouses. Click here for more details or to book, or call 01670 827465 to reserve your place before they’re all sold out.
It protects my head from attack by Arctic Terns on trips to the Farne Islands, it prevents me getting sunburn, but now it seems to have developed an additional, almost mystical, power…
With a spell of settled weather, and incredibly obliging sea conditions, I was full of optimism as I arrived at Seahouses Harbour for the first of this year’s Northern Experience Pelagics Farne Deeps trips. We boarded Ocean Explorer and headed offshore, in search of Minke Whale and White-beaked Dolphin. As always we found birds close to land, and then a period with little wildlife other than an occasional Gannet gliding by. With land-based trips you learn to ‘read’ the habitat and weather conditions. At sea, you don’t have that luxury; whatever the sea bed is like, the surface always looks pretty much the same The wildlife itself provides the visual clues, and splashing in the distance simply didn’t look right for diving Gannets. Alan slowed the RIB and I scanned the horizon. Again the same splashing, and it became obvious that there were lots of Gannets sitting on the sea in that area as well. The first dorsal fins began to appear, and soon we could see a small pod of White-beaked Dolphins heading towards us. Then more appeared…and more…and more. Eventually we had between 60-100 dolphins bow-riding, breaching, feeding and generally providing excellent entertainment for all on board.
The dolphins, Gannets and the fish they were feeding on drifted away so we sat with engines off and had our own meal break. Just over half an hour later we encountered the dolphins again and they charged headlong towards the boat. After another long session of breaching and bow-riding, we stopped the engines and let the dolphins head off to whatever they were planning to do next.
We were heading back to shore at just over 30knots when my Tilley hat was lifted from my head by the breeze and landed in the wake Now, one of the things about a Tilley hat is that if it falls in the water it floats. Alan turned the boat and a few minutes later we recovered my hat After nearly 4 hours of staying firmly on my head, it was a surprise that it had suddenly departed seawards…
We’d just started heading again towards the shore when Sue said that she’d seen a fin and thought it might be a Harbour Porpoise. Alan slowed the boat right down, and the fin surfaced again. Much better than a porpoise though, it was a distant Minke Whale We watched it surface several times, and then it became obvious that although everyone on board was watching a Minke Whale not everyone was looking in the same direction! There were at least two, and possibly three, whales around us and, even though the dolphins were spectacular, there was something really special about watching these huge marine mammals as they surfaced with a stunning sunset, and the distant Northumberland coast, as a backdrop.
The best pelagic that we’ve organised? Probably…
We’re heading to the Farne Deeps again on August 15th (from Royal Quays) so give us a call on 01670 827465 to book your space before it sells out.
With our focus in late-July on the North Sea and its enigmatic wildlife, a land-based trip makes a pleasant change from riding the waves. I collected Catherine, Mark, Jacob and Izzy from their holiday accommodation in Howick and we set off down the Northumberland coast towards Druridge Bay.
We started at Newbiggin, following up a recent report of a small pod of White-beaked Dolphins. Only brief sightings of distant dorsal fins were possible, proving just what an elusive species this can be. An adult Mediterranean Gull drifted close by with a few Black-headed Gulls, Jacob concentrated on the flight identification of Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns, and another short spell of seawatching just up the coast produced lots of Eiders, and a Gannet heading south.
Cresswell Pond produced Little Gull, Black-tailed Godwit, Avocet, Curlew and lots of Lapwings, and then a real star performer as a Barn Owl quartered the dunes. As is often the case, we had a particular target species for the evening and, as Mallards scattered from one section of a pond, and a small group of Teal suddenly became very alert, we concentrated on scanning that area. Sure enough, the swishy, waving tail of an Otter was soon spotted near the Teal, and for a few minutes it gave brief views of it’s tail, head and body as it spread panic throughout the assembled wildfowl. As darkness descended it vanished into the inky gloom and we headed back to the car, encountering Common Frog, Common Toad and Pipistrelles on the way.
As I got home on Tuesday night after our evening pelagic the rain was still hammering down. With a forecast of more rain for Wednesday, and a planned Farne Islands safari, I started thinking about a contingency plan as I dried off all of my camera equipment.
