Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Black-browed Albatross

Very co-operative (well, inquisitive actually) bird early yesterday morning starting flying laps of the ship, clearly looking down at us to see what we were doing and whether we might be a source of fish. Not a massive amount of light but that's not necessarily a bad thing with albatrosses as the black and white contrast makes getting the correct exposure difficult in strong light. Photos taken from the monkey island (deck above the bridge).

Friday, 27 March 2009

More photos

Trawl catches - from between 1000 and 700m deep. Animals in this region get their energy from material falling from the surface layers where there is a enough light for plant growth (top 20-100m).

Kerguelen Petrel - not seen last trip but common in the area in autumn after dispersing from breeding grounds.

Chinstrap Penguins - this species seems to be attracted into the ship. There are also King and Macaroni Penguins in the area but they don't come to play with us

Old male Wandering Albatross. They get progressively whiter with age, this bird is very likely over 30 years old, probably closer to 50.

Juvenile Southern Giant Petrel. We are checking young Southern GPs for satellite transmitters - two are in the area that were fitted with transmitters on Kerguelen before fledging a few months ago.
Wandering Albatross - either a young male or old female. This and the bird above spent most of a sunny day circling the ship.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Egrets have landed

Rather incongruously the 'species of the day' yesterday was Cattle Egret. 22 of them. These small white herons have done very well following man and his cattle farming around the world. They naturally colonised the Americas after about 100 were swept across the Atlantic in a storm and found cattle ranches in Brazil rather to their liking (presumably birds had made the crossing before to find that rainforest didn't suit them). From there they have spread north and south and are now a familiar bird in North America. What this does mean is that the entire american population is descended from a group with possibly not the most top-notch navigation skills, and the species is very dispersive anyway. Unfortunately there is nothing for them out here and we can't keep them on board until the Falklands (where they don't survive well anyway). We've left them be and several have fallen into the sea exhausted. Sad, but that's nature and where they'd be if we weren't providing a relatively dry platform. There have also been a number of dead penguins. All food for the Giant Petrels, some of which have been so full that they couldn't fly (they are also in wing moult which doesn't help) Otherwise there have been a few proper seabirds around (the kind that can land on and drink seawater, which are two key necessary traits for birds out here) and, increasingly inevitably, more Fin Whales (10 blowing as we stopped for the latest CTD)

Cattle Egret sheltering under Sooty, one of the Ship's work boats

Another under some stairs

It's been a bad day! Unfortunately these birds won't survive. Young birds (as these probably are) disperse after they leave their parents, searching for suitable habitat. In the case of Cattle Egrets this would have been important in natural conditions when they had to find the new forest clearings where they could feed on insects disturbed by large animals. Now, with cattle farms being less ephemeral it is of less use, but has allowed them to spread with man and his cows.

Cape Petrel, a common species that hangs around the ship

Antarctic Fulmars

Cattle Egrets behind the incubators. The incubators are for testing the relative effects of iron addition and light availability on phytoplankton growth. Iron is the chemical fertiliser needed to stimulate growth of Southern Ocean algae as it is naturally present in very low concentrations. In large part this is because it is very insoluble when it reacts with oxygen. There is plenty of excess oxygen in the oceans, but only because of the algae in the first place billions of years ago. The law of unitended consequences strikes again.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Whale and ice photos

The right lower jaw is white on Fin Whale. No idea why they are asymmetric

Fin Whales occasionally show their tail when feeding at the surface, but not when diving. The relatively large and swept-back dorsal fin identify it as a Fin Whale. The Sei Whales we saw as we left Falklands had much steeper and larger fins.

The splashguard and blowhole

Iceberg. Some ice must have fallen off, bringing ice above the surface that had been in the water.
The bit to the left is attached to the main berg by an ice foot - akin to a sea stack on a wave-cut platform.

Further to the last post, the whales stuck around and a couple came close enough to the afterdeck for some photos. Interestingly, one of the guys on board who has been coming south since the late 70s says that this sort of gathering of whales was unknown back then, so maybe there is some recovery in numbers since the end of whaling (60s - scarily recent). No Blue Whales seen but they are heard by moored hydrophones near South Georgia so there are still some around. Only a tiny percentage of how many there were though. Hopefully they are also increasing but it may be some time before we notice a recovery.

