Saturday, 28 May 2011

More liquid sunshine and wind!

So we arrived on Lunga early afternoon, and man what a cool place.  There was still a 20-25 knot wind running and pretty choppy sea, but we headed in to scout the place.  We landed and it looked pretty good considering the conditions, so I headed up to the main puffin and guillemot colony.  Spectacular, even in the rain!  Loads of puffins flying around doing their thing.  They were obviously still nest building with lots of birds collecting grass and thrift from the tops of the cliffs.  There were a lot of razorbills around the place also, as well as shags which seemed to be nesting under boulders and around the place.  They were actually very confiding, which is interesting as when in zodiacs offshore they really don’t like you getting close.  The guillemots seemed to be in full swing of things with eggs, and the colonies were being patrolled by herring and great black-backed gulls.  The latter had a nest nearby as well.  There were also several ravens around, hooded crows, and at least a few meadow pipits.

Despite the rain, which at times was pretty heavy, the birds and photographic chances were stunning.  Got some stuff I am really happy with, so came away pleased.  Make your mind up below.

We then headed on to Staffa, with even crappier rainy conditions, and due to the big swell and wind a zodiac cruise into Fingle’s Cave was out of the question.  Just as well you can walk around the spectacular columnar basaltic cliffs to the cave.  I went up to the summit, with nice views of a fulmar colony and the coastline, but absolutely howling winds that almost bowled you over.  We also did a walk down along the coast to another small puffin colony.  So despite the weather it was a long but stunning day...some nice photos to boot!

Shag looking wet...does that mean wet as a shag?

Cute little puffin!

Lunga bird cliffs

Coastline of Staffa

The common guillemot swarm 

Hey! You lookin' at me!

Oh, ok then!

Razorbill shenanigans

Razorbill stretch

In the rain


Puffin adding to the nest

And again

Having a little stretch

Puffin eatin' machine - a great black-backed gull

Summer in the British Isles?!

Well it almost was in the The Isles of Scilly...but summer seems to have finished now.  The last few days have shown me what summer up here really is like, and I’m not sure I like it!  We were not allowed by the Irish authorities to operate our zodiacs on the west coast of Ireland due to the weather forecast (yeah that sounded ‘Irish’ to me too), so with no way of doing what we wanted to do, in the weather that was occurring we decided to cut up the east coast, and had a day in Dublin instead.  The wind going into Dublin Port was 40 knots, so not pleasant, although we did see a good feeding flock of gannets with harbour porpoise feeding on the surface.  A few manx shears, plus guillemots and razorbills.

We then did a tour of the city and a visit to Mount Usher gardens, which although it was drizzling were actually very nice.  A beaut male bullfinch feeding on buds was a nice addition to the list.

That night we sailed from Dublin up to the Isle of Man, where we came in past the Calf of Man around 0730, and then up to Port St Mary’s.  On the way in we had a couple of basking sharks, with one right outside the port area.  Not great views but nice big dorsal fins were pretty plain to see.  The wind at this point was probably about 20 knots...a mere zephyr!  We did also see a few manx shearwaters – yes real manx manx shearwaters!  Plus a few fulmars, gannets, and kittiwakes.  After breakfast we did a zodiac cruise along the south coast towards the Calf of Man, and had a nice colony of razorbills, guillemots (inc bridled form), and kittiwakes on a rock stack called the Sugar Loaf.  The kittiwakes were still building their nests, getting grass from along the coast, and I suspect some of the auks had laid, but maybe not all of them.  There were hooded crows wheeling along the tops of the cliffs and even a couple of pairs of choughs which was a nice addition.  Further along I found a pair of common eiders and a young grey seal, and as the rain started and the wind increased we headed back to the ship for lunch.  After lunch it was a bus tour around Southern Isle of Man (Castletown, Cregneash, etc) but first we had to get everyone ashore.  The wind was a good 30 knots by now, from the north, so we were going straight into it...a little bumpy and a bit wet.  The bus tour was pretty good, visiting the old town of Cregneash and seeing the freaky Manx Loaghtan sheep that are native to the Isle of Man.  Weird things with big horns like an Ibex, and some of them had double sets of horns.  If there was ever a satanic looking sheep it was these!  Back at the port we found the wind had increased to about 40+ knots with gusts stronger than that.  It was at our backs heading back to the ship with the passengers, but coming back to the pier unloaded was fun and we had to use another person as ballast.  It was very rough and more than a little wetting!  Then it was fun trying to get the zodiacs all back onboard.

