The Portland Naturalist

The Portland Naturalist

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Seawatching - a Right of Passage

I've always loved seawatching.  I have an affinity with it.  The challenge, the excitement, the uncertainty.

Despite this, seawatches so far this year, largely from Chesil Cove, have been disappointing.  Even the occasionally craved-for south-easterlies have not produced decent passage, only the odd highlight.

So, when south-easterlies were forecast for yesterday morning, I had no trouble sleeping (in the past, I have been known to have sleepless nights in expectation of south-easterlies at my former seawatching spot, Selsey Bill).

I rocked up at Chesil Beach by Ferrybridge, which I'd learnt was usually better than the Cove, at 5:35 complete with full flask of Coffee and an empty notebook. 

My first few scans produced snippets of interest, such as a flock of 4 Bar-tailed Godwit and 2 Grey Plover, followed by a single pale-phase Arctic Skua over quite high.  But largely, the first few hours were as disappointing as I'd feared.  Nonetheless, totals soon built up, and were going along nicely by the time the first moment of excitement had arrived.

I'd now been joined by John Down and Paul Harris, and it was Paul who spotted a female Velvet Scoter hiding in a flock of Common Scoter, as they passed fairly distantly.  Later, a pair of Gadwall did the same.  A Portland tick!

Three hours had now passed, and still no more Skuas.  These appeared perfect conditions!

Then, I was just heading back up the beach to go back to the car for something, when Paul yelled out, ''Poms''!!!

They were a stonking flock of 8 Pomarine Skua, ridiculously close-in, and with a dark-phase bird in tow.  Luckily, Paul had picked them up early enough for me to set up the camera.  See the footage below.

Immediately behind them came 2 more Arctic Skua, and the Skua passage commenced.  37 more Pomarine and 8 more Arctic passed in the next 3 hours.  What caused these birds to occur at this time is a mystery, as the conditions seemed consistent throughout.  The highlight for me was a flock of 11, which spent much of the time sitting on the sea, before later heading off towards the Bill, only to be joined by another 4 - the biggest flock I have ever seen!

To finish off a brilliant morning, a fantastic pair of summer-plumaged Diver passed, a Red-throated Diver and a Black-throated Diver.

I had to break for lunch, but I rather wish I'd stayed!  Having said that, it was great seeing the Portland Castle Wood Warbler, which showed perfectly.

Although I know afternoon seawatches can often be tedious, I thought it was worth a try given the amount of action so far.  It wasn't ideal, with the sun now causing a few viewing issues, both with flaring off the sea, and heat haze.

Luckily, as the afternoon wore on, passage got better and better.  Particularly 'Commic' Tern and Manx Shearwater which had hardly featured in the morning (91 and 55 respectively).  By contrast, I only managed two more Pomarine Skua, both distant, as well as just three more Arctic Skua.

Scrutinising the Tern flocks reaped rewards with 3 separate Black Tern past, as well as a fantastic summer-plumage Roseate Tern, not done justice by the poor light.

I was later joined by Brett Spencer and Keith Pritchard, and with the help of Paul Harris who was watching from further west, we experienced 2 more Roseate Tern, which, although distant, were at least in better light.  I was surprised to find the pair of Gadwall sitting on the sea, but they did eventually continue their journey eastwards.

As always with seawatching, it was brilliant watching migration in action, with most of the Tern flocks (as well as most of the Arctic Skua and some of the waders) circling up high in Chesil Cove, and heading east over the harbour, hence the Bills poorer totals.

In the end, I put in a stint of 12 and a half hours.  The rain getting heavier come the evening, was the only thing that drove me from my position.  Had I known what the 'Commic' Tern total was, I'd have probably stuck it out a bit longer in an attempt to top 1k!

But, what a day.  In terms of quantity, by far my best seawatch ever.

Final totals:

947 'Commic' Tern - most cross-harbour, some lingering, but not for long.
354 Manx Shearwater - these look great shearing together in tight migrating flocks.
242 Common Scoter
71 Bar-tailed Godwit - some cross-harbour
58 Whimbrel - most cross-harbour
47 Pomarine Skua - several pitching in on the sea for a little while before continuing.
46 Little Tern - non-locals steaming through, some with the Commics.
25 Black-headed Gull - even these were great to see, migrating in flocks, all cross-harbour.
23 Sandwich Tern - surprisingly few, all tagging along with Commics.
14 Arctic Skua - most cross-harbour
9 Dunlin - may include birds disturbed from Ferrybridge. Several other unidentified small waders in-off in addition.
8 Sanderling- as above.
8 Great Crested Grebe - 2 flew by, but then later drifted past on the tide to join flock of 6 further west.
4 Grey Plover - all but one in with Barwits.
3 Black Tern - tagging along with Commics.
3 Red-throated Diver - just one in summer-plumage
3 Roseate Tern - tagging along with Commics.
2 Little Egret - strange seeing these migrating out at sea. Definitely not locals.
2 Great Skua - including one bird lingering about.
2 Oystercatcher - okay, perhaps not travelling very far!
2 Gadwall - past with Scoter, then later drifted past west on the tide, before again heading off east.
2 Shelduck - seemingly, straight in-off, then west.
2 Common Gull - both immatures
2 Mediterranean Gull - both immatures, one with a Common.
1 Curlew
1 Turnstone - perhaps disturbed from Ferrybridge.
1 Black-throated Diver - summer-plumaged bird past with Red-throat.
1 Knot - debated ID wader called by PH, tagging along with Scoter.
1 Velvet Scoter - female with Commons.

If you don't do much seawatching, I hope this encourages you to give it a go!

More of the same please! 

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