Monday, 11 November 2013

Catch of the Day

Dawn breaks over the cold beach at Great Yarmouth. The sun’s rays splintering between broken clouds, the lights of the sea front buildings twinkle in the remaining darkness that slowly fills with diffuse morning light. The sand shifts under foot as the group makes its way, laden with gear, to the tide line. Warm breath steaming in the cold air, slowly a large net is stretched out and then furled into a shallow trench in the sand. Canons are buried and the net attached. A long blue cable is wheeled out to a safe distance where a box with switches and buttons reminiscent of a space station sits in the sand. The group disperses to wait. Bait in the form of soaked bread is scattered into the catching area, with dry bits flung into the air in order to attract our quarry. Gulls. But not just any gulls, Mediterranean Gulls.

A beautiful adult Mediterranean Gull

Back in August 2012 a Wild Barley post called The Med in Norfolk discussed the sighting of colour ringed Mediterranean Gulls sighted from this very beach in Great Yarmouth. From such sightings we know that birds ringed in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany regularly cross the North Sea and spend the winter on our shores. But not all birds on the beach are colour ringed. What about the others? Are they all coming from these countries or from other locations throughout Europe? Do all the birds wintering in Great Yarmouth return to the same places? Now a group of ringers, and birders who regularly come to Great Yarmouth to read the rings of gulls on the beach, are embarking on a new project in order to find out.

The morning progresses; the sea front comes to life with dog walkers and workers making their way to offices, shops, cafes and bars throughout the town which at this time of year is sleepy and quiet. The birds sit in groups away down the beach, occasionally one shows a brief interest in our offering. We wait, and wait. Catching birds in this way, using a canon to fire a net over the top of the birds is not undertaken lightly. Ringers undergo rigorous and lengthy training in order to obtain this licence.

Suddenly there is a loud ‘bang’ and without even looking up the team starts sprinting across the sand to the birds now trapped under the net. Legs pumping, straining against the sand, the runners arrive (yes definitely out of breath) at the net, preventing birds from escaping and starting to remove them from beneath the mesh.

The canon net fires over the group of gulls trapping them beneath © David Pelling

Each bird is bagged, and then ringed with a uniquely numbered metal ring as well as a plastic alpha-numeric colour ring. The birds are aged, their wings measured and they are weighed before being released back along the beach.

A success! The catch has 13 new Mediterranean Gulls with a variety of different aged birds; adults with their clean grey backs, brilliant white wings, deep red bill and legs and smudge of black around the head; a second year bird with remnants of black in the wing feathers; and first year birds, those that have been born this year, with brown feathers scattered amongst the grey of the wings and back.

The three ages of Mediterranean Gull;
first year, second year and adult (left to right) 
© David Pelling

In addition to these there are three birds with rings on already, all of which herald from Belgium.

Once all the birds are processed and released, the net is set again, and after a cup of steaming hot chocolate to warm the cockles and the fingers, the wait begins again in the hope of a second catch. Almost at the point of accepting one catch for the day, the net is once again fired and once again the team races across the sand to collect the birds. A smaller catch this time, but still another two Mediterranean Gulls ringed and added to the total for this, the projects inaugural catch. 

Monday, 4 November 2013

A Wild Whale Chase

It’s not every day your colleague comes into work and says he has seen a humpback whale from his sofa! And living in Norfolk this absolutely never happens as this whale has never been recorded here, that is until now! 

Humpback whales are widely distributed throughout the world's oceans, undertaking long distance migrations between winter tropical breeding grounds and high latitude feeding grounds during the summer. Over the last 10 years or so their numbers worldwide have also been increasing. Good news as they recover from commercial hunting.

The unmistakable humpback whale (not the Norfolk whale but a humpy non the less)

In British waters the humpback whale is an unusual sight, although the number of sightings is increasing and it is now regularly recorded along the western coasts of Britain, from Shetland, the north Irish Sea and the western approaches to the Channel. These individuals are likely to be part of the population that migrates from the west coast of Africa, north to off the coast of Iceland and Norway (Sea Watch Foundation, 2012). There are also more and more reports of whales from the northern and central North Sea.

One of the great things about working for a department filled with marine wildlife enthusiasts is that we are all in the same ‘boat’ so to speak...we love watching whales and dolphins and when something like this turns up on your doorstep we have the flexibility to just go! Well I was going at any rate!

Stormy clouds and rain did not deter us as we wound our way along the narrow roads of the Norfolk coast. Reports of the whale were still coming in; it seemed to be feeding a short distance from the shore, slowly moving northwards. By the time we pulled up in the small village of Sea Palling the sun had broken loose, driving the cloud and rain away. Climbing up the sand dunes we were met with people carrying scopes, heading the other way. ‘It’s moved further north’ were the words, with which we did an about turn and headed back to the car. More winding roads and one diversion later we pulled into the windswept car park of Happisburgh and were greeted by a small crowd of people and their scopes. Surely a good sign.

Standing there at the top of a dune, gazing out at a murky North Sea, the sun casting various shades of blue across the choppy surface, and the guy standing next to me, his eye glued to his scope, finally shouts ‘there it is!’. Me with my binoculars scanning however could see nothing but waves, occasional spray and gannets. It was moving offshore, its blow merging with the white caps and without a scope there was not much hope. Maybe, for me, it was not meant to be.

Turns out this whale found the food and water off the Norfolk coast rather appealing. The next morning it was seen again, following the same route and pattern; close to shore moving northwards. We may miss it; it may be far offshore again by the time we get there; but if you never try, you never know; you can guarantee you won't see it sat at your desk. Such words swirl round my head as we drive back along the winding roads, this time to Horsey. Climbing the dunes once more and gazing out at a calm blue sea, we are greeted by the unmistakable blow, back and hump of a humpback whale! Taking no chances this time I have borrowed a telescope, and while at first it is close enough to see with the naked eye, gradually the whale moves further offshore and the scope lets me follow it....

Scoping out a humpback whale from the North Norfolk Coast