Friday, September 19, 2014

Dolphin Watching in the Farne Deeps

Last Saturday (13th) my friend Jane and I drove to Northumberland. We were booked on a trip with North Sea Pelagics who take their fast rib boat 20 miles offshore with the aim of observing White-beaked Dolphins.
Our small group assembled in the carpark of picturesque Beadnell Bay, where a film crew were photographing our tour leader Doctor Ben Burville. Ben appeared last year on the BBC's Countryfile programme with John Craven who undertook the same trip as us and had great views of the dolphins, so hopes were high. The tractor towed the rib to the water's edge and we clambered aboard. We decided to occupy the front seats so we could spot anything directly ahead of the boat. Although people at the front of the rib experience more of the bouncing motion as the boat skims over the waves we were undeterred, and enjoyed the roller-coaster ride!Conditions were excellent with a sea state of only 1 to 2, and the early morning fog had mostly dissipated by lunchtime.
The trip to the "Deeps" takes about 45 minutes but there were plenty of seabirds to keep us occupied, including many winter-plumaged Guillemots, Razorbills and the occasional Puffins without their bright summer bills. Fulmars and Gannets were numerous as well.

Then ,along with another passenger. I spotted a falcate fin breaking the surface and the unmistakable profile of a Minke Whale! The rib slowed to halt and we spent a short time with this magnificent animal ensuring everyone got a good view while being careful not to cause any disturbance. It was definitely a tricky game trying to predict where it would surface again. At one point it surfaced quite close to the rib and we were treated to a shower of its stinky breath! Interestingly, this whale had a distinctive notch cut out of its dorsal fin; perhaps a close encounter with a ship's propeller or maybe a close shave with an Orca?


After this fabulous encounter we continued on our way to where we hoped to see the White-beaked Dolphins. We constantly scanned the calm sea for the tell-tale splashes of dolphins and closely monitored the activities of the seabirds; a flock of circling and diving Gannets is often a sign that cetaceans are in the area. And wow! How amazing are Gannets when they dive!
Soon we saw a flock of Fulmars feeding on something in the water, and even appearing to stand on the waves! We edged the rib closer and discovered what was attracting these "mini-albatrosses"; a dead dolphin! And they were standing on the corpse ass they fed.  It was a large animal with most of its guts showing and its skull almost devoid of flesh. This unfortunate animal was identified as a White-beaked Dolphin; not the view I had hoped for. After a few photos of the Fulmars we beat a hasty retreat from the putrefying stench.

Another Minke was seen by some of the group but it was more distant than the first. We continued on our journey and soon reached the "Deeps". The engine was cut and we scanned the calm waters.It's amazing to be that far out at sea with no sign of land, and not even any other vessels to be seen. Conditions were perfect for viewing cetaceans; if anything at all had broken the surface we would have seen it. But, alas, nothing was seen. We scoured the area, and closely monitored the Gannets to see if they had found any fish shoals. But, unfortunately, there were no large flocks of seabirds and, sadly, no dolphins.
Although some of the Gannets did make sweeping passes of the boat providing fabulous views and a chance to test our skills at aging these magnificent seabirds. Additionally, we saw good numbers of juvenile Kittiwakes which were carefully scrutinised in the hope of finding a Sabine's Gull.

We made our way slowly back and were very fortunate to find another confiding Minke Whale that provided another photographic challenge in the dull evening light.

The sun was getting lower in the sky and it was time to head for the shore. But our ever vigilant group did not give up hope.
And then there they were! A pod of dolphins in the dusk! The group of maybe a dozen animals swam adjacent to the rib, with some even riding the bow wave! Amazing! Everyone on the rib was ecstatic with high-fives, whoops and cheers all around. But, wait, these weren't the expected White-beaked Dolphins. They had pale lateral flank stripes that were clearly visible when they leapt from the water despite the fading light. Photography was difficult in the evening gloom but record shots were taken which later confirmed the species as Atlantic White-sided Dolphin; a species I had never seen before! Very unexpected, but that's the beauty of wildlife.
A tired but very happy crew made their way back the sandy bay at Beadnell, where we said our thank yous and goodbyes. And no doubt we were all planning our next northern pelagic as soon as we left the carpark!

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Iceland - Whales


Sunday, April 27, 2014


Last weekend I visited Burton Mere Wetlands and managed to see a few new species for my year list including Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat. But the highlight was a pair of Garganey seen from the Marsh Covert hide. Over the years I have seem this small migrant duck at this site on a number of occasions but they have never been close enough for decent photography; and this visit was no different. But despite the secretive nature of this attractive species they can occasionally provide excellent views. The following photos were taken at Cley Norfolk a couple of years ago; if only the Burton birds were as showy.


