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  • Junes DOLPHIN survey was fantastic!

     
    These are the days we live for! The seal survey on 11 June 2014 was as glorious as it gets! With calm sea conditions and bright sunny skies we setted off at 7:30am.
    All along the coastline were nesting sea birds, many with visible chicks waddling around the nest area. Herring gull chicks occupied many ledges on our journey out to the survey sites.
     
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    There was a lot of commotion at the Kittiwake colony as a juvenile Peregrine falcon moved along the ledges removing chicks from their nests. Adult Kittiwakes flew in all directions squawking loudly as they did so. This Peregrine must have fledged in the last week. This is evident by its fresh and impressive plumage clearly displayed. Whereas the adult birds are currently undergoing their post breed moult.
     
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    The Peregrine flew from the ledge to chase Herring gulls in the air for a moment before returning to the ledges, then flew again above the skyline and landed on the slope of the nearby island in the sun as we left the colony behind us. Despite this predation, the colony seems to be healthy in terms of numbers of occupied nests and growing chicks.
     
    During the course of the survey we saw lots of Gannets, flying by or circling and diving. We passed a large group of Manx shear waters, a Balearic shear water, 6 Puffins and a storm petrol.
     
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    We were all at the front of the boat when Dave pointed out in front of us towards a pod of Common dolphins. They were heading for our boat so Chris cut back the speed, stopping at first and then maintained a slow and steady course as the pod joined us.
     
    There were 20 playful dolphins, they surrounded us, breaching into the air, riding the wake and playing at the bow and sides of the boat as another pod of 20 more dolphins joined them to play.
     
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    It got very exciting so we sat higher to get a better view of them leaping out of and twisting underwater sideways, weaving in and out of one another. Then suddenly another 17 dolphins came to our boat and joined the others followed by another 13. By now we were all on cloud nine, pinching each other to check this was real. Never before have we been so totally surrounded by these magical creatures.
     
    The 70 dolphins were of mixed age, mostly between 1.5 – 2 metres in length. They stayed with us for a total of 37 minutes, continuing the same behaviours as we made our way onto the next survey site, not forgetting we had work to do!
     
    The dolphins carefully manoeuvred themselves alongside our boat, sometimes there was only a metre from them and us, we could clearly see all the markings and scars on their bodies and their watchful eyes peered up at us as they continued to play.
     
    I took so many photos that it was hard to choose just a few, so I put some of my favourites into a collage:
     
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    Gradually the dolphins thinned out, leaving the boat in small groups not as large as the original pods that they had arrived in, until there were 4 remaining dolphins swimming at the front of the boat, swaying and weaving rhythmically underwater playing with the two bows of the catamaran as it moved through the water. These 4 common dolphins stayed with us for some distance before suddenly veering sideways and leaving us altogether in awe of the experience we had just had.
     
    Soon we were at the main seal haul out spot. In this particular survey we only saw 3 seals, which is not unusual given the time of year as the seals will be feeding further offshore. But it is the lowest number of seals we have ever had on a POLPIP survey! Despite the lack of seals all the volunteers agreed we may just have had the best survey ever, and all returned to normality on land with HUGE smiles on our faces :)
     
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    All the survey data we gather is used in marine conservation and has played a huge part in designating the proposed Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone. A huge Thank you to Chris at Atlantic Divers, without you our important surveys would not be possible. Also a huge Thank you to all the volunteers who dedicate their time and money to make these surveys happen.
     

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    Second Ever Winter Survey!

     
    Survey Date: Saturday 7th december 2013
    This was our second ever winter survey! The sea was slightly rough as was the weather with a north westerly breeze and drizzle for the first hour. Fortunately this did clear which left quite good survey conditions for the rest of the day.
     
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    Throughout the survey there was a large presence of Herring and Black-backed gulls both on ledges and in the air. Gannets were also present throughout the survey.
     
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    Surprisingly we came across one ledge of 23 Guillemots in prime nesting locations at a very early point in the year to be considering nesting behaviour.
     
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    As we made our way towards the Quies, the sea became particularly bumpy and rough, which provoked seasickness in some of the volunteers as we saw a seal nearby in the water.
     
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    Although we didn’t realise it at the time two cheeky little seals followed our boat for a fair stretch of the journey and it was only afterwards when Sue went through the photographs that she realised we had initially counted these several times but this was rectified for the reports and database.
     
    At around 14:40 we spotted one Harbour porpoise, a very shy creature and although it was only a quick glimpse it was clear that its dorsal fin was more triangular than sickle shaped.
     
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    This survey followed on from and backed up the data from the first winter survey. At the main seal haul out spot we again encountered a mass of hauled out golden brown seals.
    As previously, we held our distance back to prevent any disturbance of the seals. The seals are particularly vulnerable when there are such large numbers hauled out as there could be dangerous consequences and injury if there were to be a big flurry of movement. We watched carefully in our binoculars as Sue took a series of photographs to count from. On this survey we saw 252 seals, of which unfortunately 3 were netted seals.
     
