Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Kites and Dolphins

Early in August my girlfriend Jane and I spent a weekend in the beautiful seaside town of New Quay in Cardigan Bay, with the intention of watching the Bottlenose Dolphins for which the area is famous.
We visited the Dyfi Osprey project on our journey down and were mightily impressed with the new 360 hide from which we had excellent views of the adult Ospreys. Monty the male helped raise three chicks this year and they were still in the area at the time of our visit. Our last visit in 2012 coincided with some of the worst weather in a century and the road to the reserve was impassable due to flooding. Unfortunately only one of the three chicks that hatched that year survived to fledge and that was only due to human intervention to help with the feeding. But nature bounces back and this year Monty and his current mate Glesni have had a successful breeding season and at the time of writing this blog have both now headed south to Africa for the winter.
Our second detour took us to Bwlch Nant Yr Arian, a lake and small forest not far from Aberystwyth where they have had a Red Kite feeding station since 1999, and boy has this area changed since my last visit some fifteen years ago. The forest has been felled in some areas, there is a fantastic visitor centre and café and there is an excellent hide from which to view the Red Kites which are fed every day. And for the outdoor enthusiast there are walking and mountain-biking trails. Raptors, bikes and great food; what more could I need!We only paid a brief visit to this area but vowed to drop in on the way home to try and photograph the Kites.
The steep streets and seaside cafes of New Quay were bustling with summer visitors enjoying the sunshine when we arrived and checked into our B&B overlooking the harbour. A quick scan of the sea from our room didn't reveal the expected fins of Bottlenose Dolphins. But after checking in we were soon seated on the seawall scanning the blue waters for signs of Cardigan Bay's most famous residents. As usual, we were soon rewarded with views of an adult with a calf; time to crack open a beer and celebrate.  After a delicious evening meal and good night's sleep we rose early to enjoy a hearty breakfast and then again walked the short distance to the harbour to settle down for some seaside wildlife watching. There were more dolphins present, but not as close as we've seen them in the past, but I did mange some record photos with my 400mm lens. Apart from the usual gulls and a few shags, seabirds were a bit thin on the ground (sea?). There were only a few very distant Gannets and this indicates that the fish shoals must have been some way from the harbour that day and along with them most of the area's dolphins. We did see the mother and calf again and the occasional distant dolphin leaping and splashing in the pursuit of fish. But I'm not complaining, it's always a treat seeing any cetacean from land.
Suddenly an unexpected fin appeared in the water, it was more triangular than the falcate fin of a Bottlenose, and was that the swish of the tip of a tail in the fin's wake? Yes it was a Basking Shark! Not what I was expecting to see on that sunny Sunday. It too was quite distant, but I did manage to put some other dolphin watchers on to it to  enjoy views of this rare visitor.
The day was passing quickly so we decided on a return visit to Nant Yr Arian to witness the Kites being fed. On our arrival, there were over a hundred Kites circling on the thermals and perched in the conifers that dotted the hillsides of this natural amphitheatre. We made our way down to the lake where I photographed a smart Black Darter sitting in the reeds. Despite the food being put out on cue the Kites were somewhat reluctant to come down and feed, now doubt in some part due to the large and noisy crowd of holidaymakers that had gathered to view the spectacle. We returned to the visitor centre where a number of bird feeders were attracting House Sparrows, Greenfinches, various tits and gorgeous Siskins. After taking a few shots, we walked up the hillside where we were treated to stunning views of the Kites which were now descending to feed in peace as their audience had dispersed. A great way to end an excellent weekend of wildlife watching.

Herring Gull profile

Black Darter

Red Kite playing at being an Osprey

Male Siskin

Juvenile Siskin


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Green Turtle Rescue

Our rib edged closer to the turtle which was clearly visible on the surface of the sea due to the fact that it had a large white bag wrapped around its neck. A few more metres and we would be able to catch the poor reptile, but it dived before a rescue could be attempted. We stood forlorn on our small boat in the vastness of the blue Atlantic. Turtles can dive for up to thirty minutes at a time so the chances of it surfacing nearby were remote indeed.

