Seawatch SW: August 2009 update


The SeaWatch SW survey is now in its third year, and observations at the Gwennap Head watchpoint got off to a great start in July with a stunning Black-browed Albatross and good numbers of Balearic Shearwaters and other seabirds.

SeaWatch SW Assistant Co-ordinators, John Swann and Alice Jones (centre), carefully scanning the horizon for another albatross! (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Send us your Balearic Shearwater sightings now!

One of the main aims of SeaWatch SW is to provide a focal point for recording of the Critically Endangered Balearic Shearwater in UK and Irish waters; this will allow us to put project results into a national context. Data collected in 2007/08 are already feeding into ongoing conservation efforts led by RSPB and JNCC at both a national and international level. We are grateful to all observers who have provided us with records, and urge anyone who sees a Balearic Shearwater in the UK and Ireland in 2009 to contact us with details of the sighting, and/or submit their record to BirdGuides.

UK/Ireland Balearic Shearwater report for July 2009

Numbers of Balearic Shearwaters in June were much lower than in 2007/08, and this trend continued in the first half of July with no significant counts being made. However, the arrival of unsettled weather in mid-July stirred things up a bit, and regular observations from Berry Head (Devon) revealed a marked passage of up to 50 birds between 11th and 14th. The start of the SeaWatch SW survey then saw 36 passing Porthgwarra (Cornwall) on 16th, but the peak passage there was 99 birds on 25th–26th. Double-figure counts were also made from north Cornwall and east Dorset around this time, indicating a gradual spread of records, while small numbers of birds penetrated into the North and Irish Seas. Overall, the number (156) and distribution of records during July was comparable to 2007/08. The monthly summary and distribution map can be found on the Results page of the project website.

SeaWatch SW survey gets off to a flying start

The 2009 SeaWatch SW survey at Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra (near Land's End in Cornwall) got underway on 15th July. The Seabird Observers from 15th–31st July (Russell Wynn and John Swann) were well supported by a team of Marine Wildlife Observers (Alice Jones, Natalia Lopez, Philip Collins, Stephen Lawler, Joanna Jones, Martin Royle) and several visiting observers. Despite being battered by a succession of Atlantic low-pressure weather systems, with rain being recorded on 15 days out of 17, the survey team achieved full coverage throughout the period. The highlights are listed below, and included a Black-browed Albatross, good numbers of Balearic Shearwaters and other scarce seabirds, and a wide variety of cetaceans and other marine wildlife. Daily sightings updates from the watchpoint can be viewed on the Sightings page of the project website.

SeaWatch SW survey scores an albatross!

On 26th July an immature Black-browed Albatross passed the SeaWatch SW watchpoint at Gwennap Head, giving views down to a few hundred metres from 08:31 to 08:34. The bird was independently seen by 14 observers at nearby Hella Point a few minutes earlier, and may have been the 'albatross species' reported by a fisherman 11½ miles off Salcombe (Devon) three days earlier. What was almost certainly the same bird was subsequently seen off St Martin's (Scilly) on 27th and 28th July. Assuming it is accepted by BBRC, this remarkable sighting will be only the third record from mainland Cornwall (although there have been several previous reports of unidentified albatross species). The previous Cornish record was over 20 years ago, also seen from Gwennap Head on 30th August 1988. This latest record was featured on BBC Radio Cornwall and in The Cornishman newspaper. A full description can be viewed by following the link within this story on the project website.

Balearic Shearwaters and other scarce seabirds seen from Gwennap Head

A good total of 282 Balearic Shearwaters were recorded from the Gwennap Head watchpoint between 15th and 31st July, with a peak passage of 99 on 25th–26th July. Other scarce seabirds included three Great Shearwaters, 15 Cory's Shearwaters, 60 Sooty Shearwaters, two Pomarine Skuas, 25 Mediterranean Gulls (mostly juveniles dispersing west), five Little Terns and 148 Puffins, as well as regular sightings of Great and Arctic Skuas. Peak day counts of commoner species included 1937 Manx Shearwaters (18th), 36 European Storm-petrels (31st) and 74 Common Scoters (18th). Migrant waders included small numbers of Oystercatcher, Turnstone, Sanderling, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Whimbrel and Greenshank, while other migrant birds included Little Egret, Grey Heron, Grey Wagtail and small numbers of Swallows heading south. Full details can be found on the Sightings page of the project website.