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    On our way back to Padstow Chris jumped out of his seat, sure that he had seen a Bottlenose dolphin swimming fast towards us. Excited we all ran to the front of the boat and peered over the edge and out to sea. There was no sign of it. Usually Bottlenose dolphins would be part of a pod rather than on their own and after a while of watching, became unsure that he had really seen anything so we carried on.
    On a recent Carracks and St Agnes survey Sue had seen seven Bottlenose dolphins, of which managed to identify five and added one young dolphin to the photo ID catalogue.
     
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    The views over the estuary were beautiful in the fading light as we waited for the incoming tide to reach a height allowing us to land at Padstow Harbour and to have a sneeky peek at the Christmas market!
     
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    All the survey data we gather is used in marine conservation and has played a huge part in designating the proposed Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone. A huge Thank you to Chris at Atlantic Divers, without you our important winter surveys would not be possible. A huge Thank you also to all the other volunteers who dedicate their time and money to make these surveys happen.
     
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    Successful First Ever Winter Boat Survey on the North Coast of Cornwall

     
    Survey date: Friday 22nd November 2013
    Following the success of the summer surveys and the enormous amount of data we have been gathering on seals, sea birds and cetaceans we decided to fill the gap in the data and run winter surveys :) We are pleased to have been given the opportunity to run these surveys with Chris from Atlantic Divers, Newquay on board their catamaran whilst Matt’s Cornish Sea Tours RIB is out of the water over the stormy winter months.
     
    Organising a winter survey was always going to be a challenging feat, with winter swell being so much bigger and wind so much stronger than the summer months. Co-ordinating days to suit our experts and hoping conditions will be right on these days, then finding enough volunteers to fill the boat in what could be testing conditions. However, we did it! We could not have been luckier with the conditions on the water being great and the sun shone its heavenly rays down on us like it was springtime.
     
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    There was a good team of us, Sue from Cornwall Seal Group was photographing the seals for the ID catalogue, with Tina recording data; Derek aka the Camel Birder recording the bird data and myself recording mobile species such as cetaceans with the help of several other volunteers from the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group.
     
    We set off from the small pontoon by the Harbour masters office in Padstow at around 10am following our usual route along the north Cornish coast surveying the stretch between Padstow and Boscastle and all the islands in between.
     
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    A short distance away near Stepper point we came across our first seals nearby some Shags on the waters surface. On nearby cliff ledges were 25 Fulmars and 8 Kittiwakes. The Fulmars leave the cliffs during September and October, float way, moult and come back again with their new plumage in November.
     
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    On the first of the islands we visited, was perched a Peregrine Falcon on top of the rock stack keeping a vigilant eye. There was also a fair amount of bird activity on the next island along, amongst which we spotted a Purple sandpiper.
     
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    At around mid day we stopped briefly to check the engines. From the back of the boat we were treated with a brief glimpse of 2 – 3 Porpoises moving steadily away from the boat. As they moved further away we got a couple more glimpses before they disappeared into the distance.
     
    There was a lot of bird activity on the next island along but this time no peregrine. Although we did see three seals at this location for the first time ever!
     
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    Further along we spotted a pod of 4 -5 Common dolphins. Again they were only brief glimpses going into the distance but exciting nonetheless.
     
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    We soon approached the location of the main seal haul out spot. On this survey however, due to the size of our vessel and the sound of the engine we decided we would need to stay back further than previously on the RIB. We approached with caution and passed slowly once. We could view the seals in our binoculars, there were masses of seals unlike the numbers I have previously seen. It was an incredible sight with the usual grey band of stones and boulders impressively replaced by a solid band of golden moulting seals. Sue took a careful series of photographs that she could later count from by marking each seal as she has counted it.
     
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    On our return journey we were passed by a Common Scoter, a type of dark sea duck. Common Scoters can be seen offshore all year round but large numbers arrive from October, leaving again from March.
     
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    As I am writing this blog I am looking through the photos that I took and reminiscing in awe of what a successful and beautiful day we had and how we were so lucky to see hundreds of seals- 436 in fact! This included two netted seals.
     
    This Herring gull followed us for several miles as the light began to fade.
     
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    The gannets dived as we pursued the sunset towards stepper on our journey home, what a beautiful day :)
     
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    All the survey data we gather is used in marine conservation and has played a huge part in designating the proposed Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone. A huge Thank you to Chris at Atlantic Divers, without you our important winter surveys would not be possible. A huge Thank you also to all the other volunteers who dedicate their time and money to make these surveys happen.
     
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    Common Dolphins come to Play on the September Survey

     
    Survey Date: 6th September 2013
    Our September survey marks the end of the planned surveys for the year, and what better way to end than this day, it was perfect. The sun shone down on us as we kitted up and boarded the RIB, leaving the pontoon at around 11:00am.
     
    With Sue from the Cornwall Seal Group taking the photos for the seal ID catalogue, Abby from Cornwall Wildlife Trust recording seal data and myself recording sea bird data in Dereks’ absence along with Cetacean sightings.
     
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    The day began with a peleathera of sea bird sightings, some beautiful Cormorants in the air above us, Shags on nearby ledges and Black-backed gulls on the waters surface. We surveyed the same spots as in our previous surveys for continuity of data, although, on this trip we changed the route and order we would visit each site to work around the low tide times.
     