Wednesday dawned…with more heavy rainfall. I needed an idea of what was happening further north and a quick text to William was soon answered; the rain in Seahouses was light and sea conditions were fine so boats were sailing I collected Louise and Martin from Warkworth and we headed north along some decidedly damp roads. A morning birdwatching on the Northumberland coast, including Grey Seal, Roe Deer, Swallow nestlings, Shelduck, Eider, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and a very obliging Whitethroat, was followed by a lunch break just north of Bamburgh Castle, and then it was time to board Glad Tidings for the sailing across to the islands. With a bit of swell on the sea, a chilly wind kicking spray from the bow, and another oppressive sky the islands were incredibly atmospheric. Puffins were sitting in huge rafts just off the islands, Guillemots and Razorbills were flying back to the cliff ledges with fish, Gannets were soaring majestically by the boat, Grey Seals lazed in the surf and Kittiwakes called incessantly from their precipitous nest sites. As we landed on Inner Farne the aerial bombardment from the Arctic Terns was much reduced from the level of recent weeks, and there were plenty of young terns trying out their wings in short flights across the boardwalk. Sandwich Terns were carrying food back to quite large chicks and the island seemed to be awash with Puffins. Every flat area next to the sheer cliff faces was covered in them and hundreds were flying around the island. Louise, like many of our clients when seeing Puffins for the first time said “Aren’t they small”. Everyone expects them to be bigger than they actually are. Kittiwake chicks were almost too big for the nest ledges, and Razorbills and Guillemots were watched at close quarters too. With the poor weather the number of visitors to the island was quite low, making for quite a different experience to our trips earlier this year when all of the boats were full.
Most of our Farne Islands trips this year have been on Glad Tidings 1, and Bobby and Billy always keep their passengers entertained. Now, as I look out of my office window while I’m typing this on a fine, dry, sunny afternoon, Bobby’s words, as he delivered us safely back to Seahouses come to mind “Aye, it’s improved. Now it’s like a fine autumn day rather than a bad winter one”.
This has been a difficult year for boat operators on the east coast, with unseasonable winds and frequent heavy rainfall making it unwise to head out to sea.
Tuesday was the first of this year’s evening pelagics to survive the weather so, as we set out from Royal Quays on the SarahJFK, I was full of optimism. Soon after leaving the mouth of the Tyne, Allan spotted a Harbour Porpoise, although it remained typically elusive. Kittiwakes were following us throughout the evening, no doubt wondering if we were going to throw any scraps overboard, Gannets and Fulmars were passing by and, all around us, the sky looked heavy with something…
I’d had a call earlier in the day to say that a small pod of dolphins were passing Newbiggin, so I took a guess on where they would be by mid-evening and asked Allan to plot a course that would take us through the area. Sure enough, just where we expected them, 6 White-beaked Dolphins, including the smallest calf that I’ve seen in the ten years since we first found White-beaked Dolphins on one of our pelagic trips, appeared in front of the boat and then came in to bow-ride They stayed with us for several minutes before heading south, probably to feed, and we continued north. 5 Manx Shearwaters were heading north, and a flock of 30 Common ScotersAll the while the weather around us was looking poor, and eventually we found ourselves in a heavy, misty drizzle as we headed back to port, and by the time we docked it was properly dark – not something we’d normally expect in mid-July.
Glowering, oppressive weather conditions, remarkably good visibility, a sea state that was ideal for cetacean spotting, a boat full of enthusiastic clients and a pod of dolphins…perfect
Yesterday was a Farne Islands Prestige Tour…or at least that was the plan…
As I drove towards Seahouses to collect Dick and Jenny, having already figured out that there weren’t going to be any sailings to the islands in those conditions, I received the call that confirmed it. So, what to do instead? A quick discussion with clients who had realised before I arrived that it wasn’t a day for heading across to the Farnes…and then we were off on a tour of the Northumberland coast. Grey Seals were ‘bottling’ just offshore, female Eiders were supervising the creches of this year’s youngsters, Shelduck were feeding along the tideline and Oystercatchers and Redshank were probing next to the breaking surf. We headed south to see what the weather at that end of the coast would bring…and had a not too bad afternoon around Druridge Bay Mediterranean Gulls were loafing alongside Black-headed Gulls, a female Marsh Harrier flew across in front of the car (and we later found her again, perched in a bush overlooking her nest site), Dick found a Long-eared Owl that performed for over ten minutes – hunting amongst the reeds and rushes in broad daylight, Jenny spotted a Roe Deer and a Brown Hare lolloped into view nearby, no less than 23 Little Gulls were in a roost that also had three Black-tailed Godwits, a Dunlin, still with a solidly black belly, was sleeping next to a small pool and we even managed a spot of seawatching; a huge flock of Gannets and terns was circling and plunging, three Arctic Skuas pursued and robbed the successful terns and a raft of Common Scoter rose into view, and then fell again, just beyond the surf. Perhaps the most unusual sight of the day though, was a Barn Owl carrying prey, not unusual in itself, but the bird flew 3/4 of the way anticlockwise around the north pool at East Chevington, then flew back all the way it had just come before flying 3/4 of the way around the pool clockwise to get back to where it had been five minutes earlier. Wildlife, you never know when it’s going to appear, you never know what it’s going to do…
No, not a blog in praise of lettuce…
At this time of the year, I tend to be out with clients on several consecutive days. Client-free days give me a chance to catch up with paperwork, ‘phone calls, admin tasks etc. but that isn’t what I most enjoy about work So, at 6pm the evening before an office day last week, I was really happy to get a ‘phone call from one of the accommodation providers who we work closely with “We’ve got some guests staying. They’ve just had two full days on the Farne Islands but they’d like another wildlife activity for tomorrow. Can you do anything for them?”
