Jeff Clarke Ecology

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Clockwise around the UK

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Liverpool Cruise Terminal © Adele Clarke                     

All images in this blog were taken taken during the cruise. They can be seen at full size by clicking on them.

Copyright remains with the photographer.

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Boudicca's route around the UK 21st-29th July 2017 © Fred Olsen Cruise Lines Ltd.

The leaving of Liverpool on the 21st July aboard Fred. Olsen’s ship M.V. Boudicca for The Wildlife of England and Scotland cruise found the wind at our tail. Our journey would take us on a clockwise tour of the UK over eight days and nights. A disrupted, rather than heavy, swell allowed for a fairly smooth passage though the Irish Sea as we progressed towards the Isle of Man. Soon the coastal hugging gulls were left in our wake and pelagic Black-legged Kittiwakes, Gannets, Common Terns, Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters became our constant companions. As we tracked along the western side of the former Norse Kingdom, the low, dense cloud plunged us toward an early dusk. The last vestiges of light illuminated a few distant splashes and a minute or two later a couple of Short-beaked Common Dolphin powered towards Boudicca’s bow.

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Fulmar alongside Boudicca © Jeff Clarke            Isle of Man to starboard of Boudicca's bow © Jeff Clarke

By dawn on the 22nd the weather had improved markedly and my first foray on deck was greeted with a smooth sea and a light southerly breeze. A glorious cloudscape of shredded layers, with tantalising bright spots, stretched from horizon to horizon. Our destination for the day would be Tobermory on the island of Mull. Our cruise towards the port was serene and picturesque as we entered the Sound of Mull escorted by dazzling Northern Gannets. Duart Castle passed on our port side, the ranks on deck were swollen ten-fold. We contemplated the scaffold that decorated the castles ramparts, not the neck stretching kind but the 21st Century intrusion on the castle’s 13th century edifice.

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Gannet alongside Boudicca © Jeff Clarke                         Skyscape near Mull © Jeff Clarke
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Duart Castle © Jeff Clarke                                                    Tobermory, Mull © Adele Clarke

We docked in port mid-morning and the cheery, colourful, buildings on the quayside embraced their visitors in a wrap-around hug. The ship anchored in the sound and tendered ashore its human entourage. Most would join an organised tour. I would escort a Sealife Adventure Cruise. Within the hour we were in the presence of feathered majesty. A pair of White-tailed Eagles patrolled their domain, communicating with guttural yelps. The pair settled on a promontory and watched over their young charge. Its landing attempts were comically inept. A far cry from its future mastery of the flight.

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White-tailed Eagles on Mull (adult left; juv centre and right) © Jeff Clarke

We scanned the Sound and were periodically engulfed by leapfrogging flocks of Manx Shearwaters.  I suddenly caught the scent of fish and mentioned this to the skipper of our inshore launch. We both suspected that a whale may be close and moments later a Minke Whale broke surface behind us. Almost exactly where we had detected the drifted piscean waft. We were not alone in our successes as others returned to the ship with tales of Golden Eagles and otters.

Our sail out that evening was life-enhancingly beautiful, a flat calm sea under high thin clouds, lit golden by the falling sun. We had been travelling less than an hour when the sea erupted in a delphinid storm. Pod after pod of Short-beaked dolphins barrelled toward Boudicca’s bow. Two Bottlenose Dolphin joined the party. The placid waters also garnered sightings of over 50 Common Porpoise and a memorable 9 Minke Whales. Over 2000 Manx Shearwater pattered the surface to take flight as Boudicca bore down on their scattered rafts.  This tough ‘all-weather’ tubenose, was waiting for the safety of nightfall before entering their island burrows.

