Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Speculative Seawatch

As we all know Summer is seawatching season, with a decent shift off any stretch of coastline bringing the prospect of rare and scarce seabirds. On the way home from Norfolk early last week Scott remarked that a seawatch off the Wirral or North Wales might be worthwhile in the coming week if conditions were right. A look at the forecast confirmed this and Monday morning saw us heading west to Chester where we teamed up with Autsin Morley and Alex Jones. We then hopped in Austin's car and headed up the Wirral to West Kirby to make the long walk out to Hilbre Island. For any one who doesn't know, Hilbre is a windswept hunk of sandstone in the middle of the Dee estuary which regularly produces triple figure counts of Leach's Petrels in Autumn following northwesterly gales. We were admittedly a month or so early but upon arrival at West Kirby conditions felt perfect; the wind was swinging between west and northwest and gusting at over 30mph. This coupled with the incoming squalls raised our hopes of some seabird action and the prospect of Balearic Shearwater, a real rarity in Liverpool Bay, was at the forefront of my mind.

After a long, windblasted walk out to the island we stopped at the obs to pick up a key, before making our way down to the seawatching hide at the north end of the island. Once inside the rather spooky structure nestled on top of the old lifeboat station, we settled in and made ourselves comfortable for the day ahead. The first few hours were predictably slow as the tide was way out although a couple of tern flocks on the exposed mud provided some intrigue. As the tide slowly made its way in we started to pick up the odd distant Arctic Skua harrying the terns out by the windfarms. Incredibly on this windy, overcast day there was a considerable heat haze which hampered our efforts to achieve even reasonable views.

The view from the hide
Scott, a veteran Hilbre seawatcher, confidently predicted things would get better as the tide came in but after several hours with little visible improvement the boredome became tangible. In deperation Scott started trying to string "Ascension" Gannets in the heat haze while Austin went for a walk as the three of us played a classic game of "guess the Scandinavian drift migrant from call" (patent pending). Things got so desperate that our first tubenose of the day, A Fulmar which drifted slowly west close in, made me almost hop with excitement. While Austin was away on his walk he also managed to miss the only close Common Scoter of the day, a species he was keen to photograph.

Fulmar (trust me it was exciting) (c) Austin Morley
Mercifully, as hope was all but lost, a couple of older gentleman turned up and our attentions were refocused on the task at hand. Soon we started to get some worthwhile rewards as a couple of nice dark phase adult Arctic Skuas came closer in and gave great views as they chased the terns. The sight of these stunning birds showcasing their considerable aerial ability was a joy to watch and made the trip worthwhile. From a birding perspective, it was also nice to get to grips with the flight jizz of Arctic Skua in time for some east coast seawatching in Autumn. Things got even more exciting when Alex picked up 2 Manx Shearwaters screaming east at distance and a close pale phase Arctic Skua allowed Austin to capture a few decent shots. The post-breeding build up of terns in the estuary mouth was also impressive with at least 80 Little Terns, including a good proportion of juvenile birds, recorded throughout the day.

Pale phase Arctic Skua (c) Austin Morley
After a 7 hour shift in the hide we decided to call it a day and took a more leisurely walk back to West Kirby, stopping to admire a couple of smart Whimbrel on the rocks on the east side of the island. In the car on the way back to Chester the mood was slightly deflated. However the resounding sentiment was that it had been worth chancing our arm; you have to be in it to win it after all and the conditions had the very real possibility of producing a decent skua or shearwater. Either way it was a great day out with fantastic company and definitely beat the alternative of sitting in watching trash TV. Thanks to Austin for his driving and great pictures and Scott as usual for picking me up.

The view from Hilbre

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