Posted by: orcaweb | September 2, 2010

August in the North Sea

It’s been an exciting month on board the King for August.   As well as spotting the occasional Minke Whale, the White Beaked Dolphins made a dramatic return to our route.  I had contacted Martin from North East Cetaceans group to talk about their disappearance over the previous weeks.  He had records of big pods of up to 60+ White Beaks further north off Eyemouth.  Maybe it had just got to hot for them here! 

Then, early one summer evening sat in the centre at around 9pm, I spotted some splashing action approx. 50 metres away from the centre’s window.  I didn’t know what to call as the splashing was stationary and big, so “dolphins!” usually gets people looking.  And there, lying in a tin-of-sardines formation, there were 3 White Beaks; head-banging the water’s surface.  This led me next to say “That’s weird?”. I had expected a breach, or a tail slap – both behaviours that I often see dolphins doing – not head banging….is it only me that this seems weird too?  Slapping the water usually with fins, or flukes is a feeding or social communication behaviour of cetaceans.  As they were in a tight group I think it has to be fish bashing or playing.   Anyway at least they waved and we saw them and they didn’t just try to sneak past!   Cetaceans living in social groups have intricate lives that are never able to be replicated in captivity. Travelling long distances to play in the surf, group hunt and socialise, it’s great to know that they are playing free in our seas; and what a fantastic way to see these sea mammals even if they were being a bit weird at the time!

Sea bird wise it’s like rush hour in London heading out to sea. Kittiwakes by their hundreds have left our cliffs and are hanging around the coastal areas and how beautiful the juveniles are with their stripy wings and patterned heads.  And just to confuse us, Black Headed juveniles are mixing in these areas with a single stripe on their outer wings and a comma over their ears.   Big groups of Common terns are feeding off the coast and flying daintily down to feed at the surface. We pass Arctic terns on their migration as they take snacks on one of the longest migratory routes of any seabird; travelling from north polar to south polar areas. Adult and juvenile Gannets are out in force and their feeding frenzies are always exciting, as there is the possibility that they are feeding on the same bounty as cetaceans thus making their spectacular “high arrow diving” even more exciting.  Guillemot parents are out to sea with their chicks and we have recorded one as far as IJmuiden that may have paddled from the UK or German coastline. Also, the occasional Razorbill family are seen.  But the Puffins have not appeared on our route for a while.  The thick air over the sea is being soared on by Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters whose numbers out to sea have built up over late summer. Joining them occasionally is the darker Sooty Shearwater and so far three very close sightings have meant a new bird on a lot of the passengers’ lists.  Then, any seabird party is not complete without the pirate of the sea; the Bonxie or Great Skua. We take delight in seeing these bullies gang up and steal from the other birds feeding out to sea. No it’s not pretty, or nice, but its action packed that’s for certain. We watched one Great Skua attack a Manx, then Guillemot then a Gannet – all unsuccessfully. A gang of four also bulled a tiny Kittiwake to regurgitate its food….lovely!  They are joined by their close relative the daintier looking Arctic Tern; (mainly dark forms so far).

This time of year is also great for the migrants stowing away on the ship. So far, since early migrants have taken off we have had; a Petrel sp; Passerine and Waders…This is going to get even more exciting in September when more birds migrate and have a higher chance of meeting rain or strong winds out to sea that grounds them. Looks like I am going have to get up even earlier to ID birds taking refuge overnight on The King.  Can’t wait!

Kathryn Driscoll ORCA Wildlife Officer

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