Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Cetacean & Sea Bird Survey

After the snow, sleet and ice of recent weeks, it came as a relief to be welcomed by blue skies and sunshine for the cetacean and bird survey last Thursday. Eleven volunteers gathered in the hopes of spotting whales or dolphins off the eastern rocky shore of the reserve, in an event organised by Coast Care and Natural England.
Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

Sporting binoculars and telescopes and well bundled up in layers, we separated into pairs and perched at intervals along the coast. Partner One scanned the sea for ten minutes, in slow steady sweeps, while Partner Two sat poised, pencil and clipboard at the ready for the call – any moment now - ‘Dolphins at two o’clock!’ Every ten minutes, we alternated.
Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

My partner Philip, who took part in the cetacean identification training earlier in the week, shared some of his newfound knowledge. The four species we were most likely to spot in Northumberland were the bottlenose dolphin, the harbour porpoise, the white-beaked dolphin and the minke whale. The harbour porpoise is the smallest of our local cetaceans and have more triangular and less curved fins than the other three. Different sizes are hard to make out through binoculars and against a backdrop of sea. Bottlenose dolphins will attack harbour porpoises (savages with a smile). White-beaked dolphins are rarely seen near shore waters – locally, they are resident at Farnes’ Deep. On our shared clipboard we had a handout with pictures and descriptions of UK cetaceans. We were ready.
Me in action!

Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

Over the next two and a half hours, we discovered several things that can appear suspiciously like cetacean dorsal fins to the hopeful eye, including rocks, birds and buoys. We did not, however, spot any actual whales or dolphins. And this, it seems, is the common experience amongst cetacean spotters. Oh whale.*

It would be hard to complain. Sitting by the sea on a bright clear day, with views of Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands, it felt as though any cetaceans would have been a mere bonus. The sea and skies were far from empty, with bird sightings to delight both the birder and the novice. Dark-bellied Brent geese flew low, and settled to eat on the shoreline; oystercatchers strode through the shallows, then skimmed the water as they moved onwards; a tall heron waited; curlews waded and called their names; and a group of huddled golden plovers baffled the non-birders until expert David helped us out.
Dark-bellied Brent geese as they flew over the surveyors
Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

As far as cetacean surveying events without any cetaceans go, it was a good one. And who knows? – maybe next time.

Tips for a cetacean survey:

  • Bring binoculars and scan the water slowly
  • Dress for the weather
  • The best time for cetacean watches In the North Sea is March-June  

  • Look for a day that is overcast and not too sunny – else sunlight will reflect on the water
  • Hope for calm seas
  • Watch out for feeding birds – cetaceans are often found in the same areas of sea
  • Don’t expect to see anything – but enjoy it if you do
  • More information on cetacean spotting at ORCA
*I couldn’t resist the pun. It was on porpoise.
Blog entry By Ceris Aston (Lindisfarne NNR Volunteer)

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