Friday, 17 August 2012

Kilbaha pelagic

And so it was back once again to Loop Head. This time for a pelagic out of Kilbaha, Co. Clare. Much like my seawatching experiences pelagics have been a mixed bag for me. But I was surely due a good one at some point.
I left Cork and headed for County Clare on Saturday evening reaching Kilbaha about 9pm. Mark Carmody and Owen Foley were already in place at The Lighthouse Inn and after a couple of pints and a few frames of pool we all hit the hay shortly after 11pm. The others by then were en route, travelling from Dublin, Belfast and Kildare over night to be on the pier in Kilbaha at 5am.
Fortunately I brought a set of earplugs so the all night lock-in at The Lighthouse Inn didn't keep me awake. The same could not be said for Mark and Owen who appeared bleary eyed for breakfast at 4.45am.
We assembled in the dark by Keating's pub at the base of Kilbaha pier, doning our water-proofs and dusting off our bins. By 5.20am we were chugging slowly out of the harbour, after another 10 minutes we were passing along the cliffs below Loop Head as the lighthouse shone its beams out across the open sea.

5.20am and the boat heads out of Kilbaha

On we headed as the darkness slowly lifted. In the grey light we could make out the first seabirds, a Fulmar, a single adult Gannet and a Herring Gull. Each inspecting the boat and then moving on.

6am and the sun shines its first rays
We made a north-westerly track from Loop head, the plan being to go about 10 miles out until we reached a depth of about 100 meters and then begin chumming. After about 3 miles we bisected a stream of passing Manxies, as the sun shone its first rays someone picked up the first of many European Storm Petrels. First one, then another and then another, in fact there was barely anytime throughout the whole day when there wasn't at least one European Storm Petrel to be seen from the boat. I think the total count was in the region of 300 plus.

European Storm Petrel
 As the light improved it didn't take long for someone to pick out the first Sooty Shearwater of the day. It passed in the stream of Manxies but it was still a little early to start getting the camera out. A distant Arctic was also the first skua of the day.
Not long after we were joined  by a small pod of Common Dolphin, they joined the boat briefy before getting bored and heading off. Nevermind, as it turned out they were to be another ever present feature of the day. At one stage later in the morning we were joined by huge pod of at least 200 Common Dolphins, wonderful creatures to see so close. At times they were so near you could hear the noise of their blow-holes opening and closing as they broke the surface.
After about 9 miles the skipper announced that we were in about 92 meters of water. The engines were cut and we started chumming. Anthony and Craig had brought a block of frozen chum with them, that was placed in an onion bag and left to drag behind the boat. The skipper also had his own supply. A blue barrel at the back of the boat that contained a vile collection of old rotting fish guts. It smelt like a mix between sewage and chum........."chumage" if you will! But it seemed to appeal to the tubenoses out there. We scooped a good bit into the water and began waiting.

Mark and Ciaran keep a watchful eye as the chum goes in.
It was time to get the camera out and this was when I realised how difficult it is to hold a heavy 500mm prime lens steady as the boat rises and falls beneath you. I struggled all day trying to kept the lens steady and have more blurred images and shots of the horizon and sea itself than anything else. Those with the smaller lighter lens had the right idea, by the time we returned to shore my arms and back were aching.
But at least the birds were there. As I said already very good numbers of Stormies, several Sooty Shears (several of which landed on the surface to inspect our chum slick) and the odd Great Skua also. On the odd occassion a Sooty would make several wide arcs round the boat before not so gracefully crash-landing in amongst a group of Fulmars and helping itself to some chumage.

Sooty Shearwater

A 'graceful' crash-land
We were all happlily snapping away at these and the Stormies when Craig yelled out "skua" and a stunning Arctic Skua passed above our heads. It was initially identified as a Long-tailed Skua but corrected later in the day on review of the many snaps that were taken of the bird. Nonetheless it treated us all to some fantastic views as it took several passes over the boat and harassed a few Kittiwakes.

2nd cy Arctic Skua

Chasing a Kittiwake
Fantastic to see such a stunning bird that close. And just as we were all taking in the skua Owen got onto a Wilson's Storm Petrel. It was a little distant and as I waited for it to come in by the boat I stayed with the skua, looking for the best shot I could get. However the Wilson's preferred to stay out a bit so I didn't even take any record shots of the bird. Through my bins though I could make out the feet projecting past the tail and the pale panels on the upper wing. A second Wilson's was picked out also but it too preferred to keep its distance. So having first seen them in the Southern Ocean on my trip to Anarctica in 2007, Oceanites oceanicus was finally on my Irish list. Thanks to Craig Nash for the following shot.

Wilson's Petrel - by Craig Nash

All smiles - several of us had just ticked Wilson's Petrel (Front row: Graham Clarke, Craig Nash and Philip Clancy, Back row: Mark Carmody, Anthony McGeehan, Conor Foley, Ciaran Smyth, Steve Millar, Donal Foley, Robert Vaughan and Owen Foley)

We continued chumming and after several hours had drifted a further 3 miles. At our furthest point we were 12 miles NW of Loop Head. 3 Great Skuas had kept us entertained after the Arctic Skua and Wilson's Petrels. Up close it is clear to see just how bulky and fiercesome they are.

Bonxie or Great Skua
While I was enjoying my sandwich a small, dainty gull came towards the boat, 'Sabine's'. After Swallow-tailed, my second favourite Gull, a real beauty. And it was soon joined by an adult with a full dark hood.

Adult Sabine's Gull
Shortly after it was time to switch on the engines and head back.

By now the early start was catching up on us all and the boat was a little quieter as we headed in. But there was still things to see. Apart from the ever present Common Dolphins, a second Minke Whale raised its head briefly as we passed and a Pomarine Skua was seen distantly harassing a raft of floating Manxies.

Pomarine Skua chases the Manxies
In several of the Manxie rafts it was possible to pick out 5 or 6 Sooties and Owen found a Balearic amongst one of these also.
By about 1pm we docked again at Kilbaha pier, climbing off our boat (Deva) we gathered for a quick group photo to mark the inaugural Kilbaha Pelagic, the first of many we hope.

The pioneering 'Kilbaha Pelagic' - 13th August 2012

Our trusty launch - DEVA
From there it was back to the Lighthouse Inn for a heart stopping full Irish breakfast and the road back to Cork.
Thanks to Owen for organsing a great day out and to all the others who made the day so enjoyable!

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