Every summer/autumn since I have been in Guernsey there has been an organised birders boat trip out to sea to look for seabirds, but I have never previously jumped on board. This has been for a variety of reasons. At first I was very reluctant to head out to sea in a tiny boat - (which I am sure stemmed from a terrifying journey on a similar boat to Deenish Island in Ireland when the boat nearly flipped three of the BUBO lads into the Atlantic!) - but I am used to boats now and quite enjoy them. When the trips happen in September I am usually busy with work, and almost every August trip has coincided with Rosie being at work. Also, I have been a bit reluctant because the pelagic trips haven't always produced enough interesting birds to make it worthwhile. Some of them have been good, some have been poor - it is a bit of a gamble.
However, this year, when I heard that Chris had organised a small, hastily-arranged trip for a group of friends, I jumped at the chance. Firstly, it was much earlier in the season than recent trips which suited my interests well. Secondly, the weather forecast looked pretty decent, and thirdly, there seemed to be loads of seabirds around the Channel and Western Approaches this year. I had seen the videos of the seabirds off the Scilly Isles and I fancied a bit of that! Anyway, I thought it was about time that I had some decent views of Storm Petrel. After all these years I had only ever had them distantly off the coast.
So eight of us, plus the skipper, met at the fish quay, loaded the boat and chugged out of the harbour. We headed north out of the Russell towards the Hurd Deep, the deepest section of the Channel within striking distance, where we hoped that exotic tubenoses and their ilk were at play!
During the first hour or so it was just a case of "getting out there", as the sea is still pretty shallow immediately north of the island and would not attract too many pelagic species, just the odd passing migrant or local bird hanging around. So this time was spent chatting, supping tea from our flasks and basking in the beautiful sunny weather. We really had chosen a superb day for it. At about 10 o'clock we did start noting a few more birds, mainly Gannets, blogging about and then I suddenly caught sight of what looked like a Frisbee laying in the water. It took a few moments and then I realised what it was - an Ocean Sunfish of course! These ocean wanderers often lie on their sides, looking like dinner plates floating on the surface, waving one of their fins in the air. Luckily I saw it early enough for a quick snap as we sped past. A new species for me (as far as I can remember).
About half-an-hour further on, we came to our first congregation of birds. There were lots of gulls and Gannets circling around and fishing, along with a decent flock of Common Terns. There was obviously some good feeding hereabouts. Although we were not far enough out to be above the 'Deep', we were still in deep enough water to be looking for pelagic species and it is not a good idea to steam on past when there are birds about.
So we cut the engines and sent out our first load of "chum" - manky fish bits, popcorn, fish oil, etc - which we hoped would attract the tubenoses in. Petrels have a superb sense of smell and can home in on the source of the stench from miles away. The main thing is to be patient. Even though you have attracted some birds close to the boat, others may be coming in from further away and there may be a constant changeover of individuals. You may think that you are seeing the same birds over and over again, going round and round, but something new may just appear from out of nowhere. We stayed in this spot for almost an hour and it was superb - my first ever "chumming" session. Some of the birds were so close and the boat was steady as a rock. Much better than the distant dots that appear over the horizon from Jaonneuse.
It wasn't at all long until the Storm Petrels arrived and joined the fray. They gave great views as they circled the boat, every now and then dropping down and dancing on the water as they collected morsels off the surface. They were never close enough whilst static for frame filling pictures, but they did come close enough in fast bursts of flight to have superb views through the bins. The white line below the wing was not something I had really seen before. It seems logical that these birds were from the colony on Burhou Island, off Alderney, since these birds would still have chicks in August I think and were out feeding during the day. Although, seabird movements are a bit of a mystery and perhaps some of these were summering, non-breeding birds from elsewhere. I found it very exciting watching these tiny sea-chickens flicking between the gulls.
Of course, with this flurry of excitement round the boat, it attracted the attention of the passing pirates and we were soon joined by a big, bad Bonxie ready to prey on the weak and steal from the slow. We had two or three birds patrolling the flock and one came really close for some decent shots.
One species that was very keen to come close to the boat was Fulmar and we had them almost constantly at just a few metres distance. Such a smart-looking bird close up, the whitest-white plumage against the grey sea was a delight. They look much gentler whilst swimming than they do in flight or on a cliff, when they seem pretty mean!
We, of course, were always attended by a gaggle of large gulls, but the one that was nearly always the closest caught my attention. It had paler, more gingery upperparts than the other immature gulls present and a whitish head. I wasn't sure at the time but I thought it must be a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. Looking at the photos since, it does appear to show the important features of one.
After an enjoyable hour of birding and photography we noticed that many of the birds were drifting away. So we headed off north, towards the deep water. However, we had only been travelling for ten minutes when we came across another congregation, with many Gannets feeding and diving. Below the Gannets, in the water, we could see there was some activity and we assumed that there was a pod of dolphins feeding below there. But, when we started seeing sharply-pointed fins breaking the surface we knew that these were no mammals!