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Short-beaked Common Dolphins, off Mull © Jeff Clarke
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Manx Shearwaters take flight, off Mull © Jeff Clarke        Hebridean Sunset leaving Mull © Jeff Clarke

By first light of the 23rd we were rounding Cape Wrath. Docile waters marked our progress and belied the areas fearsome reputation. Gannets dazzled in the sunlight many pursued by ‘Bonxies’ intent on highway robbery. The Pentland Firth beckoned and shortly after breakfast the external decks were packed with gazes of wonderment as the vicious rip tides contorted the waters into a marine maelstrom. A swirling morass of whirlpools and foam. I was then distracted by the need to deliver my first lecture on ‘The Whales and Dolphins of the British Isles’. By the time I had completed my task Boudicca was docking in Kirkwall on Mainland, Orkney.

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Great Skua (Bonxie) Orkney © Jeff Clarke

Adele and I stepped ashore to meet up with my friend Russell Neave, a fellow seabird and cetacean enthusiast. I first met Russ and his partner Emma (The Ranger on Sanday) aboard Boudicca as she cruised along the Chile coast back in February 2017.

The low rolling swales of Mainland Orkney rippled in front of us as we drove toward Birsay. We were temporarily diverted by a ‘company’ of Gannets plunging like white missiles into bait-ball that had been gathered by the turbulent rip at Eynhallow Island.  Then on to the hide overlooking Lowrie's Water. ‘Real’ Greylag Geese, not the ‘ferals’ that decorate my home county of Cheshire, dominated the scene. Once threatened with extinction as a UK breeding bird they have made a spectacular comeback, thanks to the efforts of the RSPB and other organisations. Red-throated diver was the main attraction here, though a busy morning’s fishing for its chick had clearly tired it out, as it stayed resolutely fast asleep the entire time we were there.

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RSPB Loons and Loch of Banks reserve © Adele Clarke

Time to explore the moors in search of the ‘grey ghost’. We had travelled only a short distance when a male Hen Harrier in typical quartering, graceful, effortless flight drifted past us. A little while later we would see a female, at the RSPB Loons and Loch of Banks reserve, pull off the same illusory trick of covering a lot of ground in short order, whilst giving the appearance of moving very slowly.

The gentle warmth of the Orcadian sunshine tempted us to make for the floristic meadows at the Ring of Brodgar, where we searched in vain for Large Yellow Bumblebee, though we did find Moss Carder Bee and a good variety of moths and butterflies, including the demonstrably aposematic Magpie Moth.

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Ring of Brodgar, Mainland, Orkney © Adele Clarke

When the hum of tourists departs, this place resonates and through half-closed eyes you can imagine our stone-age ancestors gathering in celebration or worship.

Time was flying by so we pressed on for the headland at Yesnaby. A small patch of damp grassland just behind the cliffs yielded Grass of Parnassus and the diminutive Scottish Primrose, the latter is a genuinely range-restricted plant found only on a few of Scotland’s north coast headlands and Orkney.

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Scottish Primrose at Yesnaby, Orkney © Adele Clarke

On arrival at the headland I immediately spotted tall falcate fins cutting the water’s surface. A lively pod of 9 Risso’s Dolphins cavorted in the sun spangled North Atlantic, we kept them under observation for the best part of 40 minutes as they socialised, including repeated breaching, whilst they moved slowly Northwards towards Marwick Head. Puffins rested on the water below the headland and Fulmars raced along the cliff edge revelling in the up-draughts. Away to the south the landmass of Hoy’s towering cliffs loomed in the haze, the visibility was just sufficient to make out the distinctive buttress of ‘The Old Man’.

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Jeff Clarke with Russell Neave at Yesnaby, Hoy in the background © Adele Clarke

We retired to Kirkwall for a celebratory curry, where we were joined by Emma, fresh from a deluge affected ‘Spartan’ running event in Edinburgh. We thanked our good fortune with the weather on Orkney and talked all things cetacean before returning to Boudicca as she prepared to depart for Sheltand.

Monday 24th July and my first glimpse of Shetland was the mighty Sumburgh Head. The impression was indelible. We appeared to have arrived on the day of Shetland’s summer. Winds were light and temperatures topped out at a balmy 19oc. I escorted the Seabirds of Sumburgh Head tour, Jim, our guide, proved wonderfully informative and after a quick roadside stop to view the ‘Selkies’ or Harbour Seals hauled out at Scousborough, our first proper stop was at Jarlshof, the site of an ancient human settlement. Jim really brought the place to life in the mind’s eye, as you envisaged the daily lives of stone-age settlers, Picts and Vikings.

