Friday, 21 August 2020

Down to the Sea Again

All week I've been watching the weather forecast, and drooling. Loads of birders do this. Like me they look at the charts, they see the tightly-clenched isobars, the exciting arrows, the squally clusters of rain symbols...and visualise all sorts of seabird carnage. And then they pick a location from which to witness it all. Some will be weighing up the options available locally, others further afield. I'll be honest here. Having endured some terminally dull patch seawatches of late I was not up for another. There are only so many times you can grit your teeth stoically whilst comparing your 8 Gannets and a Manxie to the birdy riches parading past watchpoints a few miles along the coast. I don't often travel for birding, but today was earmarked for such. Berry Head. Yep, that was where it was going to happen. I was sure.

I was so sure, that I arrived in the dark and walked up to the seawatch point wearing a head-torch. I wasn't going to miss a single minute of large-shearwater potential.

The headland quickly filled with eager, like-minded souls. As dawn broke, the flood-gates opened...

...and a seepage of mediocrity dribbled past...

Actually, it wasn't that bad. Compared to what I'm used to it was brilliant, but compared to what I'd imagined it was...well...

And I was reminded once again how absolutely rubbish I am at predicting birdy magic.

So, here are my totals for the all-day effort...

Manx Shearwater 212 (big under-count, I'm sure)
Balearic Shearwater 39
Arctic Skua 7
Arctic/Pom Skua 1
Large shearwater sp 1 - a typically frustrating event of excessive range and appalling light.
Storm Petrel 2
Sandwich Tern 4
Med Gull 1 juv
Common/Arctic Tern 16
Arctic Tern 4
Common Tern 4
Whimbrel 4
Bonxie 1

It was great to meet a few birders I hadn't seen for years, as well as a couple I knew from Twitter but hadn't met in the flesh. Entertainment was provided by Alan(?) who carefully fell over sideways in his chair, very slowly and deliberately - and quite noisily - so that no one missed it. First-class performance. I've never seen so much polite lip-pursing and suppressed merriment. Classic!

Despite the somewhat disappointing tally, the time whizzed by. At Berry Head there is always something to look at. As well as passing birds there are the close, feeding birds, there are cetaceans, and of course there are seawatchers toppling sideways in their chairs. By the way, if you're hoping there might be photos of the latter, sadly not. Sorry. I really am. I was just too slow. Anyway, here are a few photos of stuff that didn't make me laugh...

A pod of some 20 or so Common Dolphins came close in the morning...
...including calves
My first-ever Balearic Shearwater pics
Gannet. Sunshine. Moody sea.
Another Balearic Shearwater
Immature Gannets
The local Lifeboat. On exercises presumably...
Harbour Porpoise accidentally sticks its head out
Two Harbour Porpoises

I discovered that trying to photograph cetaceans is a nightmare. You have to guess where they'll next appear, and of course they almost never oblige. Passing seabirds ditto. Dreadful! Find with optics, point camera at where you think they'll be in a moment, peer through view-finder and wait. Nine times out of ten I waited in vain. Probably because I was pointing the camera at totally the wrong bit of sea. Whatever. I am evidently very bad at it. Much practice required...

And finally, this photo was taken at about 09:45, by which time the realists among us had upped and gone, leaving only the hopeless optimists...


  1. ...and those waiting for the bus to return them to the old people's home.

  2. Lovely spot Berry Head, I visit it in February during my annual Devon stay. It's feast or famine and when there are lots of gulls, I haven't got a clue what most of them are. But the porpoise and dolphin action usually makes it worthwhile.

    1. Agreed, lovely spot. Many elderly birders (me included) first made its acquaintance in April 1986, when the quarry hosted a white Gyr Falcon. What a bird! And what a setting for it!

  3. In the end given the wind direction and visibility forecast I opted for Start Point, I'm sorry to have missed you but you did okay. Start Point was difficult in the given light, I can see why places like Pendeen are so good in clearer morning light. We have to wait until the afternoon in S Devon to get that sort of light by which time the passage has often dried up! So although I saw a few Great Shearwater further S in Devon the conditions made it comfortable and tricky. Glad you enjoyed your watch at Berry Head.

    1. Cheers Mike, yes, it was very enjoyable. However, I was sitting next to Dave when he came off the phone after talking to you early on. You can imagine how his report of "5 Greats so far..." went down. Simultaneous hope and disappointment! 😄

  4. Superb photos Gav, I particularly like the Common Dolphins and the single Balearic. Lovely. I feel your pain for all day seeing not a great deal but you gave it the shot. On another note your last picture has 3 people standing looking seaward. I always have a chuckle when I see images of 'seawatching' people upright. They are never going to give that session due condsideration. Half an hour then away ( am I right?). I've seen it so many times... ;)

    1. Thanks Stewart, it was great to try the P900 in new circumstances. Pleased with the outcome too...

      Re upright seawatchers: I don't think any lasted past lunchtime, but to be fair they managed several hours! There must have been 15-20 of us early doors, but the last ones standing were certainly the ones sitting! I was there for the duration: seat, brolly, two flasks and lots of food!