Wednesday 13 November 2013

GA part 3: Seawatching from Ferries

 Disclaimer: I'm no experienced seawatcher! But I make up for that in boundless enthusiasm. ^^

The crossing between Dover and Calais is in good conditions a journey of only an hour or so, and we had very good conditions both ways, with barely any swell at all there and back. I was grateful our journeys were all over with before the weather turned the weekend after we got back with the St Jude’s Day storm! That wouldn’t have been any fun.

When I’m on ferries I make sure I stay on the deck as much as I possibly can to try and spot seabirds. I’ve done this before on the much longer journey between Portsmouth and Le Havre a couple of years ago, and it yielded some fantastic firsts for me: my first Manx Shearwaters, gliding over the sea in a small flock; my first Great Skuas, a bird I’ve wanted to see since I first saw a bird book; and my first petrel, a tiny, tiny bird flying away from the ship, skimming the sea with its little feet. (It was too far away to tell the exact species, but it would have been Storm or Leach’s.) I’ve written in my Gannet post about how in that experience I found that I stopped seeing gulls and terns once we got out into the open ocean, but there were Gannets throughout the crossing because they are more oceangoing, and sure enough there were Gannets a-plenty on the Dover to Calais crossing, and again there were some sub-adult birds among them. (There were more adult Gannets than on the Portsmouth to Le Havre crossing because that was late August when Gannets are still breeding, and this was late October.) But I have to amend my words about the gulls, because I was seeing gulls throughout both ferry trips! Several Great Black-backed Gulls (and one sub-adult Herring Gull) attached themselves to the ferry and were gliding with it for the whole crossing, usually above or in front, as if they were hitching a lift! Maybe the ferry makes it less effort for them to fly over the ocean? They’re still not quite in the league of skuas or shearwaters or petrels, but it’s clear they can be seen out at sea, and not just near the coast.

It wasn’t just the ‘hitch-hiking’ large gulls either, there were small gulls out at sea too. A large gathering of them were feeding just out from France on the return journey, though the species was hard to tell. On the way there, and again near France, a small flock of gulls with completely white wings, dark underwings and small dark spots behind the eyes flew by, which we tentatively identified as Little Gulls, though there is always the chance they were Black-headed Gulls and the black on the tips of their wings was hard to see, as it is sometimes. Size is very hard to judge at a distance, especially with nothing to compare the birds to. Leaving from Kent, Kittiwakes played in the wake of the ship until we were well away from the shore, before leaving us about half an hour out, only to be seen again on the return journey. On our return into British waters, there were also a couple of Mediterranean Gulls winging their way past, their wings so white they almost seemed translucent. I’ve never seen Kittiwakes off the Hampshire coast, but did manage to spot a Little Tern as we were leaving Portsmouth last time! We have a small breeding population. Of course, it was tern season then.

Other birds seen on the crossings include an unidentified pipit that flew above the ferry briefly on the return journey, an unidentified auk (I’m guessing Guillemot or Razorbill) that flew by, and a v-formation of about 15 Brent Geese, that interestingly included a single Shelduck at the very end of the v! The birds are similar sizes, after all, and a lone Shelduck would get along much quicker with the v of geese than on its own, as flying like that helps them propel each other forward.

I’ve only watched birds out at sea a very few times, and every time I learn more and more. I’m really interested in seabirds and I hope my seawatching (both from boats and from the land) will improve, and my knowledge will grow!

Tomorrow: the final part of my German Adventures, in which I talk about what was similar and what was different to Britain in this not-very-far-away land.

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