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    As we expected at the Kittiwake colony all was very quiet, now that the breeding and nesting season have come to an end. We recorded only four perched birds and three in flight compared with 340 Kittiwakes recorded on the June survey.
     
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    As we passed Mother Ivys beach a Raven alongside us put on an aerial display of skill and wonder, diving and aerobatic rolling almost as if it were trying to impress our group.
     
    At the first seal haul out site were ten seals hauled onto the rocks and another one in the water, with numerous birds also on the rocks and a Fulmar flying overhead.
     
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    As we moved onto the next haul out location a Razorbill flew past us.
     
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    We started to make our way across a stretch of water to the next survey site as we saw seven circling Gannets. Every now and again one would dive elegantly and accurately into the sea, folding their wings back at the very last moment before entering the water.
     
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    Whilst in awe of the diving Gannets we were approached by a small pod of curious Common dolphins! Here is a video that I have filmed and edited of our encounter with the dolphins:
     

     
    If you cannot see the above video, try this link.
     
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    There were between twelve and sixteen Common dolphins, mostly juvenile and they swam alongside our boat for around ten minutes whilst we maintained a slow and steady course. It was simply AMAZING! We were all so happy to see the dolphins, and it’s lovely to feel that they also seemed happy to see us.
     
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    The youngest dolphins seemed the most curious, approaching within a couple of metres to our boat. Soon, the magic was over and the dolphins continued their journey without us.
     
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    As we approached one of the islands we survey, two Puffins flew over us as we took a count of the Shags and Cormorants. Soon we reached the main seal haul out locations, a large number of the seals were hauled out making them easier to spot and to photograph for the ID catalogue, a large number of these seals were juveniles. They also seemed to be more curious today than on previous surveys. We kept our usual safe distance but there were a few seals that left their rocks in an attempt to get a better look at us. Others simply put their heads up to see us over their rocky resting places.
     
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    The weather had been predicted to rain quite heavily for most of the duration of our survey. Luckily the storm clouds didn’t unleash the forces of nature until well into the last hour of our trip.
     
    On our way back into the estuary after a particularly exciting day the icing on the cake were four Arctic Turns gracefully flying over the estuary in front of us.
     
    On this survey we saw forty-five seals most of which were hauled out onto the rocks. This is suggestive that the seals are transitioning from foraging and they are preparing for the looming pupping season. It would be useful for the data to carry out a mid-winter survey, something that we have not done before. We would expect to see an even higher number of hauled out seals, possibly even be lucky enough to see some seal pups!
     
    All the survey data we gathered is used in marine conservation, and has played a huge part in designating the proposed Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone. A huge Thank you to Matt and Ben at Cornish Sea Tours, without you our important surveys would not be possible.
     
    Thank you to all the volunteers who dedicate their time and money to make these surveys happen.
     
    For more information on the seals around our coastline or about the work of Cornwall Seal Group, visit their website here. If you would like more information on the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group including future events or how to volunteer, visit their website here. For more information on Seaquest Southwest, a marine recording project run jointly by Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts which collects sightings of all marine creatures from the public click here. For more information on the bird life along the beautiful Camel Estuary visit the Camel Birders website here.
     

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    Julys Seal, Seabird and Cetacean Survey

     
    Survey Date 10th July 2013
    Julys Seal, Seabird and Cetacean survey was a success, with the most perfect conditions we have ever had on one of our surveys. The sun was shining, the sea was calm and there was a slight N-NE breeze. Organised and kitted up, we set off at a slightly later time of 11:30am to work around the low tide at 13:32. We were following our usual route from Rock to Boscastle, covering the islands in between. Tina was in control of our seabird and cetacean survey with Adrians assistance, taking photographs of the colonies to report back to Derek Julian of the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society. I was working closely with Sue Sayer of the Cornwall seal Group, recording the survey data whilst Sue took the photographs for the identification catalogue.
     
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    All around us the water was crystal clear, we stopped briefly in a quiet cove near Butterhole. In the water were a couple of common purple jellyfish and overhead flew a majestic Peregrine falcon followed shortly afterwards by three Oyster catchers as we passed Razorbills and Guillemots on the nearby ledges; what a treat so early on in our survey!
     
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    We passed Cormorants and Shags on the stacks as we made our way to the Kittiwake colony. On one stack was a Shag stood by three young.
     
    During our June survey there were 320 nesting Kittiwakes in the colony. Today, as we made our way across, six kayaks were paddling close by to and away from the colony. There were between 50 and 100 unsettled Guillemots and Razorbills in the air. The Kittiwakes however, seemed indifferent to the presence of the kayaks.
     
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    On the way to the first of the islands that we survey was a large foil balloon floating on the surface. We went in closer so that Ben could remove it from the water. Balloons are a particular danger in the marine environment with many marine creatures such as turtles mistaking them for jellyfish – a rich food source. Please read the following blog for some more information on balloons in the marine environment.
     