A pretty comfortable night at sea as we headed north towards Iona.  I didn’t wake during the night, but apparently it got a little ‘bangy’ during the night...glad I’m a heavy sleeper.  I was on the bridge early again this morning and saw our first puffins, as well as more manx shears, a few fulmars, gannets, guillemots and razorbills.  No sign of any cetaceans or basking sharks this morning though, but an Arctic skua was another new bird.  It was pretty sheltered in against Iona, but 20 knots of wind or so from the NW for most of the early morning.

Ashore on Iona we had a lovely sedge warbler singing away at the end of the pier, and then the first corn crakes were heard not far off.  I led a bird walk, but we didn’t have to go far (to the meadow by the nunnery) to hear and see our first ones.  The male was wandering around in the long grass, occasionally showing his head and neck and calling, whilst the female skulked around hardly showing at all until she burst into the air and flew across the meadow.  A cuckoo also flew and landed in a tree nearby, calling for some time, and there was a willow warbler, great tit, and linnets around the place, and several starlings nesting in the dry stone walls.  So pretty birdy.  I managed to get a few distant shots of the corncrake amongst the grass, nothing award winning, but a lifer for me and pretty happy with the sightings we got.  At one stage I looked further along the hill to where another bird was calling, and there it was out in the open on the side of a path!

Back on the ship for lunch and we are now heading to Lunga.  Fingers crossed the wind does not get up and we can get ashore.

Basking shark dorsal fin, just off Port St Mary

Razorbill flock at sea just off the colony

Mainly common guillemots on the nesting cliffs of 'The Sugarloaf'

Kittiwakes collecting nesting material

Shags on the rocks

An 'Irish' phone box on Isle of Man - used in the filming of 'Waking Ned Divine'

One of the old buildings in Cregneash

Attaching the roof to the building...just as well in this wind!!!

One of the old cottages in Cregneash

One of the Manx Loaghtan sheep 

Truly a scary looking sheep

Even the lambs look evil....especially from this angle!

Pure evil!

The village of Cregneash

Castletown dock

Clearly they are either really prepared in Castletown, or too drunk from last New Years to sort out this sign outside the local pub!


In Castletown
Sedge warbler singing away in Iona

Starling chicks begging for food from their dry stone wall nest (Sue, I didn't even have to go to Hungary to get this one!)

The corny crake

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Isles of Scilly...not the Scilly Isles

So it was leaving Madeira, staying in a crappy Holiday Inn Hotel in Gatwick and then making it to the ship in Plymouth over the last few days.  To be honest there can’t be too much good about travelling via planes, trains, and automobiles (despite being able to make a movie out of it), and finally reaching a ship.  The death of Osama certainly hasn’t ended the ‘War on Terror’ in Plymouth, with the fact that all our passengers (average age maybe 70 if we are lucky) having to go through security to the n’th degree before getting on a cruise ship that carries a maximum of 120 passengers.  Oh well, at least the World is a safer place (yeah right).

So we left Plymouth last night, with wet and windy weather.  Getting back onto the MV Clipper Odyssey was fantastic, with it feeling like my home away from home.  This is the ship I have spent more time on than any other combined, and most of the crew feel like family.  So it is always great to be back here.

I awoke early this morning and spent some time on the bridge hoping to see a few seabirds as we headed in to the Isles of Scilly.  A couple of gannets and two fulmars had me thinking that this was as good as it gets for a UK seawatch...until a single guillemot strayed into view and I went into raptures.  Nevermind, I’d had a great time in Madeira so this was ok!  Pretty quiet to be honest but the sun was almost shining and showed promise and the wind from the west, although being cool, was not strong.  We anchored in the east and then did our first excursion to St Agnes.  The birders, with me at the helm (not literally) headed out on a local tender.  This cruise has been sold as a birding cruise, with 40 birders signed up, and it’s my name on the brochure.  Not sure if the ship would have sold out if my name hadn’t been on the brochure or not...but anyway.

So we landed on St Agnes and set about doing a birding walk in an anticlockwise direction around the island.  We found a few good things, including a whimbrel, oystercatchers, turnstones, and a few species of gulls (NOT seagulls!!).  Even a grey seal in the bay, and we also got a few butterfly species which was nice to see with common blue, six-spot burnet, red admiral, and speckled wood being common around the gardens and borders.  There were lots of wrens around the place as well, singing, feeding young, and generally all over the place.  We did a circuit of the island, rustling a few passengers out of the ‘Turks Head’ pub on the way to the boat ramp, before heading back to the ship for lunch.  Imagine drinking before the sun is over the ‘yard-arm’!!!

