Tuesday, August 18, 2015

White-beaked Dolphins

Planning  a cetacean-watching trip can be a fraught experience. Will the weather be ok? You really need a calm sea to spot cetaceans, poor visibility due to mist or rain would really hamper things as well. And even if you feel bold enough to venture out to sea in rough weather the skipper of the boat might deem a trip too dangerous in such conditions.. Then there are the animals themselves; the sea is vast. I know that sounds obvious, but when you are looking for distant fins breaking the surface of the water or trying to distinguish the splash caused by a diving Gannet from that of a dolphin you begin to realise that the sighting of any cetacean is not going to be easy when you are bobbing around in a small boat some considerable miles from the shore.
But with the dolphin-finding skills of expert Ben Burville and the boat handling skills of Alan Leatham the odds of finding something exciting increase dramatically. This was my second trip to the Farne Deeps on board the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) Ocean Explorer in search of White-beaked Dolphins. Last September I had ventured north to the beautiful Northumberland coast to join a group of like-minded cetacean watchers in the hope of finding this enigmatic species. Ben is licensed to swim with these dolphins as part of ongoing research with Newcastle University. My trip last year (click here) failed to find any White-beaked Dolphins, apart from the decaying corpse of one unfortunate individual that was providing rich pickings for a few Fulmars. But we did see two Minke Whales and, amazingly, a pod of White-sided Dolphins which are reputedly rarer than the White-beaked Dolphins in this area.
I took my place at the front of the RIB as I believe this is the best spot from which to view any wildlife as it has unhindered views in the direction of travel. But there is a downside to sitting at the front, in all but the calmest conditions, the boat travelling at some considerable speed smacks into the troughs between the waves and your backside and spine truly understand why the boat is called "rigid"! Despite the considerable skill of the skipper who managed to slow down enough to lessen the shock of some of the bigger impacts I did return to harbour with a few bruises, but this is a small price to pay for the chance of viewing some of the world's most beautiful dolphins.
We cruised out of picturesque Beadnell Bay and then put the hammer down to reach the best areas for the dolphin search. After about half an hour Alan put the boat into idle and we eagerly scanned the sea for any signs of activity. Gannets were plunge diving in significant numbers a twelve o'clock from the front of the boat. The feeding activity of these  magnificent Daz-white seabirds are always a good indication of the presence of shoals of fish, which in turn also attract cetaceans.

And, right on cue, a fellow passenger spotted splashing in the distance; dolphins! And they were heading our way. I have seen plenty of dolphins before but never any species that create quite as much splashing as these. Ben confirmed that they were indeed White-beaked Dolphins; success! And wow did they come close! An estimated fifteen or so individuals swam straight towards us and began an amazing display all around the boat; bow-riding, diving, surfacing, blowing and zipping straight under the bow like black and white torpedoes. The markings of this species are stunning with a jet black fin contrasting markedly with blue-grey flanks, black back, a dark slate-grey saddle and a white patch behind the dorsal fin. This along with grey/white flank stripes and white beak make this a very distinctive and beautiful dolphin. Although, interestingly, not all members of the species have white beaks.


Some species of dolphin such as Bottlenose can be individually recognised by having distinctive dorsal fin shapes, the various notches and nicks acting like the wavy lines of a fingerprint. Researchers photograph the fins and assign names to recognisable animals; this proves invaluable when it comes to conducting research. But White-beaked Dolphins create such a splash when they surface that photographing their dorsal fins is not an easy practice. Instead, Ben enters the sea with the dolphins and takes photos of them underwater.

The splash of a White-beaked Dolphin may obscure the pattern of the dorsal fin
and may not be conducive to research, but it does create a very photogenic image.
 Some of the dolphins were clearly eyeballing us as they swept past underwater on their sides trying to get a better view as we hung over the sides of RIB snapping away with our cameras. But after about fifteen minutes they grew tired of us and headed away from the boat. This is apparently normal for White-beaked Dolphins. But there were big grins form all the occupants of the boat as we finally had time to take stock and appreciate our amazing encounter.
We spent the rest of the afternoon searching for more cetaceans but to no avail despite seeing numerous flocks of diving Gannets. But we were not too disappointed; our early encounter with these beautiful dolphins could surely not have been bettered. Thanks goes to Ben, Alan and the rest of the dolphin enthusiasts; what a great wildlife experience we all had!


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Red-footed Falcon

Last month I ventured over the Cheshire county border and into Staffordshire in search of an enigmatic and rare bird of prey, namely a male Red-footed Falcon. This dashing little raptor breeds  in Eastern Europe but a few vagrants appear in this country in most years.
I saw my first Red-footed Falcon at Hickling Broad in Norfolk in August 2003. It was a first-summer male, but it was so far away that even through a scope its was tricky to identify. Amazingly a few days later there was another (or possibly the same bird?) at Deeping Fen near Spalding in Lincolnshire. This bird spent most of its time perched on a distant fence, occasionally dropping to the ground to seize some invisible prey item. But I did manage to take a few shaky digiscoped photos of it as it shimmered in the heat haze,
I was determined to see an adult male, and so when one was reported from Tophill Low nature reserve in Yorkshire in 2008 I interrupted my journey to the East coast, in search of Autumn migrants, to try and get some photos of this bird instead. Unfortunately this bird did not show itself until mid-afternoon, and then only distantly, but I did manage to take some "record" photos. Imagine my surprise a few months later when this bird was re-identified as an Amur Falcon, a closely related species that breeds in Mongolia and Siberia! My record shots were then of interest to the wider birding community and featured in articles on the bird in the journals British Birds (December 2011, Vol. 104, pp 694 - 701) and Birding World (Vol. 21, No. 10 pp 432 - 435). It was the first British record of Amur Falcon; for details of the plumage differences I would recommend those two journals.
I still wanted some good photos of male Red-footed Falcon hence my trip to Staffordshire. I knew I was at the right location by the number of cars parked along the narrow road leading to a colliery. A lot of birders were leaving, which is never a good sign, but some were still looking through their scopes at some distant wires. Apparently the bird had been showing well in a nearby horse paddock but had flown off towards another field where it was giving occasional but distant views. I managed to spot the bird perched on the wires where it was being mobbed by a couple of magpies. Luckily these feisty corvids eventually chased the falcon back to the horse paddock where I finally managed to take some decent photos. This bird was identified as a first-summer bird so I still need to photograph an adult male! But I am not complaining, it was a stunning bird, and performed well for its many admirers, and it was not far from home either!

Amur Falcon, Yorkshire, September 2008