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    Once we reached nearby the island we sighted four seals, two adult males hauled out and a further male in the water with a juvenile. Nearby was a kayaker resting on an important seal haul out spot whilst there were seals in the water. We approached close enough to notify him that the seals use the area to haul out at low tide to digest their food. Seals are very easily spooked into the water and will not usually return to haul out once they have been disturbed. It is important that they can haul out when they need to. For further reading on seal interruptions read Sues blog.
     
    We continued, passing some Moon jellyfish to our right. There are a lot of jellyfish all around our coast at the moment following the Plankton bloom last month and increasing water temperature with the current heat wave. Many marine animals feed on jellyfish, including Leatherback Sea Turtles, of which there have been several sightings this week in the south of Cornwall. These incredible creatures are facing extinction in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but their numbers seem to be increasing in the Atlantic. Sightings can be recorded with the Marine Conservation Society here.
     
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    Another Oyster catcher flew overhead as we approached a rather beautiful sailed boat called ‘Ireny’.
     
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    Three Mediterranean gulls in full summer plumage, often confused with the black-headed gull, and a Fulmar flew past us as we looked on, past five Guillemots on the waters surface to the two hauled out seals on the next island.
     
    Both seals were female, one had only recently hauled out; visible from the glistening high contrasting pretty patterns in her fur. The second seal had dried out and with it, the contrasts of her fur patterns had decreased. The ledges on this island were full of Guillemots, with numbers seeming to be healthier than last year.
     
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    Nearby to the Rumps was something large just below the surface, initially we hoped to be spotting an Ocean Sunfish (Mola Mola), the heaviest known bony fish in the world, which have been sighted here recently. Unfortunately it was soon obvious that we were looking at a large piece of marine plastic litter. So, we went over to retrieve it from the water. For more information on marine plastic and some ways in which life is interacting with it click here.
     
    Soon afterwards a juvenile gannet flew over us. There were more gannets circling ahead but we didn’t sight any dolphins.We visited the last our of survey islands, here were two more seals, a male and a juvenile, there were also two Puffins spotted in the air and another on the water.
     
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    On the way to Tintagel, we went through a huge bloom of jellyfish. We were surrounded by Common Purple and Moon jellyfish, at least one Compass jellyfish with its beautiful reddish brown star shaped pattern on it’s bell and unfortunately a large amount of plastic debris.
     
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    With plenty of sightings of Guillemots and Razorbills as we continued surveying, we sighted a Puffin on the water and another in the air which landed nearby on good ground, possibly indicating the beginnings of a new nesting site. Certainly something to monitor in future surveys.
     
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    Last month we looked in a cave not used by seals and saw a nesting Shag on a high ledge. This month the Shags were not sighted. Shags have a long nesting season, starting from February. Chicks are totally reliant on their parents for warmth for around two months as they hatch without down. Fledging occurs any time from early June to late August.
     
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    At the main seal haul out spot on our survey we saw twenty four seals. Although Vic, another volunteer from Cornwall Seal Group had already been conducting a land based seal survey for some time before our arrival. He had seen seventy five seals at this spot only 15 minutes before he saw us arrive. This shows us the importance of catching the low tide times just right for maximum seal identification potential. Five of the seals hauled out made their way into the sea despite our slow and careful approach and safe distance from the seals (more than 100m).
     
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    Most of the seals we saw today were adult females (around half) and the rest were adult males and juveniles. The juvenile seals cannot be identified or sexed. Once a pup moults at around 2-3 weeks old it will not moult again until after the following moulting season, so it’s coat goes the characteristic golden juvenile colour with ageing. As a juvenile seal gets older it’s features become more pronounced making it easier to identify their sex and fur patterns. A seal transitions from juvenile to adult at around four years of age.
     
    Amongst the seals we spotted on this survey was Noo Swirls – one of the very first seals we identified on these surveys, a regular visitor to this part of the coast line and a very beautiful male seal. He was also spotted on last months survey, two of our surveys in 2012 and the one in 2011; as well as being spotted in other surveys conducted by Cornwall Seal Group in West Cornwall.
     
    It was nice to see so many seals in this survey. With a total of 39 seals recorded, the data was consistent with previous surveys. The day previous to our survey, Looe VMCA conducted a survey in which there were no seal sightings. In the heat they must have all been foraging offshore.
     
    All the survey data we gathered is used in marine conservation, and has played a huge part in designating the proposed Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone. Thank you to Matt and Ben at Cornish Sea Tours, without you our important surveys would not be possible.
     
    A big Thank you to all the volunteers who dedicate their time and money to make these surveys happen.
     
    For more information on the seals around our coastline or about the work of Cornwall Seal Group, visit their website here.
    If you would like more information on the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group including future events or how to volunteer, visit their website here. For more information on the bird life along the beautiful Camel Estuary visit the Camel Birders website here.
     

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    June Marine Survey Success

     
    Survey date: Monday 10th June 2013
    After such a cold and miserable spring; four cancelled surveys due to high winds, big swell and misery we were all really keen to get back on the water for our very first Polzeath seal, bird and cetacean survey of the year!
     
    For continuity of data we were returning to the same sites along the north coast of Cornwall, it is interesting to find out how our disastrous spring has affected the nesting birds. Equally it will be interesting to note the seal behaviour for the time of year. There have been a lot of seals along this stretch of coastline over the course of this winter and now pupping season is long gone, moulting season should also be over by now so we expected that a lot of seals would be making their way offshore to forage.
     
    We began the survey shortly after 11:30am, the water was slightly rippled and the weather slightly overcast. We set out from the estuary a little way before stopping at a particularly calm area where we could see how green the water was from the recent algal bloom. There have also been a lot of sightings of Moon jellyfish at the moment, due to the algae, plankton and nutrients in the water. The jellyfish stay close to the surface where the highest concentrations of plankton is found; this makes them susceptible to being washed up as they get caught in the currents. I have seen many smaller Moon jellyfish washed up recently but they can grow up to 40cms in diameter!
     
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    Nearby were nesting Razorbills and Guillemots above a cave containing squabbling seals that we could hear from quite a distance. There was a seal in the water to the left of the cave and two seals to the right that appeared to be last years juveniles.
    Above us on the cliff top was a Peregrine falcon majestically grooming itself. On the rocks all around were nesting Shags.
     
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    There was quite a flurry of activity at the Kittiwake colony, there were also quite a few Guillemots.
    Having missed the first couple of months survey data it is harder to tell how the nesting birds here have been affected by the cold start to the breeding season. The Kittiwakes at this site seem to have doubled in numbers, but we would expect that this would be down to the fact that the number in the colony nearer to Newquay has halved.
     
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    On the water we stopped to look at some of last years juvenile Guillemots as we spotted some more seals in the water near Quies where there were more Shags nesting. Around the other side of the island sheltered from the south to south-easterly winds were four seals hauled out.
     
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    Overhead were Gannets, and flying by were Guillemots and Razorbills, some Shags and a Puffin. As we continued our survey we passed a group of Guillemots on the water; one of them was a Bridled Guillemot – with a white ring around it’s eyes and a trailing white line down its nape, like a pair of spectacles – a very beautiful bird. They are part of the same species as the common Guillemot but with a slightly different gene, much like us humans have blue or brown eyes. Bridled Guillemots are much less sighted than the unbridled bird but as you travel north through the British Isles it’s frequency increases. You can see the Bridled Guillemot in the middle, in this photo:
     
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    As we headed to the Mouls, a Fulmar passed us by and we sighted another two separate Puffins, this time on the water. No one has seen any nesting Puffins so far this year.
     
    We observed the Jackdaws’ aerial display whilst in the shelter of Tintagel before we passed Lye Rock, the last place the puffins bred on the mainland of Cornwall before moving out to the islands. Although, Lye Rock itself is almost as good as an island in that it is barely attached to the mainland.
     
    Ahead of us the Gannets had started circling, we approached slowly to investigate the possibility of dolphins. As we did so we got a clear view of the beautiful high contrasting markings on the juvenile Gannets wings; black on white with some in patterns almost like those seen on a QR square.
     
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    Whilst watching the Gannets, this Herring gull flew close to the boat, such a beautiful bird and as a species unfortunately in moderate decline:
     
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    There were more Guillemots nesting on Long and Short Island and two Puffins on the water.
     
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    Puffin numbers all over the country have been hit hard. In many places the severe weather had stirred up the water so much that the puffins could not feed, hence many have not returned to their nesting burrows for the new breeding season. On this survey the only puffins we saw were in the water or in the air. We saw no nesting puffins or beak wagging displays on the island. I feel that this is quite a concern. I hope we will have nesting sightings soon.
     
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    In one of the caves further up the coast a lot of surface scum had gathered resulting from the decomposing matter from the algal bloom making swirling patterns across the surface. In this particular cave were many differently coloured rock layers with the lower layers covered in pink algae. On one of the rock ledges was a nesting Shag.
     
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    There were over forty seals recorded on this survey and as expected the seals were mostly in the water and offshore now that the moulting season has passed. Seals seem to be very resilient to rough conditions, white water and wild rocky shores so have been unaffected by the cold spring.
     
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    As we neared the end of our survey, we spotted what appeared to be a drifting net. As Matt started to pull it from the water it became apparent that it was a line of lobster pots that we had come across by chance, whose marker buoy had become unattached. If we had left the pots they would have continued ghost fishing, trapping, entangling and possibly killing seals and other marine life. This type of discarded, abandoned or lost fishing gear is an increasing threat to the marine environment.
     
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    In the pots were two Spider crabs; a stunning Squat lobster with it’s knees a lovely blue-purple colour; a Spiny starfish; another smaller starfish; a Seasquirt and lots of Cowries. We released all these amazing creatures and continued our journey back to the pontoon in Rock.
     
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    All the survey data we gathered is used in marine conservation, and has played a huge part in designating the proposed Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone. Thank you to Matt at Cornish Sea Tours, without you our important surveys would not be possible.
    A big Thank you to all the volunteers who dedicate their time and money to make these surveys happen.
     
    If you would like more information on the Polzeath Marine Conservation Group including future events or how to volunteer, visit their website here. For more information on the bird life along the beautiful Camel Estuary visit the Camel Birders website here. For more information on the work of Cornwall Seal Group, visit their website here.
     