Monday, 16 March 2009

There's a whale to Starboard

There's a whale to Starboard
Oh wow!, is it still there. grabs camera

There's a whale to Starboard
Oh cool, what sort

There's a whale to Starboard
Is this one still there, I keep missing them

There's a whale to Starboard
Did you see the body or just another blow?

There's a whale to Starboard
Nice, any photos [not many as have mostly been watching from the bridge, none better than last year]

There's a whale to Starboard
Fin, I presume

There's a whale to Starboard
Close? There were three close to the bow earlier

There's a whale to Starboard
Not surprising. looks at instrument that records acoustic echo signal of Krill, fish etc. There's plenty for them to eat and Andy's seen over 50 on his survey.

There's a whale to Starboard
You should try looking to port then, there's four there and an iceberg

There's a whale to Starboard
Do you know 257 across, Panache? E something A something

As you can tell, we've seen a lot of Fin Whales, and are doing a large crossword. Some more glitches with the kit but we seem to be back on track now due to having people around who are very good at fixing things.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Falklands and away

Walking out to Gypsy Cove on the first evening

Another way of seeing the Falklands, no thanks...

Penguins, sandy beach, evening sunlight

Magellanic Penguin

Some birds were moulting while others were in a fit state to swim

Trip down to the falklands went as expected, 11pm flight from Brize Norton getting in to Falklands about 3pm, via some time in a customs pen on Ascension Island (daylight so could see the endemic Ascension Frigatebirds flying over). Four people had come early so mobilising the ship was fairly easy - containers were unpacked and a lot of the equipment built. The first evening several of us walked out to Gypsy Cove to see the penguins. Always good to see and a chance to enjoy the warm sunny evening (which don't come around too often on the Falklands!)

Turkey Vulture

Dark-faced Ground Tyrant

Falklands Steamer Duck, a flightless endemic species

RRS Ernest Shackleton - the other BAS science/logistic ship that we were moored with at Fipass

Falklands scenery as we left through the Narrows

After a couple of days setting up equipment and lashing it down we sailed on the evening of the 11th at 5pm. Luckily this was close enough to the end of the day (aka dinner) that the mandatory lifeboat drill was delayed until the following morning. This allowed time to watch the numerous Sei Whales that were hanging around the Falklands (10-15 animals seen but none photographed). There were also large numbers of seabirds and skipping dinner was rewarded with a leaping pod of Peale's Dolphin together with a variety of good seabirds.
Weather was very good yesterday so got the telescope sorted out on the monkey island. Works very well after I cut a bit off the tripod stalk and added non-slip matting to the clamp. Not many photos from sea yet as they are mostly from when we stop as the birds come closer then.
We did stop today for a test station but that was generally either busy or foggy. Exception was a short period before lunch when I made it to the monkey island. A Minke Whale rolled next to the ship but then, as Minke's tend to, completely disappeared. A Kerguelen Petrel passed through, great to see one again after 3 years (they were relatively frequent around Crozet). They generally fly quite high (10-15m - very high for a seabird) and occasionally drop down steeply to a wave, follow it round and rise back up just as steeply to their original height. There were a decent number of seabirds around and we were next to a seamount so I was hopeful of something more and was soon proved right by three Gray's Beaked Whales (no photos, but quite similar to Sowerby's - see photos below). On the work front, all the physics stuff is working (after a few minor glitches) but some issues with the other kit, nothing too serious though. Now off to the first full station.

The first of many Wandering Albatross photos - note the sea state, 2-3 most of the day and, with a warm (and following) northerly wind it was t-shirt weather on the monkey island.