These underwater beasts were fish. And not just any fish, but massive Blue-fin Tuna! And there wasn't just a few of them - we realised that we were passing through a big shoal, perhaps as many as 100 of them. Of course, we mainly saw the sharp tail fins breaking the water, but every so often one would half-breach, and we saw the silvery sides and distinctive dorsal fins. They were huge fish - really massive. Finding these oceanic giants was a huge surprise. Atlantic Blue-fin Tuna are apparently more-or-less extinct, or very endangered anyway. Bumping into a large flock like this was almost unimaginable. We felt very privileged. Although we were aware that the pelagic trips off Scilly had been seeing some Tuna and perhaps this may have been the same group. Who knows?
As soon as they appeared, the tuna were quickly gone, and we looked out for more birds in this area. There were a few more Storm Petrels and Bonxies and a new species was a Black Tern or two. We could see a couple of French trawlers over the way, with a gaggle of gulls in tow and so we headed over to one of those in case a large shearwater or unusual gull was in the flock. However, we did not see anything amongst the throng, but it was interesting watching the trawler pull in its nets, which didn't seem to have many fish in to me, but did have lots and lots of starfish.
We set off again to head out to our final destination and stopped above the deepest part of the English Channel, the Hurd Deep, about ten past one. On our way out here, we picked up four Swifts migrating south, a few more tern flocks and my only Balearic Shearwater of the voyage. We cut the engines and gradually emptied the last of the chum and waited to see what arrived. Out here, with no one in sight, with a nice flat sea and the sun beating down on us, it was idyllic - not at all what most UK pelagic trips are like I am quite sure. We attracted a similar selection of species as before - plenty of Storm Petrels and a few Bonxies - but nothing new appeared to be arriving. I contented myself with trying to take photos of the petrels and enjoying the bird chat with the guys. I really should have got some better shots of the petrels, but my excuse is that I am still getting used to my new camera.
The sun was getting so hot now that my feet were burning up in my walking boots and thick socks. So I sat down, stripped to my bare feet, rolled my trousers up and swigged the final dregs of tea from my flask. I was idly relaxing in the chair, just starting to snooze, when I was snapped to attention by some sudden shouting - "HEY!", "WHAT?", "HANG ON!!!" etc. Then suddenly the words "IT'S A WILSON'S!!!" sprang me to my feet!
I scrambled clumsily across the deck and joined the others at the back of the boat. Scanning in the direction that they were looking, I picked up the bird almost straight away. After watching the standard Storm Petrels all day, this bird was clearly different and was definitely, and incredibly, a Wilson's Petrel!
Instead of the constant fast, flickery flight of the Stormies, the Wilson's flight was more powerful and purposeful, with smooth glides between flaps - more of a proper seabird flight. The slightly larger size and broader wings gave it a different jizz, and the upperwing bar was obvious in these sunny conditions.
I really couldn't believe what I was seeing. Although, of course, Wilson's was a target species for the trip, it was really a fanciful target that I never, ever expected us to hit. There has been one previous record from the pelagic - in September 2003 - but with none since, I suspected it might be a lucky one-off vagrant. Lots of Storm Petrels are seen on every pelagic trip, so if there were regular Wilson's summering with them, they will have surely been seen? But, there are other factors - not many of the trip dates have been this early in the summer - sometimes the boat doesn't get this far out - some years are just better for Wilson's off the UK than other years (it seems that 2017 has been terrific for Wilson's in UK waters). Maybe Wilson's is a regular visitor to the Hurd Deep in the middle of summer but no one is there to see them. Nevertheless, seeing this species was a real dream come true, a proper world lifer. Although not a rabid seabirder, I used to read about the old pelagic trips on the Scillonian or Chalice boats back in the day, in search of this mythical species.
Unlike the 2003 bird which was apparently on show just briefly, this bird was flying back and forth rather nicely. Every now and again is disappeared but we soon found it again. It was difficult to estimate just how long it was on show since time seems to slow in such situations. But it was long enough for me to spend some time watching it through my bins, then some time trying to take snaps of it, and going back and forth a number of times. It did then move a little bit further away and eventually it disappeared from view into the distance. We all looked at each other in disbelief at what we had just seen. A few high fives and manly shoulder-hugs were shared and we headed off home shaking our heads and beaming with contented grins.
We spent the next hour or so chugging straight back to Guernsey basking in a glow of contentment. On the way back we saw many more Storm Petrels including a couple of flocks of over 50 birds. Although it was not even mid-afternoon it felt quite dusk-like as the cloud and mist had come in, a big contrast to the bright sun of earlier. We also saw a Puffin, a few more Black Terns and a couple of distant Porpoise as we cruised back to the island.
So, all in all, I consider myself exceptionally lucky that my first Guernsey pelagic trip was so amazing. We didn't see a massive variety of species but the quality of species and the whole experience was top drawer. I am now very keen to visit the Hurd Deep again but will it ever live up to this first encounter? I hope so.
A tragic post-script to this blog post is that, just a few weeks after our trip, Julian Medland sadly passed away. He had been fighting a serious illness for the past year. Julian loved seabirds and was keen to go on this trip despite being so poorly, so it was fitting that his final pelagic was a good one. He was an excellent birder and always great company out in the field. He will be missed by us all.