Vince Lea, Wildlife MonitorNorth Spain Aug-Sep 2020 

I offered to write something for the CRT website as a daily account of our holiday when it became clear that, on return, I would be confined to home for two weeks self-isolation, following the government guidelines on travel restrictions to Spain and I would not be doing any fieldwork for a couple of weeks.   

I will look at many aspects of farming, forestry and fishing, climate change, pollution, local sustainable food production and see some great wildlife along the way. With maybe a few detours into cooking, physical and mental health, the joys, and pitfalls of camping holidays and when is it safe to abandon a productive garden?

So my partner Louise and I venture off to Galicia in north Spain. Why did we decided to go ahead with our trip?

22nd Aug 2020 

We put on a few layers,  not knowing what the conditions would be like on deck. We donned our facemasks for the journey out of the cabin and up to deck 9 where there was a good viewing area at the stern of the ship. It was 6:45am when we started, already light. Much kinder weather, light high cloud, light winds than the previous day and already quite warm, our peaked caps were essential to avoid too much glare.  

"Creative Commons A Manx Shearwater" by Matt Witt 
can be reused under the CC BY-SA 3.0
o land was in sight, and the first lift of the binoculars brought four Manx shearwaters into view, in the wake of the ship. Not a bad start! These small seabirds are special to the British Isles, with over three quarters of the world population nesting on just three of our islands: Skokholm and Skomer 
off the Pembrokeshire coast, and Rhum of the coast of the Scottish Highlands. 
By day, these birds (adults and young) are highly susceptible to predation by large gulls, buzzards, and ravens, so they breed in burrows and only come out at night. Their supreme oceanic adaptations mean they can easily fly to the Bay of Biscay to feed for a day or two, then return to the nest site to regurgitate food for the chick (or take over incubation duties). Once breeding is over, they start to migrate to the Argentine coast for our winter period, so the birds we were seeing could be on their way southjust visiting to collect food.  

The shearwaters and petrels are part of the ‘tubenose’ family which also includes albatrosses, and they all have long wings which allow them to soar effortlessly over the sea, covering vast distances with ease, in order to find the highly localised feeding opportunities such as shoals of surface fish or bits of offal from fishing boats (or the equivalent left-overs from whale feeding activity). A special gland allows them to excrete salt so they can drink seawater, while their incredible sense of smell guides them to feeding opportunities over great distances, and navigational systems mean they can find their way back to the nest site even if blown off course by storms. 

We watched for well over an hour, racking up good numbers and getting familiar with this species and spotting a few more Manx and Cory’s Shearwaters along with some Gannets, when suddenly an unfamiliar species was seen among a large group of Cory’s Shearwaters; much smaller, slightly darker with a pale patch on the rump, V-shaped tail and faster, zig-zag flight. Louise took a guess and we made some notes, then when we got to check our seabird book confirmed that it was a Fea’s Petrel, something we had never seen before.  

Sooty shearwater
 is a pair of species which cannot be told apart at sea, but are distinctive in their breeding grounds: Cape Verde petrel and Desertas petrel, the latter breeding on Madeira is the most likely to occur in the Bay of Biscay but we will never know. It could also have been a Zino’s Petrel, which also breeds on Madeira but with some plumage differences, we think it was a Fea’s. These birds are very scarce, with fewer than 1000 pairs in the worldcompared with say 350,000 pairs of Manx, so it was a real shock to see one.  

A few other interesting species popped up during our early watch: a sooty shearwater (coming north for its winter, after breeding in the South Atlantic), a great shearwater (likewise, breeding from Tristan da Cunha to the Falklands) a Sabine’s gull (having bred in the Arctic) and a great skua (or Bonxie, the Shetland name) and four familiar lesser black-backed gulls.  

Our 8:45 breakfast break gave us the following tally:  

Cory’s shearwaters 195 
Manx shearwaters 12 
Sooty shearwaters 1  
Gannet 8 
Lesser black-backed gull 4
Fea’s petrel 1 
Bonxie 1 
Sabine’s gull 1 

Already one of the best sea bird-watching lists we have ever had! 

The next session was a little longer, 9:23 till 12:40 and a lunch break… birds were fewer and the species proportions changed, with great shearwaters now predominating (it was the last species we added before breakfast so we must have been moving into its zone); 75 was a stunning tally for a bird we had hardly ever seen before, and gave us the chance to really get familiar with its distinctive flight pattern, capped head and other features. 

There were just 39 Cory’s this time, no Manx and two sooty shearwaters. We also added two Arctic skuas, nine Gannets, five auks (they fly too fast to tell if Razorbill or Guillemot) and 8 black terns heading south for the winter.  

We also saw the spout of a blowing fin whale – with quite choppy seas it was hard to know if whales or dolphins were around. After lunch, we saw another fin whale plus small groups of striped and common dolphin, but far fewer oceanic seabirds.  

Common whitethroat
Then t
here were two surprises! whitethroat landed on the boat for a few seconds, miles from landAnd as we got close to Spain another unfamiliar seabird flew by! It looked all dark, like sooty shearwater but flew closer to the sea and was clearly smaller. Another one to check in the book… this turned out to be a Bulwer’s petrel, another species that breeds on Madeira. Having confined ourselves to European birdwatching for many years, it was a long time since we had two new species on the same day! 

We docked about 5pm then drove to the Picos de Europa getting to the campsite as the sun set, just in time to get to the river that flows through the site and see some bats emerging from a hollow tree over the riverbank. The on-site restaurant served up some fabulous local cheese & ham, a crisp salad, trout, and eventually remembered our bean casserole… all washed down with a bottle of the local cider. 

Next we head for the hills!

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring