Saturday, 2 September 2017

Watching Petrels (and shearwaters) in the Minch

Sooty shearwater

The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin watching boat left Gairloch at 5:15pm. We were on our way to the Burma Bank, an under water sand bank in the North Minch, between Stornoway and Ullapool. The scenary was breathtaking, worth the price of the trip alone, with spectacular views along almost the length of the Outer Hebrides, from  the Uists in the south to Lewis in the north, whilst out to the east I could see the impressive peaks of Inverpolly, Ben more Coigach, Suilvan, Cul mor, Stac Pollaidh and many more. South was hardly less impressive, with tremendous views over Skye and Torridon.

Of course I was hoping to see a few whales and dolphins, but my main reason for being on the trip was the sea birds. Petrels are always the stars of the show for me, and up here both British species breed in large numbers, though in my experience you are much more likely to see storm petrel rather than Leach's in the Minch. Today we saw both, with up to 50 stormies and a single Leach's pattering and gliding across the water on a relatively calm day by Minch standards.

Sooty shearwater
However one of the first birds we saw on our arrival at Burma Bank was a sooty shearwater. This is what I had really been hoping for today. Sooty shearwaters breed on islands in the southern hemisphere and have one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom, with the Atlantic population breeding on the Falkland Islands and migrating north in a circular root, arriving in British waters in August and September, when they are often seen around northern Scotland, including the Minch. We saw at least 30 of these birds, some coming very close to the boat.

Sooty shearwater
Obviously not a great photo, but it shows all of the relevant identification features, and it has just flown 8000 miles for its photo to be taken!

Arctic skua
Other sea birds seen included Manx shearwaters, Arctic skuas and bonxies, plus the usual gannets, kittiwakes, fulmar and auks.

The Ullapool to Stornoway ferry making its way across the Burma Bank is a good cheap way of birding these seas, the only problem is of course, it does tend to just plough straight on regardless of the birds and cetaceans. Try asking the skipper to stop because you think you've just seen a sooty.....

The Minch is a good place for seeing cetaceans and they are regularly seen from the ferry, especially common dolphins, but I also managed to see a pod of about five Risso's dolphins logging not far from the boat. Logging is the term used to describe cetaceans which are asleep and not moving on the surface. Because they were still I could clearly see the  scars on their bodies which are one of the diagnostic features of Risso's dolphins,  caused by fights with other Risso's dolphins, but also their favoured prey item, squid. The only other place I've seen these dolphins is Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire. Minke whales are also often seen at this time of year, but not on this journey.

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