Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Auks and Jellyfish at Portland Bill!

This is actually a post I meant to write in April but I've got really behind on my posts recently. In late April I took a drive down to Portland Bill, in the hope of finding migrants and seeing some lovely seabirds.


 The best way to see both those things is to arrive very early, but I live too far away from Portland Bill for that to be possible. I got there at about 10am and as soon as I got down to the cliffs I saw dozens of Guillemots and Razorbills zooming about, landing on their cliff nests and whirring their way over the water, little wings going at top speed. I love watching auks so much! I especially love when they land on the water because you can see how ludicrously far apart and far back their legs are when they lower them to land, and then they just crash into the water and suddenly look like a normal bird again. Until they dive, when it's all wings acting like flippers and you remember they are the penguins of the northern hemisphere. I watched them for hours because there's not really anywhere in Hampshire to see them and I have to get my fill. Some Guillemots could just about be seen lined up on the cliff, with some Shags nesting lower down. I expect the Razorbills breed somewhere but they weren't visible on the cliff. There are always more Guillemots than Razorbills at Portland Bill, but still a respectable number of Razorbills.


Even if you're a really bad seawatcher like me, auks are easy to recognise by their flight pattern and colouring. They're the only type of bird you'll see on a seawatch that has such tiny wings compared with its body length, and they flap so fast and fly completely straight. If you get any sort of decent view you'll see their colouring too, which in spring is always dark above and light below. They have more white on them outside the breeding season. When it comes to other seabirds I'm very much a beginner. I'm in the process of learning the ways the different groups of seabirds fly, which I've been trying to do ever since I saw my first skua back in 2011. So my aim for this seawatch was to take note of everything I saw, even if I didn't know what it was. Most of the birds out on the sea seemed to be auks, but there were a few interesting things. I saw a couple of Whimbrels fly by which was great. Then I saw a v-shaped formation of dark birds flying low over the sea. They had long necks but long wings too, so they were ducks or geese rather than auks. But they were also too dark to be any of the geese species, even a Brent Goose. Also they seemed smaller with shorter necks than a goose. So I decided through process of elimination that they were probably Common Scoter, which is a very dark coloured duck found at sea. But you can see how it's hard to be certain, especially when you're not that experienced. Not that I always want certainty- in fact I like to identify stuff on my own because I find it the best way to learn.


I walked along the part of the footpath that overlooks the coast, admiring the clear blue sea and the Fulmars gliding around. There were a group of auks swimming near the cliff, and I heard a splashing noise that was so loud it carried easily all the way up to where I was. At first I assumed it was one of the auks taking a bath, but it seemed to go on and on so I tried to figure out what it was. I noticed a few Shags swimming nearby, and one of them seemed to be bathing very loudly and splashily. Then another one started doing the same. I began to realise that the loud splashing sounds were actually caused by the birds deliberately slapping the water with their wings in quick succession. There was a sort of rhythm to it, with about 12 wings slaps followed by a quick dive down to slosh water over their feathers, then a pause, before doing the same routine again. Two of them even seemed to be doing it 'at' each other at one point! Was this some sort of courtship display? I've heard of it before but I'm often being surprised by courtship behaviours that are new to me, like those Pied Wagtails from last post. Has anyone else seen anything like this with Shags?


The sea was so clear that I later was able to see something even more new to me. I saw what was unmistakably a jellyfish, but not one like I'd ever seen before. I've only ever seen Moon Jellyfish, which are the round flat transparent ones with four purple rings inside them that often wash up on shores. But this one had a big, pale pink, rotund body with a mass of what I took to be tentacles coming out the back. In fact it was shaped a bit like a mushroom with the back part as the stem. It also had a very clear dark line going all the way around the edge of the round part. I was worried I would remember what it looked like when I went to identify it later so I did a quick sketch.

Normally it's hard to get wildlife to stay still long enough to draw it but that wasn't a problem here!


Looking it up when I got home I found out it's called the Barrel Jellyfish, which seems to fit it well. I also found out that my sightings may be part of an overall trend in the UK, because this article from April comments on large numbers of them being seen off the coast of Devon and Cornwall, a little way down the coast from here. Apparently they thrive in warmer weather, and it certainly was in a very warm stretch of weather when I saw them. It's always cool to find out your sightings fit in with an overall trend. I didn't see whole swarms by any means, but did see four overall. This was the page I used to identify it: http://www.mcsuk.org/downloads/wildlife/Jellyfishguide.pdf . It says that Barrel Jellyfish have arms instead of tentacles, which is interesting. And they only have a mild sting, which is good to know! Though hopefully I'll never find myself accidentally swimming with them, that would be disconcerting as they are huge.


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Happy Spring, everyone! Every day I'm surprised by how far along in the breeding season so many of the birds are, and every day I see more evidence that spring is a season of death and life at the same time. For every one life that survives, many don't. At this time of year you'll see dead baby birds often, whether they fell from the nest, or fledged only to get predated as a fledgling. But the countryside is also exploding with life, with busy parent birds darting about everywhere while territories still need to be maintained through diligent singing by the males. It's amazing they find the time! And soon they'll be giant families of tits and warblers everywhere. Happy days.

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