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Red-flanked Bluetail

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Virgin London Marathon 2014

To be honest I didn't think I would be running a marathon this year. After being laid up with a debilitating virus from November through to January, my overall fitness had taken a massive hit. Getting back to training was a struggle, and there was no chance of me improving on my time of  3 hours 3 minutes achieved at last year's Manchester marathon.
My main aim was to just to be fit enough to finish the marathon, my finishing time was of secondary importance. Just under 3 months of training for 26.2 miles is far from ideal, and the lack of fitness made it doubly difficult. But I concentrated on completing my long slow runs, no matter how much I struggled as these are the key sessions for completing the distance. I managed three 20 milers and two 22 milers before the big day; but only one of these was completed non-stop. I ran/walked the other four; and there was a lot of walking! A 3 week taper is also recommended but my lack of training forced me to try a much shorter taper; I ran my last long run only two weeks before the race.
Race-day dawned cool and bright, but I was more apprehensive about this, my 17th marathon, than any I have run before. I was later than usual arriving at Blackheath but at least I didn't have to hang around too long before the start. My plan was to take it easy and enjoy the event, which is really a 26 mile carnival, and to use the fabulous crowd support to my advantage. Starting from the "Fast Good for Age" start I took the first few miles quite easily, and let the guy dressed as the Gherkin zip off into the distance. Not unexpectedly, my legs were aching a bit by mile 6, but I kept on at a reasonable pace. A cheer from my supporters at mile 9 gave me a welcome boost and for once I let myself enjoy the crowds on Tower Bridge; its amazing the response you can get from a smile and a wave!
As my aim was just to finish, my only plan was not to stop and walk as I had done so often in training. A high-five from my girlfriend Jane at mile 17 was another boost. As I entered Canary Wharf I slowed considerably but I was determined not to walk. My mantra was the line from the Rudimental song "Not giving in", and despite slowing to no more than a jog at times, I managed to keep going; even though my brain was playing tricks on me - at the 30 Km marker I somehow managed to calculate that I only had 10K to go!
My next rendezvous with my supporters was at Big Ben, where I picked up a compact camera and filmed the final mile. It's very shaky footage, but what the hell, I'd just run 25 tough miles. At this point my finishing time was immaterial, so I wasn't bothered about the other runners streaming past me, I just wanted to finish. I crossed the finish line in a time of 3 hours and 17 minutes exactly.
After lunch and a few beers with my friends my legs had totally seized up, but I was overjoyed to have finished. And of course I will be back next year, hopefully fitter and faster; I have unfinished business with the marathon!

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Buff-bellied Pipit

The American Buff-bellied Pipit showed well again at Burton Marsh today, what a great year tick!
This superb rare bird was first found on the 20th December last year, and showed well on a number of occasions up to the New Year, when much to the disappointment of many year-listing birders (and also some who had failed to connect with this rarity) it could not be located. One birder I spoke to had traveled twice from Cumbria and failed to see it. I took a few record shots last year, which I shall post soon, but today I obtained more photos, although the harsh sunlight burnt out some of the paler plumage features (photographers are such perfectionists!). Here are a few shots to be going on with.
As always click on the photos to view a larger image.

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Desert Wheatear

Friday, January 10, 2014

Woodland birds

Took my lunch and my camera to a local woodland in the vague hope of photographing some birds on a dull winter's day. A quick sprinkling of bird seed on a fallen log enticed a few birds close to my car. Unfortunately the light was awful so a high ISO was required to achieve a reasonable shutter speed to try and freeze any movement. The images also suffered slightly from the colour of the log which was almost black and looks like rock in some of the photos. For a while I even attempted a few "arty" shots with a deliberately slow shutterspeed to blur any motion. This is not to everyone's taste, but trying to judge when a small bird is about to take off and capture that moment is a skill in itself. I think only one of these impressionistic images worked, but that's the joy of digital photography; anything is worth a go. Below is a selection of images from today, I shall return on a sunny day, with more time and with a decent perch for the birds. Although the usual Great Tits and Blue Tits were the most obvious birds a few Nuthatches put on a good show, while an overflying Raven was a great addition to the year list.

Monet, Manet or just a mess?

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Marsh Tits

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cory's Shearwater

One of the bonuses of whale watching trips in the Azores is the sightings of other marine life such as seabirds that are often difficult to see from land. One such species is the Cory's Shearwater, named after the American millionaire, ornithologist, sportsman and bird-collector Charles Barney Cory. These large seabirds are part of the procllariidae family or tubenoses that includes petrels and albatrosses.
On my trip to Sao Miguel island in the Azores last May, these magnificent birds were a regular sighting on any pelagic trip. In calm conditions they were often seen sitting on the surface of the sea until the proximity of our boat forced them to struggle into the air on laboured wings accompanied by the pattering of webbed feet across the water's surface. But once in the air and especially on breezy days they showed themselves to be the masters of the air currents, soaring and banking over the waves with their wings tips barely touching the sea, like speed skaters who stretch out their hands and skim the ice with their fingertips as they glide around a bend.
The vast majority of the world population of Cory's Shearwaters breed in the Azores, so it's a great place to see them, but the boat's skipper is more interested in cetaceans, so any photographs have to be snatched at speed as we pursue our main quarry.
One species that was completely new to me and was a pure delight was a Portuguese Man o' War. The skipper even stopped the boat for this! It floated like a semi-inflated child's balloon, opaque with a hint of purple. Although it looks like a jellyfish it is actually a colonial organism composed of specialised individuals known as zooids. It is named after an 18th century armed sailing ship, supposedly resembling the Portuguese version at full sail and it is know to have a powerful sting.

On the first few trips we also saw a good number of Fin Whales. These amazing cetaceans were migrating north, and showed very well on occasions, although even though they are the second largest animal on the planet you don't get to see a lot of the animal on the surface. I have included a number of photos of the backs and fins as they are used by scientists to identify individuals, so hopefully the images will be of use to people studying the animals' migrations. I will post another article soon with more images of Fin Whales from the same trip last May.

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Sperm Whale