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Selkies (Harbour Seals) at Scousborough © Jeff Clarke    Jarlshof, Mainland Shetland © Adele Clarke

I slightly disrupted this reverie by spying a disturbance in the waters of the adjacent Voe of Sumburgh and then shouting “ORCAs!” at the top of my lungs. The present had intruded on the past in the most visceral way. Excited chatter and gasps marked the pods procession across the bay. Two bulls with their characteristic erect 6-foot high dorsal fins caught the eye, they were led by two adult females, one of whom also had a calf. Luckily the other Sumburgh Head parties had also seen the Orcas, some of them got better views and photographs than I managed. These particular Orcas are principally seal hunters.

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Orca bull, Voe of Sumburgh © Christine Murdie

The true naturalist’s in the group were itching to get to Sumburgh Head. In the end, we had an hour there and could happily have spent most of the day exploring it. What’s not to love about Puffins? They sat by their burrow entrances, some almost in touching distance, playing out their bustling waiter routines for all to enjoy.

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The Guillemots had forsaken the cliffs for the open ocean, but careful searching revealed several pairs of Razorbills still tending part-grown chicks in the cracks and fissures of the rock face and Fulmars seemed to occupy every grassy nook.

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Fulmar and chick © Jeff Clarke (left) Common Guillemot and chick (right) © Jeff Clarke

Surprisingly the bird that vied with the Puffins to steal the show was a tiny sprite. ‘Shetland’ Wrens Troglodytes troglodytes zetlandicus sang their distinctively different songs. Not only do they sound different but they look different too. A deep rich chestnut plumage, slightly larger than the Wren found in mainland UK. Both individuals I watched at close hand also has a lemony-yellow streak behind the gape. I’m not sure why this bird is not regarded as a separate species. Tiny in size but big on impact!

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Shetland Wren at Sumburgh Head © Jeff Clarke

All too soon we were headed back to Lerwick. An Atlantic Grey Seal or two frequented the harbour but the main excitement would come once we set sail. As we steamed south out of Bressay Sound I was joined on deck by eager Orca spotters. We had almost cleared Shetland’s coastal waters when I spotted a familiar tall fin to the starboard side. Those who had missed the Orcas at Sumburgh were grateful for this second chance. This time with a pod of three. Most folk had departed for their evening meal when another tall arcing fin was spotted close the ships port side. The briefest of confirmatory glimpses secured our seventh cetacean species of the trip in the thickset form of White-beaked Dolphin.

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Atlantic Grey Seal, Lerwick Harbour © Christine Murdie

The 25th would be a ‘day at sea’. I love them and today would be special, as we would pass between the Farne Islands and the becastled Northumbrian coast. I was privileged to be invited up on to the navigational bridge from where I gave a running a commentary on these magical ‘Seabird City’ islands that are also justly famous for the breeding Atlantic Grey Seals, some 30 or so being spotted from the ship. I was also lucky enough to get agreement from the Captain to undertake a minor deviation of our route as we cruised away from the islands that would take us through the Farne Deeps in search of Minke Whales and White-beaked Dolphins.

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Inner Farne from Boudicca's Navigation Deck © Jeff Clarke

The top of Deck 10 was packed with eager whale watchers as we approached the deep. An inquisitive Minke Whale broke surface close to the ship on the starboard side of the bow. Two breaths and it was gone but everyone had managed a first-class view of this leviathan in miniature. It would be the first of 7 Minke Whales we would see as we traversed southwards.

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Minke Whale near Farne Deeps © Jeff Clarke

As we passed over the Farne Deeps our other major quarry of the day scythed through the water. White-beaked Dolphins took to the stage. None came to the bow but we had good views of some individuals, one dolphin showed particularly well as it crossed from port to starboard. It’s distinctive tall falcate fin combined with a big white saddle was plain for all to see. The North Sea is one of the best places around the UK coast to encounter this bulky, snub-nosed, cold-water dolphin and the Farne Deeps is a known hotspot. I love it when a plan comes together!