Monday, 2 March 2009

12 months summary

I'm off to sea again next week so will post more photos (time and internet connection allowing). Thought I'd post a few photos from the last 12 months and some waffle about how I came by taking them (click on photos for slightly larger versions if you want)

**Crib sheet for references to projects I’m involved with:

Bird atlas – mapping distribution and relative abundance of every bird species in the British Isles. Requires timed (1 or 2 hours) visits to at least eight 2km squares (tetrads) in every 10km square and all other "roving records" to improve the species lists. Winter period is Nov-Feb summer from April-July (when observing breeding behaviour is also needed). The Cambridgeshire target is all 25 tetrads in every square, see http://www.bto.org/birdatlas/

Geograph – trying to get geographically relevant photos from across the British Isles, at least one per 1km grid square, see http://www.geograph.org.uk/ The only squares left in England are MOD, private farmland or mud but still plenty of extra features/details/seasonal variations to add to squares with only a few photos.

Cetacean surveys – surveys from ferries or a hired yacht trying to see how many whales and dolphins (and seabirds from the ferries) are out there in the North Sea, English Channel and Bay of Biscay. They’re big, they’re charismatic (though also enigmatic) and they’re just off the European coast and yet we still know very little about them. See http://www.biscay-dolphin.org.uk/


Arrived back 20th February from the Falklands (see earlier posts). Had to have thesis corrections finished and a conference poster printed by the end of the month. Luckily it was a leap year so I made it.


Flew to Orlando 1st March for a large oceanography conference – very interesting. Thanks to the internet I found contact details for a local birder who took me out to Cape Canaveral area for birding. Great day being driven round and seeing some cool birds (and alligators and manatees). Was last there in 1986 (when aged 5) but could remember some of the birds and sites from then.

Gave a talk at UEA on the 14th, which was the end of the list of things that needed doing over the previous 9 months (settle into new job, finish and submit thesis, Drake Passage research cruise, PhD viva, main research cruise, conference, talk). It’s fair to say I was quite tired by then so padding around in the snow at Easter was about my level. Managed to make it to a conservation task at Fen Drayton again at the end of the month.


The spring bird atlas period starts 1st April (2008-2011) so could start doing the timed visits to the four tetrads I’d signed up to do (one visit April/May, one visit June/July, preferably April and June in southern England). Otherwise a bit of conservation work but mostly some calm time recovering and pottering round trying to record breeding evidence for the bird atlas, e.g. at Grantchester:


First weekend did a seabird and cetacean survey from Felixstowe to Vlaardingen (near Rotterdam). No cetaceans but some nice seabirds, especially three adult Pomarine Skuas on their way to arctic Russia. Ship canal approaching Vlaardingen:

Dragonflies and damselflies were out early (7th) so there were several trips to Fen Drayton to see them. Also a visit to Lakenheath RSPB reserve on the 10th. Hairy Dragonfly:

The third weekend I was back on a ferry - a freight route from Poole to Santander. Great boat, great food, great sightings of beaked whales near Spain. Brownsea Island as we were leaving Poole Harbour:


I had to do all four of the second timed tetrad visits but they are done early morning so fitted in before work without too much bother. Also fitted in a successful trip to Strumpshaw Fen with the new macro lens (2nd and 3rd images not cropped) and a few more visits to Fen Drayton. Swallowtail, Blue-tailed Damselfly(x2) and Scarce Chaser:

On the 27th, flew to Spain to join a yacht for a three week cetacean survey off north Spain. Bluefin of Hamble, 'our' yacht:

The five of us rotated between observing, data entry and observing again each hour and then had two hours off, so not tough. Ilaski, Andrew and Maria in survey mode:


Mostly on the 60ft Ketch “BlueFin of Hamble” doing day sails out of harbours in north-east Spain. Aim was to do effort-based surveys for beaked whales to assess their abundance over the undersea canyon. On top of that we wanted photos for individual photo identification. Fantastic time, some incredible encounters with Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s Beaked Whales, Sperm Whales and Common Dolphins, along with several other species seen. Also a great bunch of people. Part of the time we were in the Basque country and it was very interesting to have Ilaski, a native Basque on board.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale, our main survey target:

Sperm Whales, being so photogenic that I could get some decent images despite being extremely seasick (first day, fine after that). Part of a group of 12!

Sowerby's Beaked Whale, rare but we saw two groups:

Sperm Whale tail-slapping, it did this 26 times in a row:

Well, if I could make a splash like that...