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    Seal Survey September 2012

      

    This was sadly the last seal survey of 2012. We planned to coincide the trip with the low tide to make the task of seal spotting easier as many of the seals would be hauled out, which also makes photo identification easier as well. Unfortunately, Sue Sayer of Cornwall Seal Group was unable to attend, due to the survey being rescheduled when conditions were too poor for the original date. This meant that without our expert, I would be recording the survey data with the help of everyone to identify the seals; whether the seals are male or female, adult or juvenile; and a couple of us would be taking photos for identification.

      

    We met at the Rock pontoon to be greeted by Matt, who quickly and excitedly informed us that there are literally hundreds of dolphins along the coast at the moment. The RIB sea safari he had lead that morning had spotted around 100 dolphins, many of them with calves. He had also been surrounded by a super pod of around 300 dolphins the previous week within a three mile stretch of open water!

      

    We left the pontoon, following our usual route between Rock, along the North Cornish coast to Boscastle and all the islands in between. The ledges on the cliff faces are now quiet and empty of the flurry of life and sounds of the breeding sea birds that have now moved offshore, this allowed us to get closer to one particular cave. Once there, we encountered our first seal sighting of the day, a large male in the water in front of us.

      

    We continued on to our first seal lookout point past a couple of Fulmars on a ledge and a Kittiwake flying overhead. The Cormorant chicks are getting big now. The Cormorants and Shags have both been feeding well, the chick (second from the right, below) seems bigger than the adults, its plumage is currently a pale colour.

      

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    At our first regular seal lookout spot there are six seals.

      

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    At the next there are two heavily pregnant females hauled out with a male, they are beautiful and keep a careful eye on our boat, we remain at a safe distance and continue on our way.

      

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    Further around we spot a leucistic Shag, this bird has a reduced pigmentation which makes it appear almost white. This is a huge disadvantage to the bird, as it stands out from the rocks making it vulnerable. The other Shags seem to segregate it from the group further increasing its vulnerability. Nearby is an Oyster Catcher with its remarkable red bill and legs, and bright white and black plumage.

      

    As we had expected there are no seal sightings at the next island we visit so we start towards our next spot across the open water. In the distance, Matt briefly spots something resembling a Basking shark. It is in an up welling area, so cold water is being pushed up, full of Plankton, therefore it is possible it could be a Basking Shark. We move closer to see if we can see anything, it could also have been a breaching young Sunfish as they have been sighted very recently… However we have no further sightings as we draw closer.

      

    On our way we see a floating mass, in its centre is a dead Gannet, a very sad sight to see. Amongst the debris is some fishing net, possibly tangled around the birds feet but it was very hard to conclude for certain that this had caused the birds death.

     

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    Further out are more Gannets, circling and feeding, in excitement we head over in search of dolphins. We reach an area which is at first calm and still. Suddenly the surface becomes a cascade of activity as huge shoals of fish break the surface darting up in rhythm, being pursued and pushed up from below by predators such as dolphins. It sounds almost like a musical rain-maker as the rippling and breaking surface shimmers. The ocean though, keeps us in suspense as to what lies below, so we continue on towards Tintagel.

      

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    Over head there is a Manx Shearwater flying past through more circling Gannets. Suddenly just ahead of us a Harbour Porpoise appears from nowhere! I almost jumped out of my seat in excitement! Then there are four more and then a few more coming up for air before disappearing from view once more, heading west. There were about ten of them amazingly close to our boat, they are usually so timid and shy, it was breathtaking, we were so lucky to see them so close.

      

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    As we approach Tintagel we see a beautiful juvenile Guillemot flying close to the waters surface. The juvenile Guillemots take longer to learn to fly the more well fed they have been before they leave the nest as the extra weight adds bulk to their bodies. Once they have learnt to fly properly, they will join the adults further offshore.

      

    There are also Herring Gulls flying overhead. These gulls have now been categorised as vulnerable as their numbers are decreasing.

     

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    We see one more seal before moving onto view the main haul out spot. This is quite an exciting opportunity to see the pregnant hauled out seals and possibly some pups as well as other young seals. We keep a safe distance of at least a hundred metres away. Despite this the first group of seals, a large mixed group of females and juveniles left their rock and slipped into the water. It seemed as though the seals were being a lot more cautious than they would usually behave, probably due to the fact it is breeding season between now and December.

      

    We saw seventeen more seals including one seal pup coated in white fur, which appeared to be around ten days old. The sightings today were many and it took everyone of us to keep on top of identifying them so that we could record them all!

     

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    On our way back to Rock, we spotted a Peregrine Falcon going in to land at the top of the island. Seconds later appeared another and they began calling to each other, it was an adult and its young. It was quite a highlight! To finish our trip, a pair of Sandwich Terns glided gracefully past us on our way into the estuary.

      

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    Although this is the last survey this year, it has been confirmed that the surveys will continue next year. All the information we gather is significant for research and protection of these incredible birds and animals. Hopefully our beautiful Padstow Bay Marine Conservation Zone will become recognised as worthy of full status and protection.