Unsettled weather affects Basking Shark sightings for third year in a row

The dominantly unsettled weather in the second half of July ensured that few Basking Sharks were recorded from the Gwennap Head watchpoint. The only sightings were of six on 18th July and up to three on 20th July. This is the third year running that few sharks have been seen in July, and is a result of strong winds mixing the surface waters and hindering development of plankton aggregations. However, a good variety of cetaceans were recorded, with three Risso's Dolphins (including a mother and calf) on 18th July, at least three Bottlenose Dolphins (20th) with a different pod of at least six (23rd), a pod of about eight Common Dolphins (30th and 31st), and up to 10 Harbour Porpoises seen on most days. At least eight Grey Seals were regularly recorded and seven Ocean Sunfish were seen. A stranded Portuguese Man-o-War was picked up in Porthgwarra Cove (29th), and was part of a wind-driven influx into southwest waters. Other notable wildlife included a buck Roe Deer visiting the watchpoint on 20 July, good numbers of second-generation Painted Lady butterflies in Porthgwarra Valley, and occasional sightings of up to eight second-generation Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries near the watchpoint. Full details can be found on the Sightings page of the project website.

Marinelife boat-based surveys update

In recent years Lyme Bay, off the coast of Dorset, has been shown to be an important foraging area for Balearic Shearwaters and other seabirds, and is also one of the most southerly outposts of White-beaked Dolphin. SeaWatch SW is collaborating closely with Marinelife, who are leading efforts to discover more about the wildlife of Lyme Bay by co-ordinating a series of boat-based surveys. This offshore perspective helps us put land-based observations into a broader context. During July, Marinelife observers recorded several Balearic Shearwaters in Lyme Bay, including birds seen scavenging discards around fishing boats and one seen diving under floating weed. Other interesting July sightings have included White-beaked and Bottlenose Dolphins, Harbour Porpoises, Grey Seal and Ocean Sunfish. The Marinelife website also now hosts regular sightings updates from Berry Head, which is a SeaWatch SW sister site located at the western end of Lyme Bay. Full details of Marinelife sightings off southern England can be found here.

Berry Head 2008 report now available

The co-ordinator at the Berry Head sister site, Mark Darlaston, has recently published an illustrated overview of 2008 observations in the journal Devon Birds. We are grateful for permission to include the article as a PDF download on this site. The summary is as follows: "In 2008 I put in 276 hours of seawatching at Berry Head, between 18th June and 10th November, as a contribution to the SeaWatch SW Project. An extremely unsettled summer contributed to ideal seawatching conditions on many days. Good numbers of Balearic Shearwater (the main target species) were seen, with over 700 birds recorded and a mean passage rate of 2.5 birds/hr. Passage occurred in three main peaks, the first being notable as it appeared earlier than usual. The main peak occurred in late August, following strong southerly-biased winds, when a record day passage count for Devon of 109 birds was recorded. The data have reconfirmed Berry Head as an important site for monitoring this species in UK waters. In early July, the earliest Great Shearwater for 2008 in UK and Irish waters was seen, and later in the month there was a large movement of Cory's Shearwaters. The passage of Cory's was a site record, and there were other site records for Manx Shearwater in early July and Common Tern in early August. During the autumn, the watch period was notable for Long-tailed Skua and particularly Sabine's Gull, with both these Devon rarities making it into double figures. Observations have also shown interesting trends for different species in relation to morning and afternoon sightings. This may be of interest to any seawatchers with a morning or afternoon preference." The full article can be viewed by following the link within this story on the project website.

