Sunday, 24 August 2008

Bay of Biscay Pelagic - 16th-21st August 2008

My first trip to Biscay, this was a six day Cetacean and Seabird Cruise with Ultimate Pelagics aboard the MV Princess Danae, departing from Calais to the Abyssal Plain area of the Bay of Biscay.

Day 1, 16th August: Saw Steven Flynn, John Wright and Myself driving from Blackburn - Dover for an afternoon ferry to Calais. Whilst aboard the Ferry and waiting to set sail an adult-type Little Gull was noted perched on an adj quay and a Raven circled over the white cliffs of Dover.

The 1hr channel crossing produced highlights of a Balearic Shearwater and 3 Bonxies. An increasing number of Common Terns was apparent the nearer we approached the French coast culminating in c100 Common Tern following us into Calais Harbour. Accompanying these were two Black Tern, an adult and juv.

Once formalities aboard the Princess Danae were completed, we set sail c1hr late at c18:00. Dinner was at 20:15 which allowed us some time on deck. Birds seen included a small flock of Common Scoter > west and an unexpected dark bellied Brent Goose which was seen distantly from the rear of the boat as it flew purposefully from the direction of the French coast. Harbour Porpoise was also noted.

Day two, 17th August: Steve had brought his GPS in which he had plotted an outline of the Abyssal Plain area and had been following our progress and speed along the English Channel. By early morning it was apparent that our progress was painfully slow and our expected arrival in the core area of Biscay was not until the following morning...... Day 3 of 6!

As the day wore on with the seawatching painfully slow as we cruised through shallow seas, conversation inevitably turned to one of dissatisfaction as it dawned on us just how much travel time was involved in reaching the prime area of Biscay. Including the return journey into the equation brought forth the grim dawn of realisation that we would only have a maximum of two days out of six in deep water before we would have to begin the long return sail back to Calais.

Highlights from day two included a few Harbour Porpoise, 3 Bonxies, Arctic Skua, 2 Manxies, a few Storm Petrels and this Balearic Shearwater.

The success of the trip depended on what happened from first light on Day 3, when we would finally be over the edge of the shelf and an awe-inspiring depth of c4,000m of water!

Day 3, 18th August: We anticipated that competition would be high for a seat looking out from the decks, so we arose early and were in place before first light on the port side of the rear deck towards the stern. A check of the GPS showed us to be bang in position just over the edge of the shelf and we had slowed down to c12 knots on a southerly heading parallel with the dropoff.

Anticipation was high as the first large Shearwaters of the day, 2 Corys, passed by at 06:55 and a pod of 6 Common Dolphin briefly appeared alongside at 07:05, followed by a single Corys Shearwater at 07:12.

An announcement on the tannoy system proclaimed the first Fishing Trawler of the day was dead ahead. What followed was an excellent 50 minutes in which the ships captain positioned the MV Danae relatively close to the fishing vessel allowing c10 Corys, several Sooty Shearwater, single Arctic Skua, 3 Great Skua, Gannets, Common Terns, c40 Lesser Black Backed Gull and best of all a superb flock of 10 adult-type Sabines Gull to be seen.

Only 90 minutes had passed since first light, and this was a great early taste of the quality of birding possible in Biscay, but sadly it would transpire to be the only Fishing Vessel we would attempt to get near too during our time aboard, depite several Trawlers noted in the wider area of the MV Danae during the next two days........ something the three of us found frustrating and disappointing.

Above: Fishing Trawler, Biscay, 07:25-c08:15, 18th Aug 2008.

Two more adult summer Sabines flew past between 08:21-08:24 and at 08:26 I managed to miss the first Great Shearwater of the day, my primary target bird of the trip. Annoying, but surely i would get another opportunity? This disappointment was short lived as at 08:31 a magical flock of five adult summer Sabines Gulls flying past the port side was like a shot of adrenalin in the arm!

A flock of five Arctic Tern was announced over the tannoy as they flew along the starboard side at 08:47, followed by a Fulmar and another Corys Shearwater at 08:53 and between 08:54-09:00, the 16th Sabines Gull of the day was noted, again another adult summer, as well as a Yellow-legged Gull, 7 Cory's and a few Euopean Storm Petrel, followed by 10+ Cory's, Bonxie and more Gannets betwen 09:00-09:25.

My chance with Great Shearwater came at 09:25 when three birds were announced over the tannoy passing the starboard side. rushing over with just my binoculars I could make them out as Greats amongst several Cory's, but the crowd on this side was four deep so I rushed to a lower deck where better views could be obtained and a few record shots taken.

Above: Great Shearwater (left) and Corys Shearwater (right). Below: Corys Shearwater (left) and Great Shearwater (right)

Flying alongside Cory's the stiffer wings of the Great Shearwaters was apparent as well as plumage differences at this range. Even with the small sample of birds I saw in total for the trip, c10, variation in the axilliary markings was apparent, with both weak and strongly marked birds noted.

Following the Great Shearwaters, I made the decision to concentrate on views rather than photos.

To be continued................