      

    I have had so much fun this year being part of this research and would like to say thank you to Matt and Tina for making the trips possible, running and organising them. Sue and Derek for their fantastic research and passion for what they do and everyone who has been involved this year. I look forward to sharing the experiences next year. :)

      

      

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    July’s Seal Survey on the North Cornish Coast

     

    Survey date: 27th July 2012

    As much as the day had been intended to be a seal survey, the high tide determined that we wouldn’t see as many seals as we had hoped to. For this reason, we hugged the coastline instead of taking our usual route up the North Cornish coast to maximise our chances of sightings.

     

    As Matt steered the RIB away from the pontoon we sighted a large group of Mediterranean Gulls on the bank at Padstow side. The Mediterranean Gulls are similar in appearance to Black Headed Gulls, with white plumage, bright red legs and bills that have parallel sides. They were almost extinct at one point but numbers have increased since the 1960′s and they have spread north along the French coast and now breed in Britain, often nesting amongst Black Headed Gulls. The numbers of Sand Eels are also healthy at the moment which is brilliant news for the sea birds here that feed on them.

     

     

    Above:  Removing plastic marine litter along the way.

     

     

    It was a choppy day with large amounts of spray coming up over the sides of the RIB into our faces, I quickly tucked away my camera and survey notes before the wet paper started to disintegrate, and continued enjoying the spraying waves.

     

    Overhead flew a Sandwich Tern and a Fulmer as we moved on to view the Kittiwake colony. All of the guillemots have fledged and moved offshore.

     

     

    As we continued our journey to the first of our usual seal lookouts, two Gannets fly past, an adult, and a juvenile with its much darker plumage which will take around three years to develop into the bright white of the adults.

     

    Ahead, the Gannets were circling and diving, we got a brief glimpse of a Common Dolphins dorsal fin and in a flash it slipped away along with the Gannets. Keenly we all watched and waited, gently drifting nearby to where the Gannets were diving but we sighted no more movement below the choppy surface.

     

     

    Soon we approached the first Seal haul out location, there were no hauled out seals but four in the water. These consisted of one male, two females and one juvenile. Sue took some shots for later identification as I jotted down the details.

     

     

    The Gannets were once again circling overhead as we made our way onto the next location. This time we glimpsed the sight of four Harbour Porpoises, a very shy marine mammal, and after a brief moment they were out of sight. Our next Seal sighting was our last of the day, it was another fairly brief encounter, with an unknown seal in the water. After this, our eyes began to see the many seal shaped rocks along our coastline as we went past the dark caves full of sleeping Horseshoe Bats.

     

     

    The Manx Shearwaters that were flying overhead are here for their breeding season. Like Puffins, they nest in burrows on islands along our coast. Manx Shearwaters lay one white egg which is only visited at night to prevent predation from large Gulls. Each winter these incredible birds will migrate to Argentina, over 10,000km away. The Puffins have now all left our shores and as we progressed through the survey there were no sightings of Guillemots.

     

     

    Despite hugging the coastline instead of taking our usual route up the coast, our seal sightings were still very few. Sometimes one trip may seem more exciting than another but it is always a valuable source of data; even if we were to report no seal sightings at all.

     

    I have again expanded my knowledge of Cornish sea birds and experienced the exhilaration of breathing our beautiful sea air whilst tasting the salt spray on my lips. Each of us got wetter than usual. I returned home with a smile on my face as I rang out my wet socks in the hot sun on my door step.  :)

     

     

     

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    Seal Survey and Sunfish on the North Cornish Coast

     

    Survey date: 21st June 2012

    I knew it was going to be a challenging survey when the weather report came in on the previous evening. A wall of water was due to cover the entire Westcountry from 11am with not a sign of ending until after 4pm, which coincidentally would completely cover the duration of our trip! The good news though, the swell was holding off nicely and the survey was to go ahead!

     

    The next day arrives…Heavily kitted up in many layers and waterproofs we gather on the pontoon for the June 2012 POLPIP Seal Survey. Tina has managed to drum up the support of 11 people after 7 cancellations, quite an epic result considering the predicted rain!

     

    Well, so far so good, the weather is holding out for the time being, cameras at the ready while it stays dry, lets go! Across the water on the sandbar are two Sandwich Turns, and ahead, three diving Gannets. Our survey is covering our usual route from Rock out along the North Cornish coast up to Boscastle.  There have been sightings of Ocean Sunfish recently with news of around 30 being spotted from the Rumps which we would be passing.  I’m so excited, I’ve never seen a Sunfish before but have heard and read so much about them and seen so many pictures and spoken to divers who have seen them in tropical waters that I would just feel so privileged to see one along the Cornish coastline.

     

     

    We are starting to spot many birds and their young; Herring Gulls, Shags, Razorbills. We go on to see the large Kittiwake colony on the steep inaccessible cliffs, their nests constructed from seaweed, mud and grass to keep their young safe from predators.   On our last survey Derek recorded 120 pairs; he begins photographing the colony to compare numbers later.  It is useful to record this data.  In the UK, Kittiwake populations have halted and in some places begun to decline.   By recording numbers and patterns in behaviour we can work out why.

