Friday, 23 September 2022

Fastnet: Gateway to Pelagic Heaven

17th September

Saturday dawned bright, with a light northerly wind. We birded The Waist seeing a few common migrants: Blackcaps, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Siskins and a Redpoll. Breakfast was a bit slow, but we soon found our way to the quay to meet our skipper MichaĆ©l O’Cadogan and his good ship ‘An GeascaneĆ”n. 

 A few Harbour Porpoises surfaced on the way out to Fastnet Lighthouse, three miles southwest of Cape Clear. This iconic spot was thronged with Kittiwakes and other gulls and we scrutinised them for a Sabine's, though unsuccessfully. Still, it was cool to see this lighthouse up close.

Up to now, we had seen very little in the way of pelagic birds, but Fastnet proved to be a gateway to something very special. A few miles further on, out of nowhere a handsome Great Shearwater appeared and gave us a breathtaking fly-past. A lifer for many of the group, this elicited beaming smiles, but little did we know about what was up ahead!

 The first Great Shearwater, with Fastnet in the background

A little further on and Paul and me could see a lot of bird activity. Short-beaked Common Dolphins appeared, coming in close to the boat to the delight of the group. Another Great Shear came in for a look at us - presumably smelling our chum bucket! A Sooty Shearwater followed, looking chocolatey brown in the morning sunshine. 

This was feeling promising! Up ahead there were birds on the water. Shearwaters! Michael slowed the boat to a crawl and we drifted into a large raft of shearwaters. I had seen rafts of Manx Shearwaters off the Scilly Isles previously, with a few Great and Sooty Shearwaters thrown in, but this was something else. About 40% were Great Shears, 40% Sooties and 20% Manx! There were literally hundreds of birds present and the chuckling and squeaking calls were all around. Dolphins surfaced among them, bumping them out of the way and soon a shout went up for 'whale' and the familar profile of a large Minke Whale broke the surface. A European Storm Petrel suddenly appeared, flickering across the water, followed by another a few moments later. There were birds everywhere: on the horizon a continual band of large shearwaters headed east and here and there further large rafts of shearwaters loafed in the morning sun. 'Our' raft held over 800 birds, but with the amount of activity elsewhere, there must have been a couple of thousand Great and Sooty Shearwaters in the vicinity. Absolutely mindblowing!

 Minke Whale and Common Dolphin

Above: A Bonxie nails a Great Shearwater

I looked around the boat and the whole group was beaming. This was worth the three year wait and then some. I scrutinised the rafts and passing birds as carefully as I could, desperately hoping for a Fea's Petrel or something else. A Cory's Shearwater appeared briefly and disappeared just as quickly; it was our only sighting of the trip. Suddenly, a large bushy blow went skywards from the back of the flock and the huge arched back of a big Humpback Whale shattered the quiet. Wow! The leviathan blew four or five times, before arching his broad tailstock, and lifting his huge white fluke into the air, glistening in the sunshine, to a spontaneous round of applause from the group. He sounded and disappeared, only for another Humpback, a small individual to appear on the other side of the boat. This was getting crazy. 

In the distance, we spied a large trawler trailed by a big flock of gulls and other birds. Besides a few Bonxies, we'd not seen many skuas so we decided to intercept the trawler and see what was occurring. It turned out that he had mostly attracted a large group of gulls, but there were also loads of Great Shearwaters following on, a few Fulmars and Storm Petrels. He was gunning north so we followed him for a while, before he sped off into the distance. Somehow, time had really got on and we decided to head back to Cape Clear. 

What a trip this had been. We estimated at least a couple of thousand each of Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater, c500 Manx Shearwater, 15 Storm Petrels, eight Bonxies, two Humpbacks and eight Minke Whales. Not a bad start! That night, all I could think about was getting back out the next day...


My Dad kindly leant me his camera so I could get some video.

I have put some videos on Youtube here.

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