I had travelled to the popular holiday island of Tenerife with my girlfriend’s family for a well-earned break of sunshine, sea and, of course, wildlife watching. I had already caught up with some of the area’s endemic species such as Blue Chaffinch, Berthelot’s Pipit and Canary Island Chiffchaff and Canary Island Goldcrest, not to mention fantastic views of the resident Pilot Whales. But a local dive company was offering trips to snorkel with Green Turtles, a species I had never seen before, and I need little excuse to indulge my love of wildlife watching from boats so we booked four places.

The fast rib boat left the beautiful harbour at Los Gigantes overlooked by the precipitous cliffs that give the area it’s name. These cliffs hold a few pairs of breeding Osprey which are unfortunately a declining species in the Canaries but we had been lucky to see one at close quaters the previous day over the sea at Los Christianos. The flat calm sea was perfect for cetacean watching and we had only been out for ten minutes when a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins surrounded the boat. The skipper cut the engine and we all enjoyed the beauty of these graceful animals as they surfaced and dived within touching distance of the rib. But our main quarry, the Green Turtles where in a bay further to the west so we resumed our journey in the hot sub-tropical sunshine.

I was on the lookout for seabirds when I saw something shoot into the air from the surface of the water; a flying fish! It flashed silver and blue as it sped over the flat calm sea before crash landing a considerable distance from its launch spot. This was one of many sighting of these remarkable and surprising fish.

After half an hour we reached our destination, a quiet bay on the southwest coast of Tenerife. This area is a designated turtle sanctuary and any turtles that are caught in fishermen’s nets are released here. I was the first in the water and swam around most of the bay admiring the colourful fish that make this area their home. I have the skills to identify most birds but fish are a bit of a mystery to me, so I was happy to just enter their world and admire their colours and shapes without the desire to identify each individual. But where were the turtles?

Mike, the group leader, had said that on his last trip he had seen at least four Green Turtles swimming in the bay so he was surprised that we could not find any. But in the style of a good tour leader, he used his strength as a swimmer and scoured the whole area for turtles. Soon, his frantic waving from an area of open water just outside the bay indicated that he had found something, but was it a turtle? Using my flippers to power my usually slow swimming stroke I managed to reach Mike and a couple of other snorkelers in time to see a Green Turtle gliding away underwater. Its grace and beauty in its natural environment as it flapped it flippers and disappeared into the deep blue was in stark contrast to my floundering in the water. Unfortunately, because the turtle was close to the open sea only a few of the members of our trip managed to see this individual.

Time was pressing so we climbed back onto the rib and refreshed ourselves with fizzy drinks and crisps as we enjoyed the return trip along the coast.

I continued to scan for seabirds as we travelled and was intrigued by a small group of Yellow-legged Gulls that were investigating something floating on the surface. As we sped past I could see a white bag, but on closer inspection saw that a poor Green Turtle was caught in this man-made noose and would succumb to a lingering death if it could not be rescued.

The skipper turned the boat and Mike jumped in the water but unfortunately missed the turtle which naturally dived to escape capture. We sat on the calm waters for what seemed an age in the vague hope that it would resurface somewhere near the rib. And, miraculously it did just that, appearing on the surface less than ten metres away. Mike again readied himself for the attempted rescue, but as we got closer, one of our fellow snorkelers unexpectedly leapt into the water and executed a stunning capture. We helped him back onto the rib with his thrashing prize, being careful to avoid the frightened animal’s sharp beak. Once on board we realised that it was no ordinary plastic bag that had ensnared this turtle, but one composed of a synthetic mesh, like the type used in garden centres to hold soil or gravel, a robust fibre that would clearly have caused the demise of this reptile.

Unfortunately, despite extensive searching of the boat we had no items with us that were sufficiently sharp enough to cut away the bag. Yet again another intrepid member of the trip stepped forward and volunteered to bite his way through the offending bag! Naturally this took some time, and while our hero was nibbling away close to the neck of the turtle he quipped that normally he likes to take a girl to dinner before achieving that degree of intimacy!

Eventually the Green Turtle was freed from its noose and photos were taken before it was released gently back into the clear waters of the Canaries. A happy ending for this animal but many others suffer slow and lingering deaths due to our overuse of synthetic materials in our everyday lives and our carelessness when it comes to the disposal of this deadly waste.


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