Monday, 11 September 2017

Watching petrels at Hilbre Island

To my mind there is no finer place than Hilbre Island on a day like today, with waves crashing over the island, strong winds, squally showers and petrels, lots of petrels. Well, it was a bit more than showers really, more like torrential rain at times and I was extremely grateful and lucky to be offered the shelter of the seawatching hide for the duration of my visit. A visit over high tide means that you have to stay on the island for at least five hours with no shelter which is not to be undertaken lightly in conditions like these.

Goodness knows what it must be like to experience a hurricane with 150mph winds, but today the wind speed peaked at about 48mph and I could hardly walk into it, and the noise was just tremendous. Even in the best of weather it's about a 45 minute walk from West Kirby to Hilbre Island, but today was a struggle and when I at last reached the island at about 11am I was exhausted, yet excited, and I settled down in the hide for what promised to be a decent sea watch if the smattering of sea birds seen in the proceding days was anything to go by. Petrels were on the move, and they were the main reason for my visit.

Within minutes I'd spotted my first petrel, clearly a Leach's gliding and pattering and  gallantly battling it's way west into the teeth of the gale force wind. It had my admiration. I'd found it hard enough to walk into that wind, yet here was a bird barely the size of a starling flying headlong into it and making better progress than me.

In the five hours or so that I was watching, I counted at least 35 Leach's petrels, some close in shore, other's a long way out at sea, all heading west. There were obviously many more out there, and in fact they were still passing the hide even when I finally left at 5:15pm, two hours after high tide and six hours after I had arrived. A possible Wilson's petrel flew east halfway through the afternoon, with a flight quite unlike the Leach's petrels and a white rump which appeared to extend almost right around its body.

Manx shearwater

Gannets were passing close inshore and a few Manx shearwaters took the mickey out of me by gliding past almost without a flap, straight into the gale. Then I noticed a more powerful looking bird coming straight towards the hide.  It was obviously a large skua, but not a bonxie because it was a pale phase bird, and when it got close to the hide it veered to the west and there were the twisted spoons in the tail of a stunning barrel chested adult pomarine skua. A breathtaking moment! There were bonxies out there, and I saw at least four terrorising the gannets and other sea birds which included a steady procession of Sandwich terns and at least five, possibly 10 black terns.


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