Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Pelagic Birding and Dolphins

Gannet by Andrew Malcolm
On Friday the 9th of August, 13 local birders and crew, captained by Martin Colfer, sailed from Youghal
along the Waterford coast in search of pelagic birds and perhaps some whales and dolphins.

Pelagic birds are birds of the open seas, which are unlikely to be encountered on land other than at breeding colonies.

Black Guillemot by Fran O'Connell
Gannets were quickly seen. These very large seabirds sustain themselves entirely by fishing. They dive into the sea, often from a great height, in pursuit of their prey. Once almost wiped out as a breeding species in Ireland, they are now happily thriving.

Auks (family name Alcids) are well represented in Irish waters by guillemots, black guillemots, razorbills and, everybody’s favourite, puffins. Looking comical and friendly puffins are, in reality, tough, ocean going birds, capable of surviving the harshest conditions. Puffins, like all auks, fish by pursuing their prey underwater, using their wings to propel themselves forwards.
Puffins by Dominic Clancy

Storm petrels are a tiny (sparrow-sized) totally pelagic species, which dip feed on the ocean surface. The name petrel is thought to derive from St Peter as their pattering on the surface of the sea is reminiscent of the Saint’s ability to walk on water. Storm Petrels are also known as “Mother Carey’s Chickens” after a supernatural figure representing the sea. Petrel’s tiny seemingly fragile appearance again belies their ability to survive at sea in the most extreme conditions. During the trip storm petrels were very much in evidence.
Manx Shearwater by Pat Veale

Sooty Shearwater by Andrew Malcolm
Shearwaters are a truly pelagic species undertaking huge annual migrations. The name derives from their flying method, whereby they appear to shear across the waves. Manx shearwaters breed in Ireland and migrate to waters off Brazil and Argentina in the winter. They were regular on the trip as were small numbers of sooty shearwaters. “Sooties” breed on southern ocean islands and disperse northwards along the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, moving east into our waters in July/August before returning south down the eastern side of the Atlantic to their remote breeding colonies in November/December.

Fulmar by Fran O'Connell
Almost always on view during the trip was the fulmar. Fulmars look superficially like gulls but their stiff winged flight and tube noses are obvious differences and more reminiscent of their close relatives albatrosses. The tube nose is an adaptation for excreting salt, which is picked up through their prey and seawater. Now a common breeding bird in Ireland this was not always the case. However with the demise of the human population on St. Kilda in Scotland and the subsequent reduction in hunting, fulmars quickly moved into all available breeding niches in Britain and Ireland.

Also in attendance on the pelagic trip was the kittiwake. This species is
Kittiwake by Dominic Clancy
named after its call. The kittiwake is a beautiful, dainty, small gull with jet black wing tips as if dipped in ink. This is a truly ocean going species which will never be encountered in dumps (as are other gulls) and only rarely on land. Dunmore East presents a good opportunity to see kittiwakes as they breed there on the cliffs in spring/summer.

Other species seen on the trip included several species of large gull, terns and a small pod of porpoises.
Martin Colfer regularly runs bird watching and whale watching trips from Youghal and is available on 087 265 7177.

Bottlenose Dolpin by Bernie Sheridan
Dungarvan was recently graced by a pod of bottlenose dolphins, comprising of ten to twelve individuals. The dolphins lingered for a few days, hunting between Ballinacourty Lighthouse and Ballyvoile. Bottlenose dolphins track their prey by the use of echo location. These dolphins are regular in Irish waters, with a resident population in the Shannon estuary and the most famous of all “Fungie” in Dingle harbour.  

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