So, that’s how I found myself with an unexpected birdwatching mini-safari. I collected Henk and Marianne from Seahouses…and the rain started (bit of a theme throughout Britain so far this summer). Decision time; head towards Holy Island, or head south from Seahouses and focus our efforts on the mid Northumberland coast? I quickly weighed up the two options and we headed south…and out of the rain The morning seemed to fly by and, just short of four hours later, I was returning them after a morning that produced Short-eared Owl quartering a rough field, Bar-tailed Godwit heading south high overhead, Little Terns back at their mainland colony, two stunning adult Little Gulls roosting among the Arctic Terns on the beach, an abundance of Meadow Pipits and Skylarks, and more Pyramidal Orchids than I’ve ever seen before (as well as Bee and Northern Marsh Orchids).
That still left me an afternoon for office work though
A second consecutive Druridge Bay mini-safari was our activity on Friday morning and I arrived at Church Point to meet Gavin, Mark, Cindy and Esther for morning’s birdwatching around the NEWT ‘local patch’. My main concern was how the previous afternoon’s torrential downpour would have affected ground conditions at the sites we visit. As it was, the ground wasn’t too wet and everywhere we went was easily accessible.
Late June and early July is always a good time to start to search for passage waders, with the earliest returning adult birds often still in their breeding garb. Two Dunlin, still with solid black bellies, dropped in, a Common Sandpiper was sitting motionless, before setting off along the water’s edge with that characteristic bobbing motion and 5 Black-tailed Godwits flew low over the water before dropping out of sight in a dip in a nearby field. Two Avocets arrived and at least 7 Little Gulls were roosting. As we continued up the coast a Marsh Harrier rose from, and dropped back in to, a reedbed, Great Crested Grebes cruised around serenely and Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns were all splashing about as they bathed. Is there a better place than the southeast Northumberland coast at this time of the year?
Thursday morning was a Druridge Bay mini-safari and, when I arrived at Church Point, Michelle and Andy, and Jane, were already there. We set off for a morning of birdwatching on the southeast Northumberland coast in cool, overcast conditions…but by the time we reached Cresswell the rain had started and visibility was closing in rapidly. Birdwatching in conditions where you can hear the birds, but can’t really tell where they are, is a quite surreal experience. As the poor weather moved on, so did we…and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat as we enjoyed an obliging Common Snipe perched on a fence post, at least three Long-eared Owls, including recently fledged young birds, two male Marsh Harriers and one female, a Common Cuckoo, Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns bathing, Great Crested Grebes and a Grey Heron peering in our direction through the reeds.
At the end of the trip we returned to Church Point and I headed back to the office where, a couple of hours later, it suddenly turned very dark…
Wednesday was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for some time. Syd is a regular client, and always very entertaining, and this time around his son Gavin was booked with him as well, for a Farne Islands safari.
With plenty of comments on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the trip, we were all praying for good sea conditions for the day. The forecast suggested that the afternoon could be a bit wet so I thought about visiting Staple Island instead of Inner Farne, before satisfying myself that it would stay dry for us in the afternoon and sticking with my original plan of walking along the dunes at Newton in the morning, and catching the 1pm boat to Inner Farne. The morning walk produced lots of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits as well as Common Blue Butterflies and Northern Marsh, Pyramidal and Bee Orchids. The tern colony was a hive of activity, with the Arctic Terns bringing food to their chicks and some Little Terns engaging in some late season breeding activity. While we were there, the terns kept lifting from the dunes in a ‘dread’ but the source of their concern wasn’t immediately obvious. Myself and the wardens commented that it was what we would expect if a Peregrine was passing over, but scanning the sky overhead didn’t produce the menacing shape of that particular predator. Eventually we did spot a raptor, although not an expected one, as a Marsh Harrier flew south along the fields inland from the terns. After having our lunch stop in the shadow of Bamburgh Castle, we took the short drive to Seahouses. Approaching Monk’s House Pool, Syd and Gavin had the bird of the day as a Hobby flew north over the roadside fields.
We boarded Glad Tidings IV for the journey across to the islands and sat next to local birder TC, who had watched all of the hirundines in Seahouses start alarming…just a few minutes before the Hobby was between Seahouses and Bamburgh. After the sailing around the islands, with their Grey Seals, Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Shags and Common, Sandwich and Arctic Terns, we landed on Inner Farne and Gavin concentrated on photographing Puffins. We were ‘treated’ (if that’s the right word…) to an example of just how cruel nature can be as a Kittiwake chick wandered away from it’s nest and towards the edge of the ledge. It turned back from the edge, made it’s way unsteadily back to the nest, and was promptly tossed over the edge of the cliff by the adult! As it landed on the next ledge down, it was attacked and killed by 2 juvenile Shags in front of a group of horrified onlookers.
After nearly 2 hours on Inner Farne, we boarded Glad Tidings for the journey back to the mainland…and the first few drops of rain fell as we reached the top of the steps on the harbour