Wilson’s Petrel!

So far it’s been a fantastic summer for sightings of unusual cetaceans and pelagic seabirds off the coast of southwest England. Quite a lot of whales around and a possibly unprecedented number of the large Shearwater species (Sooty, Great and Cory’s) that are usually further out to sea. And also some much rarer birds such as Wilson’s petrels which have been seen around the coast of Cornwall but still NEVER recorded in Devon. The last one I saw was following in the wake of the RMS St. Helena in the south Atlantic 27 years ago. Surely no chance of ever seeing one from my kayak in the UK.

The birds have been nearer to the coast in part due to the relentlessly windy conditions. So not great if, like me, you like to watch your wildlife from a kayak. There has not been a single day in the last month that has been windless enough for me to do a significant offshore paddle. It’s been the windiest summer for as long as I can remember.

I have sneaked the odd few hours here and there during the early morning lull when winds have often fallen light, to sprint offshore. At Fowey I saw my first Sunfish of the year a mile offshore , and a few minutes later heard the loud, sustained blow of a whale between me and the shore. I heard it twice more at intervals of several minutes, but failed to catch a glimpse of it.

Ocean Sunfish

So when the 13 August was forecast to be flat with light winds all day I was very excited. Especially as it is reaching the time of year when the sea is most alive with cetaceans.

Dawn over Plymouth Sound

I set my alarm for 4am and was on the water before six, paddling out through Plymouth Sound as the sun arose over a bank of fog. Beyond the confines of the sound the sea was flat smooth, the sky was cloudless and the Eddystone Lighthouse, my destination, was clearly visible as a little stick on the horizon exactly ten miles away. Perfect, and my expectations were high.

Fog over Plymouth Breakwater

After a bit of a quiet start , Manx Shearwaters started to increase in number, some flicking past my kayak a few feet away. Some seem to come extra close to investigate as anything that disrupts the featureless surface of the sea could mean a source of food for them (especially if I was a whale or something similar). This never ceases to give me a thrill; these fantastic birds dashing past at eye level. Although maybe not happy to be mistaken for a whale.

I approached a group resting on the surface as sneakily as possible with a single Balearic Shearwater sitting amongst them. Not the most beautifully marked seabird but a ‘goody’ amongst the birding fraternity. I got a decent pic with it beside a Manx to provide a good plumage comparison.

Manx and Balearic Shearwater

The excitement went up a notch when, four miles from the mouth of Plymouth Sound, a Sooty Shearwater sprinted past. Bigger and faster than the Manx, and all brown. Bad view into the sun, but my first ever ‘big’ shearwater from my kayak in the UK! Fab. I was in the zone.

Gannets passing overhead giving you a bit of a sideways look are great, shearwaters are better, but nothing beats a glimpse of a tiny Storm Petrel twisting its way over the surface like a bat. These are birds of the open sea and to see them from a kayak represents the culmination of an awful lot of planning and effort. They are so small that most sightings are a fleeting glimpse, but some get close enough for a decent view of their white rump. Binoculars are nearly always a waste of time from a kayak on the sea due to the constant movement of the surface. So all your birdwatching is eyeballs only.

Storm petrels are extremely difficult to photograph unless they are feeding group, which I have only ever seen once. But I did just get one zipping past in front of the Lighthouse.

Storm Petrel at Eddystone

There was the usual cluster of private fishing boats scattered about near the Eddystone reef, and one fisherman took a snap of me with his i-phone. Thanks, Ben.

Yours truly at Eddystone

After a cup of coffee and a large slab of horribly synthetic Victoria sponge, I took a big loop around the Lighthouse to the east to utilise the last of the incoming tidal current. I could also sense it was a fertile patch of sea as the surface was  swirly.

Quite a few more Storm Petrels and two more singleton Sooty Shearwaters  speeding past.

Then, about an hour after I left the lighthouse, two or three miles north-east of Eddystone, a small petrel approached, far enough away to allow me to scramble my camera out of its drybag. I was just in time to fire off a couple of shots, but really wasn’t sure whether the subject was in the screen. There was nothing to suggest it was anything unusual apart from the fact that it seemed to be flying higher above the surface than the other petrels, despite completely windless conditions.

Original photo of high-flying Petrel

The paddle back to the sound was assisted by a southerly wind which slowly increased, and excitement was provided by a handful of porpoises, which as usual I heard ‘piffing’ long before I saw them.

I had given up on seeing any dolphins when I got in  amongst the many yachts that were coastal cruising a mile from the shore, but suddenly a group of fins appeared in front of me. I followed for a couple of minutes and then in a flash they disappeared. About eight altogether, and surprisingly difficult to see in the slight chop.

Common Dolphin

I arrived back at Cawsand after nine hours on the water and twenty-five miles paddled. Not too exhausted because I had deliberately paddled slowly because…what’s the hurry?

Trolleying back through Cawsand

Back at home I reviewed my photos and as usual most of the Petrel efforts were of an empty sea, with maybe a tiny blurred black dot in the corner, but often with nothing. The ‘high flying’ petrel pics however were better than I had expected when I zoomed in. I immediately noticed that its feet projected significantly past the end of its tail, a feature even more obvious in the second pic. Ferreting about in a flurry of bird books seemed to suggest this is a key feature of a Wilson’s Petrel. Wow. Mega excitement.

Wilson’s Petrel pic 1
Wilson’s Petrel pic 2

I submitted my photos to the Devon Birds website and it was quickly confirmed by the editors that this was indeed a Wilson’s Petrel, and the first authentic record EVER in Devon. However as Devon records are only valid to five miles offshore, this sighting was technically too far out (about eight miles) to be officially recognised.

Never mind. Two new ‘kayak seen’ species today. Sooty Shearwater and the super-rare Wilson’s Petrel. I never expected to see one in the UK, let alone from my kayak.IMG_7826