Posted by: orcaweb | April 12, 2017

Hats off to the seabirds

Hello! Jess here, back for another season with ORCA and Brittany Ferries after a year on land. Two years ago I was a Wildlife Officer on the Pont Aven, and as that was so much fun I have come back for another summer of cetacean surveying, this time on the Cap Finistère. After my first week on board with Hazel I was then joined by Katie, who bounded on board with enthusiasm.

Our reliable friends, the common dolphins, darted towards us many times on our earlier crossings in the week over the Bay of Biscay. For a while there was a distinct lack of whale action and a large cetacean sighting was well over due. But finally we got lucky and as we sailed over the continental shelf one morning we saw pilot whales, three fin whales and our common dolphin pals again.


Common dolphins with a calf in the middle


A huge fin whale blow in the distance

We have delivered many presentations and kids activities over the week, too. Katie has invented a hilarious way of teaching children on board how to do their own mammal surveys. She sits them by a window and teaches them about recording the sea state and weather and then sneakily disappears. Then as the children start their surveys she reappears at the window with tiny toy whale species. Honest, it’s a treat to watch.


Here is Katie giving a presentation in the Planets bar on board

During our quieter crossings there are still plenty of things to admire out in the ocean, and one of those is seabirds.


Here are some gulls having an intimate moment

If anyone had said to me a few years ago that I would be excited by seagulls I would not have believed them. (By the way, you should never call them seagulls otherwise bird experts will jump out from behind their binoculars and give you a telling off. They are simply ‘gulls’.) I mean they’re just boring grey and white thugs that we see every day on the coast, right? WRONG! Just over the last few months I’ve found them to be so much more than chip stealing menaces and I have become extremely fond of them.


A black headed gull hunting for bugs on the water

This new obsession really began when I visited Bempton Cliffs nature reserve in Yorkshire. This site is a huge expanse of cliffs that thousands of nesting seabirds use to rear their chicks, and it is a fantastic place for a budding birder to start. For anyone who thinks seabirds ‘aren’t really their thing’ I would highly recommend visiting a seabird nesting colony such as this one. The sheer variety of birds that nest there is astounding. Observing the diversity of species, including kittiwakes, gannets, puffins, guillemots, herring gulls, and fulmars, and the way they care for their chicks on the edge of a cliff opened my eyes to the wonderfully diverse and brave lives of seabirds.


Black-headed gull

But watching these birds from the Cap Finistère out in the middle of the unforgiving sea is where I have really grown to love them. The seabirds keep us company and entertained on our surveys as we watch and wait for the cetaceans. Both us and the birds have to battle the wind and rain and waves together and it is at these times that I feel very connected to them, both of us sharing the same freezing yet epic experience. But what’s great for me, is that when its gets cold or dark, or I get hungry, I can retreat to the warmth of inside the ferry and do things like drink hot chocolate and sleep in a bed. But the seabirds stay out there, battling the elements day and night, hunting for food, without a break from the sea, with some species only coming back to land once a year to lay their eggs.

They can look a bit scary too, which is possibly why they get such a bad rep, but they do have a caring side. The great black backed gull could be seen as a bit of a brute. When it’s time to rear their young a parent bird will often raid the nests of smaller gulls, stealing chicks to feed to their own. When an adult bird sees a chick in their nest, it immediately triggers an instinct to then provide food and care for it. However, a study on nesting black backs found that sometimes a parent with one chick would fly off and steal another chick and bring it back to the nest to feed their offspring, but, as the parent put the stolen chick in its nest, its instinct to care for any chick in their nest would suddenly kick in and the parent would then feel it had to care for this new chick as well, even though it was originally food for the first chick. This meant that great black backed gulls were we stealing chicks with the intention of killing them, only to then find they had an overwhelming urge to care for them. Some gulls were found to have up to ten more chicks then they originally started with, and were caring for them all. Now some may say that is due to stupidity, but I think it’s adorable!


This is a herring gull, not a black backed gull, I am yet to capture a shot of the great black backed gull!

We dock at Portsmouth three times a week, and I have found this to be the perfect spot to get some close up views of the great black backed gulls as well as the more common, yet majestic seabirds. The variety of bird species you can see in the Bay of Biscay is also quite remarkable, and the number of species goes up and up as the summer goes on. So far I have seen… here comes my geeky bird list: gannet, fulmar, black headed gull, great black backed gull, lesser black backed gull, storm petrel, collared dove, pipit (possibly meadow), herring gull, yellow legged gull, great skua, razorbill, cormorant and heron.


Portsmouth harbour


A simple but elegant black headed gull

So here’s to the seabirds! You might look boring to some, but now I have had just a tiny taster of what your epic life on the ocean is like, to me you’re amazing little beasts and are worth looking after.

Jess – ORCA Wildlife Officer



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