Thursday, 31 July 2014

Swift Thinking

The little cottage sits settled in a small village with a meandering river making its way through pastures, woodland and water meadows, overlooked by rolling hills of fields carpeted in yellow oil seed rape or the more muted dun colour of wheat. In those fields not given over to agriculture sheep roam munching on lush green grass their lambs frolicking by their sides. The chalky white and deep purple blue of the flint walls of the cottage glared in the bright sunlight that blazed in a deep azure blue sky. Soaring purposefully across this sky, silhouetted against the blue, is a small bird with crescent shaped, pointed wings. One, two, three followed by more. The group swoops low, skimming around the cottage with a whoosh of air and a piercing scream, which for me is a quintessential part of the British summer. It is the swift. A bird that spends its entire life on the wing. On leaving the nest it will remain in flight, heading south to Africa and back, eating, sleeping, socialising, all without touching the ground until two years later when it touches down in a nesting hole.

Granny B's - Google Maps

The birds skim over the immaculate flower beds and vegetable plots, the sweet scent of sweet peas lifts into the air. Around a gnarled apple tree that has stood centre stage in the lawn for as long as I remember, up and over the hedge and off down the road. It is not long before they return, once again skimming the garden but this time making a beeline for the house. They dip a little lower before heading vertically up and landing on the wall just under the eaves. A quick scurry up the wall with sharp claws and the bird disappears into the roof. Here in the dark cool roof space, amongst the aging beams the swift has its nest.

With the bird safely ensconced we quickly set up nets. Recent work has shown that swifts can spend hours in the nest hole before heading off to feed. It is generally hard to catch swifts, they are such fast, agile and high flyers. So netting a nesting site is one of the only options to catching them, but there are strict guidelines to doing so.  But why go to the effort of trying to catch them? Well the UK population is in decline, and the bird is now Amber Listed. The reasons as with many population declines are multi-faceted but one big reason for swifts is home improvements. The demolition and renovation of old houses often results in nesting sites disappearing or being blocked. Given that the species is site-faithful, returning to the same nest site year after year, and do not colonise new sites easily, numbers have subsequently dropped. To have swifts nesting in your house, for me, is therefore something very special. Ringing aims to help establish where birds are wintering, to understand migration routes and juvenile dispersal. Repeated visits over a number of years to a nest colony also helps to understand that site-fidelity.

And so we wait, patient, drinking Granny’s juice, sitting in the little kitchen I have sat in since I was a child. A room that has barely changed as the world grows older around it. Forever glancing out the window finally we are rewarded, not once but three times!

A beautiful swift

There it was, in the hand, with beautiful long curved wings, sooty brown with a pale chin, a small forked tail. Bright, dark eyes, and a tiny bill but large gape. Pin sharp claws at the end of short feathered legs. So with a new ring fitted and all the biometrics taken, each is released, soaring off once again into that blue sky, circling high and away. 

Me, Granny B and a swift

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Journey South

We leave the wild mountains and Walrus of Svalbard behind and enter a heavy, ‘following sea’. White crests roll over the top of deep blue waves that the Saga Pearl II almost surfs down. We follow the coast south, over on the distant horizon the mountains still rise hazy blue. The conditions are not conducive to whale watching, and it is a couple hours before we see our first big mammal. A Sei Whale surfacing against the waves, lifting its head high to catch a clear breath. The wind then starts to drop, the number of white caps melting away, the waves dropping in height. Conditions were improving. Then ahead it was as if someone had drawn a line on the horizon. Slowly it approached and it seems as if the team are holding their breath, not quite believing the conditions beyond. Crossing it was like passing into a magical world, a whale watchers paradise. The wind disappears completely and the ocean becomes silky smooth, the slight cloud cover casting a silvery sheen and the sightings increase. Humpback Whales, White-beaked Dolphin and Minke Whales all in quick succession. Ahead three blows catch the eye. One then two are identified as Humpback Whale, the blow bushy, a dark body and humped back beneath. But the third is massive and thin. I catch my breath, scanning, searching, hoping to see this particular whale again. Once again a massive blow reaches into the pale blue silvery sky and beneath, not a dark body, but a pale and huge body. It is a Blue Whale. The largest animal that has ever lived on this planet we call Earth. I cannot contain my excitement, as I whoop and leap around the deck much to the amusement of the passengers. But it is not over, with the Humpback and Blue Whale still in sight another animal surfaces, this time a Fin Whale. Three species of incredible animals within the space of five minutes. Like I said, it was a magical kingdom.

A mighty Blue Whale

Still we cannot linger, and continue our journey south. Once more something catches the eye. Amongst the silvery calm, water boils, like fish at the surface but then something dark pops up. It does not roll like a whale. It is too big with too many repeated bobbings for birds. No dorsal fin like a dolphin, just a snout and rounded body. Closer inspection reveals that they were seals. But which species? Never had I seen seals behave like this, accelerating vertically up out of the water. I never pretend to know everything, that would be arrogant and pretentious. So it was with the help of a passenger that we identify these as Harp Seals. But we are not talking about one or two seals, great swathes of water boil ahead and alongside the ship as hundreds of Harp Seals surface in various groups over a period of half an hour!