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White-beaked Dolphin, Farne Deeps © Jeff Clarke

After lunch, I interspersed deck watches with giving my second talk ‘Inspiring Avians’ in the Neptune Lounge. We enjoyed a few migrating waders passing the ship, including a flock of four Whimbrel and a lone, plaintively piping, Ringed Plover, that lapped the ship several times before setting course for the mainland.

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Ringed Plover from Boudicca's Deck 10 © Jeff Clarke

The sea got calmer towards the evening and suddenly the Harbour Porpoises became easier to spot. They can be frustratingly difficult to get people locked on to, due primarily to their habit of barely breaking surface in a quick roll like a rotating wheel. I eventually succeeded in getting most of the eager watchers to spot at least one of the 25+ that I managed to pick out, as Boudicca ploughed on south. Thankfully there were a couple of people on deck that were reasonably adept at looking in the right direction and this helped to convince most people I wasn’t hallucinating.

On the 26th we anchored off Southwold. We had anticipated a day exploring Minsmere, our appetite only wetted when a good-sized flock of Common Scoter flew past the ship, but the deteriorating weather intervened and prevented the tendering process. Having been blessed during our northern leg it was mildly ironic that the ‘soft’ south would prove less clement. Exploring Harwich hadn’t been on anyone’s bucket list, but that was the option we ended up with. En-route I did an extra talk to keep the passengers entertained. On arrival, we did our best to eke out the areas wildlife potential, including exploring its newly established beach flora area, complete with flowering Sea Holly, but the best areas at the dockside marshes were off-limits. In the end, the ship proved to be the best platform for spotting the birdlife. Just as Boudicca cast-off her lines two Mediterranean Gull flew in to roost on nearby banks and probably constituted the natural highlight of the day.

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Sea Holly in Harwich © Jeff Clarke

On the 27th Boudicca docked in the maritime-rich city of Portsmouth. It’s a lesson in the history of the British Navy. The marshlands surrounding the Solent have an equally rich birdlife fauna. Adele and I teamed up with fellow passengers Fern and John to take advantage of a morning weather-window. We headed for the familiar territory of Farlington Marshes; just a short taxi-ride from the ship. Our arrival was greeted with a dramatic cloudscape backdrop and a stiffening breeze. Farlington is famous for its Black-tailed Godwits. Many were already back from Iceland but still bedecked in breeding plumage. Kestrels beat into the wind, eyes locked on their target as the rest of their being bucked, twisted and gimballed in response to the fickle breeze. A passing Sparrowhawk momentarily spooked the wader flocks. A glance in their direction from this fire-eyed assassin was enough to send a frisson of shivering jitters through their ranks. Out across the mudflats a spit of sand hosted nesting terns. The air was punctured with staccato renditions of high-pitched “kireet” calls and the quick wing-beats of the elfin Little Terns. Their larger Common Terns cousins seemed unhurried, almost lazily balletic, in comparison.

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Views of Farlington Marshes near Portsmouth © Adele Clarke
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Black-tailed Godwit, Farlington Marshes © Jeff Clarke
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Kestrel (left) and Sparrowhawk (right) at Farlington Marshes © Jeff Clarke

 

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Ladybird sampling at Farlington Marshes © Adele Clarke

I took the opportunity to gather some ladybirds in prep for my talk the following day, no easy task as my beating tray seemed more intent of giving a good impression of a galleon under sail. (I released them back into the wild on my return home) Despite the, now buffeting, breeze we also found several butterfly species on the wing. They included Painted Lady, Common Blue and Essex Skipper.

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Common Blue, Farlington Marshes © Jeff Clarke

The Wildlife Trust began some management work in the early afternoon and this dispersed the wading birds to the Solent. We took this as our cue to return to the ship. A word to the wise. Taxi-drivers struggle to find Farlington Marshes, I’d suggest you leave plenty of time to get back to the port, or risk missing your ship.