     

    Shortly after this we see our first two seals, each alone, one male and one female but it isn’t long before we have recorded eight; six of which are hauled out, and mostly lone seals.

     

     

     

    Past Quires we see two fins breaking the surface of the water, it’s the Sunfish!! They are flapping their fins in and out of the water ahead of us, its a beautiful and exciting moment.

     

     

    At this point the rain finally makes an appearance, we have been so lucky that it has held off for this long.

     

     

    There has definitely been quite a lack of seals on this survey, there are no seals on their main haul out spot so they are harder to see when they are in the water; but it is all still useful data to record from this survey for this time of year.

     

     

    Nearby the Rumps on our return we have quite a close encounter with a Sunfish making an appearance as we stop to look out for Puffins on Mulls. It is sideways to the surface exposing the full beauty of its fascinating disk shaped body of about 50cms diameter. I wish I had taken a good photograph of it but in awe of it and with the pouring rain and my unsteady camera I missed my opportunity, so here is a picture from Wikipedia (with permission), that best reminds me of what I was looking at (Photographer Miike Johnson).

     

     

    For more information on the Ocean Sunfish visit the blog that Cornish Sea Tours have written about them.

     

    On the Mulls we see a Puffin sheltering from the rain and four on the waters surface. It is only a matter of a week now before they will have left to feed offshore until breeding season next year.

     

     

    On our way back as predicted the swell and wind have swung round to a westerly direction, we pick up some speed against the pouring rain which feels like large sharp hail stones hitting our cheeks!  There are no dolphin sightings today although the conditions were right and the opportunity there, they just remained elusive!

     

    As we enter the estuary the water suddenly becomes calm, a welcome change to the choppy swell out at sea, we glance around to see that Matt’s life jackets auto-sensor had become so wet that the jacket had inflated itself, and the rest of us have somehow soaked through our waterproofs!  What matters most is we have all thoroughly enjoyed our survey and all have huge smiles on our faces from the day’s sightings :)

     

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    Seal Survey May 2012

     

    Survey date: 4th May 2012

    A few weeks ago we conducted the second seal survey along the North Cornish coast this year, stretching between Rock and Boscastle.

     

    Although the morning started rather misty and cold on the estuary we all felt a sense of excitement about the days seal survey ahead and the surprises we might encounter on the way. We kitted up, ran through the usual safety checks and were on the water nice and early, the tide was fairly low, giving us around a metre deep of water around the pontoon to navigate the RIB through and out of the estuary. The water is murky with plankton, a rich food source attracting Baitfish, Mackerel, and ultimately Common Dolphins and a wide variety of sea birds.

     

    Our first sightings include a variety of sea birds; Shags, Guillemots, Lesser Black Backed Gulls, Razorbills and Black Legged Kittiwakes so called because of the sound they make. Their cousins the Red Legged Kittiwakes live in the Pacific.

     

     

     

    Going past Padstow Lifeboat Station we spot Windbrills heading north and a Pink Footed Shag. Someone suggests this is a good place to dive; hopefully this will be the year I will discover the wonders of diving in the UK.

     

    Suddenly Derek spots a Peregrine Falcon gliding over the cliff tops, such a beautiful and magnificent bird. Flying high in the sky, they target their prey and close their wings, stooping at 120 miles an hour! Other smaller birds will nest nearby to Peregrines as a method of protection.

     

    It is soon after this we spot our first seals, one male, four female and two juveniles. Sue Sayer from Cornwall Seal Group takes note of all possible observations taking a series of photographs for the catalogue in order to identify the seals.

     

     

    We saw the gannets circling and diving a little way way out so ventured closer to be met by curious dolphins, while a pair of Arctic Turns flew past us. We continued on with the dolphins playing acrobatically around the boat. They weaved in and out, under and in front of the boat, they were mostly juvenile and having fun leaping from the water alongside us for a while before we picked up some speed to conduct the next part of the survey further on up the coast. Here’s a video I took.

     

     

     

     

    We also saw two Puffins in their burrows, one on the water and two in flight. It won’t be long and there will be many more visiting from offshore.

     

    Near to Boscastle at a popular seal haul out area we see many seals in and out of the water, including one large male with net damage to his neck, once again highlighting the negative impact humans can have on our environment.

     

     

    Along our journey we were hoping to spot Joe Leach, a friend of Matt’s who is currently on an epic 2500 mile voyage around mainland Britain by kayak, picking out marine litter as he goes raising money for Surfers Against Sewage.
    It is inspiring to hear his story and hopefully one day I too will have the courage to venture further out on my inflatable kayak! Sadly we didn’t spot him but you can find his blog and sponsor link here: http://joeroundbritain.wordpress.com/about/

     

    The survey was a success with many seal spottings and three identifications including a new male named Holly. I can’t wait to do it all again to see what new activities are happening, it will be exciting to see the nesting Guillemots with their young, see how the seals have moved from their beaches to cooler and breezier offshore rocks and generally be out on the water not knowing what we will see next. :)

     

     

     

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