Common Dolphin and Gannets in a feeding frenzy, a frequent but always interesting and fun sight:

If the weather was too windy for surveying we went for walks along the Spanish coast:

We spent our nights in harbours along the Spanish (Basque) coast:

Back in time to graduate in Southampton. Then a trip to Thompson Common, a reserve with a series of pingo lakes (remnants from permafrost conditions) which are fantastic for dragonflies. Massively under-rated place, which is fine as it means it is also peaceful.

Ruddy Darters egg-laying:

Fan-bristled Robberfly:

Emerald Damselfly (we saw Scarce Emerald but no good photos)
The large pingo:


First weekend in Northumbria for Tom and Liz’s wedding. Second weekend in Penzance for a one-day seabird trip (I actually had to pay to go on a ship!). From there had a weekend at my aunt’s cottage ‘Boxtree’ with parents. It’s on 120 acres of common land and is a very relaxing place to catch up with things.

Hay Bluff from the Twmpa, edge of the Black Mountains:


Weekend in Norfolk walking the coast path Hunstanton - Morston via a night at the hostel in Burnham Deepdale. Some good birds and lots of photos for geograph. Finished the month with a weekend’s conservation work with the Southampton crowd at Fen Drayton.


Conference in Bangor, weekend in Norfolk birding and getting away from people across the saltmarshes at Stiffkey.

I'm normally pissed of with tideline debris, but...
Largely unspoilt (trees excepted) sand-dunes as access is across the saltmarsh so little trampling
Then a week sat halfway down a cliff in Cornwall (deliberately). Was counting seabirds (especially Balearic Shearwater), cetaceans and basking sharks for the SeaWatchSW project http://www.seawatch-sw.org/. Shifts were dawn-12, 2-dusk, after which there was a walk to the pub, dinner and a walk back across the fields to the B&B in the dark. Gave some time to explore at lunch. Very good weather so few seabirds but lots of Basking Sharks, two sunfish and five species of cetacean. The interaction between the Gannets and Common Dolphins became very clear over the days with several hundred Gannets hanging around doing not a lot for hours until the dolphins arrived. was very obvious they were around as the gannets converged on the spot and started diving down on to the bait ball the dolphins had pushed to the surface.

The survey headland (watchpoint the other side of the far rock)

Blowhole on Gwennap Head illuminated by the setting sun:

Juvenile Hobby catching dragonflies on the pond between the headland and B&B:

Sennen Cove the evening before the surveys:


Back on ‘the ship’ (RRS James Clark Ross, the main BAS survey and logistics ship) to test some kit between Immingham and Azores. We had a bit of a blow down the English Channel but after that some good birds and cetaceans and importantly, good progress with the testing. Was on Sperm Whale watch as we approached the Azores. Two tail-slapped distantly but not for long but then there were three ahead of the ship (exactly dead ahead – the third mate swerved to miss them as he couldn’t work out what they were). Enough time to get people out of the labs before they went down the side of the ship. Soon followed by a small pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. Got off the ship at the Azores and spent a day exploring San Miguel.

Leaving Immingham into the Humber:

Fumerole on San Miguel:Crater lake:

House-mate swapping hassle, bad weather, a bit of conservation and eventually some bird surveys. The start of four months of ‘calm time’ where I didn’t go to sea or wander up and down the country (too much). Very good day in Norfolk but car died on the way back, conveniently just before the MOT so at least it went cheaply (£300 for 2½ years isn’t too bad). Had just signed up for ten bird atlas tetrads 6-15 miles away. Got five of them done by bike.


As November but with Christmas added, particularly playing with nephew.

Did the first visits to the other five bird atlas tetrads and managed a trip to the Suffolk coast late in the month:


Second set of bird atlas surveys and general birding. Cold day in the Fens (river was frozen, as was my water bottle) followed the next day by much more fun in a strong southerly. 40 miles north, lots of birding, lots of geograph photos, very little effort, train back.

River Great Ouse:


More bird atlas surveys, more conservation, more geograph photos (you may be seeing the pattern now), didn't fall off the bike despite all the snow and ice.

A part of TL65, a 10km square I did a fair bit of atlas fieldwork in. Mix of farmland, reasonably mature woodland and stud farms.