John and I have never had much success at seawatching in the past, in fact it has become something of a joke with us, so much so that whenever we decide to give it another go we consider seeing even a single bird impressive. But then, it isn’t the easiest type of birding, requiring specific weather conditions, location, time of day and time of year as well as long hours to even have a chance of seeing decent bird passage – and even then it’s not guaranteed. Admittedly our attempts in the past have been rather half-hearted, but as we’d never had a good experience we hardly felt enthusiastic about trying again.
We are currently on holiday in Devon and for what feels like the umpteenth time we thought we might have another stab at the game, encouraged mostly by the weather forecast which, with a strong south-westerly and overcast, drizzly conditions, we thought would be just right for seeing maritime birds. Our chosen destination was Prawle Point, the most southerly headland in Devon; a high jagged cliff-face sticking right out into the English Channel which any Atlantic-bound seabirds would have to fly around.
The conditions were as we’d hoped; low grey cloud, a choppy sea, a gale from the west that surged around the point, although it was still drizzly but that couldn’t be helped. So we settled down in the lee of the coastwatch building that was perched atop the point like an eagles nest, and here, out of the wind and with a view over a large portion of the channel we tried to spot some birds.
Much to our amazement, considering our record, there actually were birds passing close around the point, quite a few in fact. Most numerous and steady in their passage during the time we were there, were the Manx Shearwaters. These ocean-going birds breed on wild islands in the far north, but outside the breeding season cruise over the waves for hundreds if not thousands of miles in search of food. They are well named, for each one that passed us regularly banked sharply against the wind, flying close to the water with one rigid wing pointing straight up at the heavens and the other straight down like a blade, grazing the ruffled surface of the waves.
Second in number to the Manxies were the huge, angular Gannets, birds that are more sharp-edges than anything else and which have a mastery over the wind and the water which we humans cannot comprehend. They often passed us in small groups, flying in a V formation for efficiency, some of them were juveniles, all patchy and brown but already in total control of their vast wingspan.
Sticking close to the shore were the Kittiwakes, these elegant and pretty gulls aren’t really passage birds so mostly they sat on the water or flew back and forth, their ink-dipped wing-tips distinctive even at some distance. We also saw several auks, one or two flying past unidentified, but some sat on the undulating surface of the sea fairly close to the point and through our scope we could see the pitch-black plumage and long, sharp bill of a Guillemot as well as a couple of Razorbills with their stubbier bills and chocolate-brown backs.
Two of the more exciting moments in our three and half hour-long vigil were caused by the sudden appearance of Arctic Skuas. The first time it was a single bird, slowly making its way against the wind towards us, at first we were unsure about its identity but eventually its long, knife-like wings, short tail, dark plumage and more gull-like flight style gave it away. It also attacked a passing gull, which is characteristic of this species, also tellingly named the Parasitic Skua.
Unexpectedly, the best and most exhilarating sighting of the entire day was not of any bird, but a mammal. I was momentarily dumbstruck when John called out to me that he could see dolphins below us, but I looked and, clear as day, there was a pod of what appeared to be around 10 to 15 Bottlenose Dolphins swimming very close in past the point. They gradually made their way eastward, breaching through the surf in graceful arcing movements as they went, giving amazing views of their streamlined bodies. I have seen dolphins in British waters before, but only briefly and at some distance, so I have never been able to tell what species they were until this sighting – quite a special wildlife moment.
So, I won’t lie that I didn’t find the aspect of standing in one place staring at the sea for nearly four hours a little tedious, because I did, particularly towards the end. Despite seeing some decent birds (at last!) and an amazing view of dolphins, I don’t think seawatching is going to be my next fad, although I will certainly continue to include it as one part of my wider birding hobby. So, although we didn’t see any particularly scarce or unusual birds, and none new for my list, the fact we actually got to see proper seabird passage in decent numbers has redeemed seawatching in my opinion, so it counts as a success.