Tuesday 10 August 2021

South-west Odyssey Part Three: Scilly Pelagic #2 - The Wilson's Rush

Had an enjoyable day with the family, down at Porthloo beach where I managed not to embarrass myself too much with my attempts at standup paddle-boarding. Time flies when you are having fun and I soon found myself back at the quay late afternoon, with Mark and Dunc, to have another crack at Wilson's Petrel on our second Scilly Pelagic. Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert were aboard too, so I hoped they'd bring a little Zino-esque luck to the trip!

The plan this evening was to head seven miles due south, put out some fish oil and then sit in the slick and wait. Good numbers of Manxies and Common Dolphins were seen on the way out and then we stopped, dropped in the chum and waited. We calmly drifted in light seas for ages with very little happening. A couple of juvenile Yellow-legged Gulls gave us something to look at and I picked up a large shearwater which unfortunately headed off into the distance. I wasn't sure, but more confident birders felt it was a Great. 


Where was the Wilson's? Where was anything for that matter? It was very quiet. Most birders began relaxing and chatting; the collective scanning effort dwindled. We continued to work hard but we were among the minority. It felt like that famous afternoon scene on the boat in the Jaws movie, complete with the clicking of the nearby shark fisherman's reel adding perfectly to the atmosphere. Something must surely happen, but hopefully not a collossal shark trying to eat the boat.


A few Euro Storm Petrels flicked past, flashing white-striped underwings (see above), but paid no attention to the fishy slick. We began to wonder if there was enough fish oil and chum in the water - what did we know? - we had to trust the experts! A frisbee-like breaching Sunfish brightened our moods and we upped our scanning effort, although time was running out. One of the fisherman reeled in a class Red Gurnard.

Out of nowhere, I picked up a petrel coming in straight towards us. 

It looked bigger and longer-winged than the Euro Stormies we'd seen so far and so I quietly mentioned it to Dunc and suggested he get on the bird. "Looks like a Wilson's", he immediately said. Mark got on it, and then Richard Stonier. They agreed and it was announced to the boat. The angle changed; it surely had solid dark underwings; and those wings, they looked paddle-shaped - surely a Wilson's! It then banked sharply, showing mind-blowing grey covert bars, a wrap-around white rump - definite Wilson's! It flew past at close range, showing off its ample foot projection - kapow - what a brilliant little bird, a bird I had long dreamt of seeing but never really expected to. 


Wilson's Petrels. Tiny, but immense.

After its performance, it flew off, to be replaced shortly by another bird in a different wing moult. This bird came in close to the boat and then absolutely bounced across the slick, wings aloft and feet down, literally dancing across the shimmery sea surface with the iconic edifice of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse in the background adding the context. To say I was thrilled by this was clearly an understatement and demonstrates the moments of pure exhillaration pelagic birding can bring. From the doldrums straight up to cloud nine in seconds. Alton Towers doesn't get anywhere near this for adrenaline rush!

The Wilson's melted away. We headed for a deep-sea trawler to see what it's catch had attracted, which was, sadly, not a lot. Gangs of jinking Euro Stormies began heading past the Sapphire back to  their nest burrows on the Scillies. In the gathering dusk we joined them and headed for home.

A gorgeous end to a fab pair of pelagics with two of my best mates.

Bishop Rock, Wilson's Petrel and three very happy birders. (l-r: Me, Dunc and Mark)


Wilson's Petrel is still in the 'legends and enigmas' category in my mind despite its rarity status having reduced in recent years due to the discovery of regular 'wintering' populations off the Scillies and elsewhere. I recall being too young for the special pelagic trips that used to be organised in the '90s out to the 'Wilson's Triangle', perhaps the start of the discovery of this new wintering area. Those pelagics fizzled out and in their place trips aboard shark-fishing vessels out of the Scillies began, morphing into bespoke birder pelagic trips since the late '90s. Now, with a bit of planning and a bit of luck, you have a great chance of finding this tiny seabird in UK waters. 

Big up Bob Flood, Joe Pender and the Scilly Pelagic team who have really got this nailed in Scilly waters during the last 15 years and have made it possible for landlubbers like me to experience the Wilson's rush. Brilliant stuff! We are now planning our return in '22...

No comments: