Friday 6 September 2013

Seabirds and Seawatching by Mike Cobley

Seabirds and Seawatching

Over the last twenty years or so there has been a tremendous increase in interest in the study of seabirds. I suppose it all began during the Second World War when birders, conscripted into the navy s on both sides, were compelled to scan the sea horizons in search of enemy ships and submarines. What a gift to a birder of the 1940s !  What would it have felt like to ‘up periscope ‘and see a Great Shearwater at 20 feet staring into the lens ? There must have been competition amongst some sailor birders to do the extra shift or so on deck with binoculars. It’s a pity that the sailors did not keep accurate records of what they saw – or did they.  If they did they would make fascinating reading. 
But now back to the present – and the present in Ireland. We are a small country with a fluctuating population of about 5 million. Only about 250 of us could be described as active birders (equipped with binoculars, telescope a few bird books at home, and the will to go out looking for birds on a regular basis – perhaps every week.) This means that we miss most of the birds which visit our country and as a result many interesting birds go unrecorded. This situation is magnified when it comes to seabirds. Recent times have seen enormous advance in the standard of optical equipment , including cameras, but seeing  and  identifying seabirds is very difficult at the best of times let alone in poor visibility, in the wind when you cannot keep the scope steady, your hands are cold, you are probably wet and the birds are a mile or so away.
So how is it done ?  Well the first thing to do is get close to the birds and in West Cork there are many headlands which jut out into the sea enabling us to reduce the distance to the birds. Secondly we must chose weather conditions which drive the birds closer to land – generally this means strong SW winds which have originated out in the Atlantic. And thirdly we must choose a good ID book – preferably a modern book devoted to seabirds. Perhaps the most valuable tool in the box is an experienced companion to help you on the first few headland excursions. Sea watching is completely different to watching land birds and it is unlikely that you will be able to find and identify a bird at a long distance for the first time which is flying at great speed without the help of an experienced sea watcher. Most of the ID is done on size, shape and the way the bird flies. Colouration, if you see any, is a bonus. As in life generally we learn from each other. There are excellent birders in Ireland but very, very few excellent sea watchers. This is because we cannot get the practice required. We cannot study seabirds at close quarters like we can garden birds for instance. Going out a few times with a good sea watcher is invaluable before you ‘get you eye in’. I managed to get my eye in at an early age in 1967 on the east coast of England at Spurn Bird Observatory – a very poor place to sea watch. There lived there at the time one of the UKs best birders named George Edwards. George was a wildlife film make working for Colin Willock who produced the Survival TV documentary series. He was very well travelled and had spent many years filming in the Southern Ocean both on the Falklands and on South Georgia . One day a young birder ran into the observatory exclaiming that he had seen a Great Shearwater. George asked him for a description and then said that he thought that it was not a great shear. The youngster then asked quite indignantly how George would know, and how many had George ever seen anyway. George replied ‘’I have eaten more Great Shearwaters than you will ever see in your life ‘’ The youngster was very chastened. That young birder now has several of George’s bird paintings on his wall at home – George was also a gifted artist. George eventually taught me a great deal about birds.
Where to go.  As I said the best place to go is a local headland. The best in West Cork are Severn Heads, Galley Head, The Old Head of Kinsale, Toe Head and Mizen Head. There are others and it makes sense to choose the one closest to home so that you can practise more often. It’s worth mentioning that probably the best sea watching site in Europe exists at Blannan on Cape Clear. Blannan juts out into the Atlantic more than anywhere else in the South West but is access is difficult  involving a ferry crossing, a long walk across the island and a dangerous traverse of 300 meters along a ‘goats path’ along the cliff edge in order to reach the best viewing spot.
  When to go ? The best times are in autumn from about early August to the end of October.
What can be seen ?  As I write on the 21st of August, there have been some great seabirds in West Cork already this year. Good birds, from a seawatching point of view, are birds like Cory’s Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Feas Petrel, Sabine’s Gull and Skuas (Great, Pomorine and Actic) and best of all a Bulwers Petrel. There have also been sightings of many Puffin, Guillimot and Razorbill. Manx Shearwater can now be seen daily in large number s and will probably reach a peak in mid September with perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 per hour passing the headlands. These birds have a very interesting breeding biology too complex to cover here and in the SW we see only a minute insight into their very interesting ‘big picture’.
The only downside to seawatching is that at its best it is done in very poor (for us) weather conditions so if you go don’t forget  some creature comforts such as a snack, a warm drink, some waterproof clothing and something comfortable to sit on ( a fold up chair is ideal ).   So next time you see SW gales forecast on RTE, pause a second and consider a few hours on the coast you might be glad that you did.    

Michael Cobley

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