After lunch we headed across to Tresco in the zodiacs (my first bit of zodiac action in a while, and nice to be back at the tiller) for our afternoon at the Abbey Gardens and wandering around the place.  I’m seriously not into gardens (Mum and Dad dragged me around enough as a kid...with only minimal bird reserves as compensation!) but this place is actually pretty impressive, not least because of the fact that there are a massive number of New Zealand species of plants that have been introduced here.

I took a birding walk around the Great Pool and we managed a reasonable list of species with a few gadwell, linnet, greenfinch and song thrush along the way.  Heard a couple of reed warbler and saw a few coot and mute swan as well, and then headed back to the landing.  The weather was absolutely gorgeous, so it really was pretty nice.

Back at the landing we headed back to the ship and then sailed for Ireland...tonight being the ‘Captain’s Welcome Party’.  On with the best shirt and shoes and a few cocktails...Ireland here we come!

Whimbrel on the beach

Grey seal peering at us

Three species of gull - Herring, lesser-black-backed, and great black-backed

Common blue

Shoreline of St Agnes

Winter wren with food

Winter wren feeding chick

Herring gull

The landing on Tresco

Iceplant on the shore of Tresco

Male ring-necked pheasant

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Beer really does work!

So today it was a case of trying to catch up on a little sleep, organise a few bits of work (ie. get image files properly backed up), and catch up with Bob and Mandy and hopefully see a Trocaz pigeon or two.  So the morning was drizzly and not much fun outside, so a good chance to get the boring bits out of the way.  Headed across to Bob and Mandy's Hotel just before midday and caught up with them, talking with Bob more on his North Atlantic seabird projects, and reviewing some footage of Zino's and Deserta's.  Unfortunately we seem to have been a little early to see Desert'as petrels this year, but it sounds like last year they were back by this time.  Every year is different, and the trips have been a massive success from the point of view of absolutely awesome views of Zino's and the other species we have seen.  So I will just have to come back again...already hatching a plan with Bob on that one!

So we then headed up to Monte (above Funchal) to the cable car.  We checked out the valley down towards the Botanical Garden cable car, and within a few minutes I found a Trocaz pigeon.  Not sure what was up yesterday, but clearly they were all hiding and having their siesta when we were looking for them.  Within a few minutes we had notched up a good 5+ birds.  A coffee at the cafe there got us a few closer views, but I completely muffed it when I went down the path a little way without my camera and had the closest views, but with no camera.  Beautiful bird with lovely speckled necklace and the distant views just hadn't done them justice.  I went back, got my camera, and of course they were gone!  Stupid pigeons!

So we spent a little more time looking and then headed down on the cable car.  Great views of Funchal and managed to see a couple of kestrels along the way - a single and then a pair seemingly chasing each other around a nesting cliff above the houses.  At the sea front we wandered along towards the port, looking for roseate terns which are apparently in the area, but no luck.  At the port area we were on the lookout for a juvenile yellow-crowned nightheron (a rare vagrant from the US, 3rd record for the Western Palearctic), but instead we found Mike and Mandy.  Mike had been on the pelagics with us, and was also on the lookout for the nightheron...I'm sure the romantic lunch on the waterfront was just a ruse!

Anyway, after unsuccessfully searching the moored boats where it apparently rests during the day, we decided to have a beer in the 'Beer House' (YES it does exist!) and 'search for the nightheron'...a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel!  Well we sat, ordered a beer, and before my first sip of beer have even been absorbed into the bloodstream I spotted the bird roosting on a boat in the middle of the marina - Eureka!  We had nice views of it, albeit a little distant, before it hoped up to another perch.  Originally it was on a boat on the eastern side of the second row of boats from the 'Beer House' on a boat about midway along the pier (opposite a yacht called Jackpot).  I texted Mike who had gone off to look in town with Mandy, and they came back just in time to see it fly...closer to us and it perched on a lightstand only 40m away.  It then flew down to a rock wall where apparently it usually hunts for crabs, so we got some stunning shots of it there, before it then flew back into the marina.  So, there was little left to do other than have another beer...after which a roseate tern decided to fly right past us, circle the marina and then off.  There is such a thing as lucky beer!

With our work complete, we decided to head up into town and enjoyed a lovely dinner together.  Life is good!

PS Ash...just in case you were wondering, Bob is working REALLY hard here, honest! ;)  Hopefully catch up with you at some stage over the next few weeks.

Spot the Trocaz pigeon (no prizes, it is in the centre of the photo afterall!)

Mmmmmm beer

Spot the yellow-crowned nightheron (again perfectly placed in the centre for those non-birders - who am I kidding as if any non-birders read this drivel!)

Aren't I clever

The juv yellow-crowned nightheron in flight. A bird in serious moult.

Look at me!

Mr Scruffy

Not a Trocaz pigeon