SeaWatch SW sister sites update

SeaWatch SW collates data from a series of sister sites, which help put Gwennap Head sightings into a wider geographical context. The current network includes Berry Head (Devon), Trevose Head (Cornwall) and Strumble Head (Pembrokeshire). We are now pleased to welcome two new sister sites to the project. Pendeen at the northwest tip of Cornwall will provide an interesting comparison with Gwennap Head, while Whitburn in northeast England will be a useful North Sea outpost. The latter site may seem remote from the southwest, but the results will help us track waves of migrant seabirds as they move down the North Sea and through the English Channel. We would like to thank John Foster (Pendeen) and Mark Newsome (Whitburn) for offering to contribute data to the project. Other keen sea-watchers that undertake intensive observations between mid-July and mid-October are invited to contact us via the project website if they would also like to become part of the sister site network.

SeaWatch SW represented at first international Basking Shark workshop

SeaWatch SW recently contributed to the first international workshop on Basking Sharks, held on the Isle of Man from 2nd–6th August. Basking Sharks are the largest fish in the northeast Atlantic Ocean, and are classified as Endangered within this region. Russell Wynn and Alice Jones gave two presentations at the meeting, highlighting the scientific and conservation aspects of their recent Basking Shark research. Survey work undertaken during summer and autumn 2007/08 as part of the SeaWatch SW project, has confirmed the Land's End peninsula as a Basking Shark 'hotspot'. In this area, tens to hundreds of animals can be found feeding at the surface at any one time. By investigating the controls behind these surface aggregations, the researchers are able to advise conservation agencies about how best to conserve the sharks while they visit our coastal waters. SeaWatch SW results are also contributing to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan for Basking Shark, and at the meeting it was proposed that SeaWatch SW survey methods should be used as a template for other Basking Shark hotspots, including the Isle of Man and northwest Scotland. A couple of images from the workshop can be viewed in the Gallery pages of the project website.

SeaWatch SW results published in British Birds

Two short papers, based on SeaWatch SW data, have recently been published in the popular ornithological journal British Birds. The first relates to a series of sightings of Madeiran Storm-petrel in the Bay of Biscay, during a research cruise on RRS James Cook in autumn 2008. The second provides an update on the status of Balearic Shearwater in UK and Irish waters, from 2004 to 2006. Although this period is prior to the start of SeaWatch SW, archive data provided by project observers has proved invaluable in assessing the status of this Critically Endangered seabird. We are grateful to those observers who contributed data and comments relating to these papers. The references are listed below, and electronic copies of the articles can be requested via the Contact Us page on the project website:

  • Wynn, R.B. and Shaw, K.D. (2009) Madeiran Storm Petrels in the Bay of Biscay. British Birds, 102, 28–29.
  • Wynn, R.B. (2009) Balearic Shearwaters in UK and Irish waters from 2004 to 2006. British Birds, 102, 350–354.

Fundacion Migres again produces huge count of Balearic Shearwaters

The Fundacion Migres team have again counted large numbers of Balearic Shearwaters leaving the Mediterranean Sea via the Straits of Gibraltar. This year, survey work between mid-May and mid-July produced a total of 17,576 birds moving west into the Atlantic Ocean. This is very similar to the 18,510 birds counted in the same period in 2008, and confirms that the total world population is likely to exceed 20,000 individuals. Only five years ago the population was thought to be as low as 10,000 individuals, based upon counts of 2100–2400 known breeding pairs. The discrepancy may be due to undiscovered breeding colonies, or an unusually large number of non-breeding birds in the population.

SeaWatch SW Assistant Co-ordinators

SeaWatch SW is now in its third year and the data being generated are producing fascinating results, especially as the survey phase expands into new areas. However, to meet the increased logistical demands of all this survey work, the project team has also had to expand. Consequently, we are pleased to announce that John Swann and Alice Jones have officially become volunteer Assistant Co-ordinators to the project. John is a resident of southwest Cornwall and has already devoted several hundred hours of observations to the Gwennap Head survey. The experience and support he provides to the observer team is invaluable, especially for those observers that are new to the project. Alice is using project results in her PhD studies, and will be responsible for many aspects of data management and analysis. She is also responsible for co-ordinating the Marine Wildlife Observers and the zooplankton sampling programme off Gwennap Head, which begins in 2009. So a big thank you to John and Alice, and to all the other volunteers who have helped to ensure that SeaWatch SW continues to get bigger and better!

Further details can be found on the SeaWatch SW website www.seawatch.org.

Written by: Dr Russell B Wynn, SeaWatch SW co-ordinator