The 28th was our last day and it would be a full day at sea. Up at dawn and full of anticipation. A wind speed of Beaufort Scale force 6 from the SW made for a lumpen sea strewn with white-caps. As we arrived on deck the Lizard Peninsula lay prone on our starboard side. The next few hours provided gloriously rich pickings, with far-flung seabirds piled-up against the Cornish coastline. It was Shearwater heaven. Our circumnavigation of the UK coastline had been accompanied by Manx Shearwaters almost the whole way, today they were joined by rarer beings, some from the other end of the Atlantic. A larger bird with a lazy winged attitude made light of the blowy conditions. Cory’s Shearwaters are typically found in the Bay of Biscay in late summer during their post-breeding dispersal, the prevailing weather had driven them north and west till they reached British waters and now we were reaping the rewards.

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Manx Shearwaters off Land's End © Jeff Clarke

Next came a contender for most travelled wanderer in the form of the day’s first Sooty Shearwater. It careened gracefully over the wave-tops on swept back wings, occasionally flashing the silvery patches on its underwings as it resolutely tacked its way back to the Atlantic. This bird was just over half way through its annual 27,000mile journey back to its breeding islands in Tristan de Cunha.

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Sooty Shearwater off Cornwall (record shot only) © Jeff Clarke

Another big ‘shear’ catches the eye, the word Cory’s dies in my throat as I realise this one flies with a stiffer, straighter-winged action. It reappears from another trough, now it’s identity is clear, dark capped, a smudge like patch on the lower belly and a clear, narrow, band of white separating the tail and rump. Great Shearwater! It joins the Sooty Shearwater on the top step of the long-distance podium. It may even breed on the very same island as its duskier cousin. We would see at least 10 before passing ‘The Wolf’ Lighthouse.

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Great Shearwater off Cornwall (record shot only)  © Jeff Clarke
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'The Wolf' Lighthouse © Jeff Clarke

If the shearwater show wasn’t enough for you, then what came next surely put the icing on the cake. The sea began to boil with dolphins. Pod after pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins sensed our approach and began porpoising toward Boudicca’s bow. At least 150 of these beautiful cetaceans thundered in to play in the pressure wave. This would be a long-remembered morning!

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Short-beaked Common Dolphin off Land's End © Jeff Clarke

I dragged myself from the scene to snatch a quick breakfast and make preparations for my final talk at 9:45am that morning. The Neptune Lounge was packed and afterwards I encouraged people to get out on deck and catch some of the shearwater action. By the time I made it back on deck we were already in the southern Celtic Sea. The light conditions were improving and a diminutive flicker of black and white caught my eye. A Storm-petrel, but which one? No visible white on the underwing, long glides on flat wings, squared-off tail. I knew this bird well from my southern oceans explorations. Wilson’s Storm-petrel. This was a truly stellar day! A small flock of European Storm Petrel shortly afterwards emphasised the differences.

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Manx Shearwater in the Celtic Sea © Jeff Clarke

After passing the Pembrokeshire coast the sea calmed and the sun came out. Manx Shearwaters constantly flicked past the bow and gannets were almost always in view. We had run out of ‘Mega’s’ but I still had hopes of cetaceans. As we ran through the Celtic Deep three small pods of ‘short-beaks’ made for the bow. Finally, as the sun pitched toward the horizon and Bardsey Island appeared in the distance, we passed a couple of Harbour Porpoise. In total, we had spotted at least 421 individual cetaceans, comprising 7 species during our circumnavigation. A notable trip by any standards, made all the more special by sharing it with some lovely people. I don’t know what it is about seabirds, whales and dolphins, that has me so completely in their thrall, but all I know is, that I cannot wait for my next ocean adventure!

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Approaching sunset in the Celtic Sea © Adele Clarke

Acknowledgements:

I would like to express my grateful thanks to Christine Murdie for the generous use of her images for this blog.

Thanks also to Russel Neave for touring us around the delights of Mainland, Orkney.

Many thanks to my cruise speaker agents at Peel Talent for their work in arranging this tour.

Also many thanks to the wonderful staff at Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines for being so helpful both prior to and during the cruise.

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