Harp Seals

The following day, and no longer can we see the mountains of Svalbard. All around us the ocean extends from either horizon. It is an overcast day, showery, but importantly still calm. Following the unseen continental slope the day brings over 50 sightings. Half way through the morning an adult and juvenile Humpback Whale surface close to the ship. They are here to make the most of rich feeding grounds after an epic journey from the warm tropical waters where her calf would have been born. A frenzy of Fin Whale sightings just after lunch keeps the team on its toes, with many surfacing so close to the ship you can almost see down their blow holes. A huge blow signals what was probably our second Blue Whale of the trip, although it remained more elusive than the first. A Sperm Whale lifts its fluke diving to find the squid roaming the dark depths beneath us. Flashes of silver fish are patrolled by Minke Whales. A Sei Whale surfaces amongst the mist of a heavy shower, a Fin Whale just behind it. White-beaked Dolphin leap amongst shards of light breaking through the clouds. 

The final leg of our journey takes us back along the coast of Norway, from Tromso, through the meandering, steep sided fjords of Geriangerfjord, to the bustle of Bergen. Low lying mist threads its way through scattered islands, shrouding the feet of towering snow capped mountains. The sea once again is silvery and smooth and in such conditions it is not hard to spot the dark, black shapes of Long-finned Pilot Whale, the breach of distant feeding dolphins and the quick roll of Harbour Porpoise. Mid-morning and far ahead something black once again breaks the surface. Zeroing in and several, tall dark fins emerge from the silvery sea and with a growing sense of excitement we realise there is just one thing they can be. Orca. The mingling group of at least eight includes at least three big bulls, one with a dorsal fin immense not only in height but width. As the ship comes alongside the group one male leaps completely clear of the water landing with a huge splash and a roar of delight from the watching passengers. As the ship passes, slipping onwards on its inexorable path south, the group continues to mill with several younger animals also leaping clear of the water. Cue massive, silly grins on everyones faces.


Through the steep sided, meandering water ways of Geraingerfjord and even the more muted, softer, rounded islets and islands of the fjord off Bergen, we watch Harbour Porpoise surface amongst the dark wavelets. Tiny calves surface in close synchronisation with their mothers, causing a ripple of delight amongst those the most perseverant of passengers still on deck.

The final stretch of North Sea proves more productive than the journey north with a group of five Minke Whales causing a stir at the breakfast table. Rain and wind finally close in and the team bids a final farewell to the survey deck. For the first time in a long time the sun sets fully, darkness falls and when it is light again we are greeted by white, not of glinting snow caps, but of white, sheer cliffs of chalk. We were back in Dover and our Arctic adventure is over. For now

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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Arctic Explorers

I awake from my slumber to breath taking views of Spitsbergen. Tall, dark, sheer mountains with blankets of snow and smooth white glaciers reach a sea that is calm as a millpond. The only ripples are created by the hundreds of auks. Everywhere I look there are Little Auks, Brünnich’s Guillemot, Black Guillemot and Puffins, either sitting on the water or streaming by in low flying groups. Amongst them are Fin Whales, surfacing against the stunning, mountainous backdrop. It is paradise. Our first stop is the town of Longyearbyen. An industrial place, with mines carving across the mountainside, looming over the houses that to be honest look a little worn against the grey skies. Throughout the town Snow Bunting sing, males in full breeding regalia flit from building to tundra to rock. I brave the Arctic Terns that nest right next to the road, I do not blame them for swooping and attacking me in protection of their precious eggs. Right next to the sign warning me to go no further without armed protection (this be Polar Bear country) I meet familiar birds, Grey Phalarope – known here as Red Phalarope – and Purple Sandpiper in stunning breeding plumage. Eider nest right next to a compound filled with howling Huskies. Later as the ship heads back out of the Fjord, sunshine starts to spill through gaps in the cloud cover, and dazzling in this light are the blows of a group of Fin Whales. Astounded I watch these whales milling, not moving fast or feeding, but resting. Amongst them there are clearly younger, smaller animals, and in amazement I watch as one lifts its tail fluke out of the water, a behaviour I have seen many times in Humpback Whale and Sperm Whale, but that is more unusual in this, the second largest animal on the planet.

Fin Whale off Spitsbergen

Our second stop is probably the most stunning, this was the day that the beauty of this remote, wild landscape was truly revealed in glorious splendour. Brilliant blue skies reflected in blankets of snow which covered the research town of Ny-Ålesund. A sheer, cracked wall of blue and white ice rears up where glacier meets sea. Immense mountains surround the town whose houses are brighter and feel more welcoming. Early in the day a Humpback Whale is sighted feeding in front of the glacier at the end of the bay. All day it works its way to and fro in front of glacier and mountains, feeding amongst the meandering ice bergs. Mid-afternoon and the whale has worked its way right in front of the stationary ship. Bubbles appear, rippling the calm blue water, and with a whoosh of breath the whale appears, throat and mouth distended as it gulps fish and water in one go. It dives with a flick of its tail fluke, and moves a little further on. The Arctic wildlife on land is just as impressive; amongst the snow and houses, the raucous screeching crescendo of Arctic Terns once more signals their intent to protect their nests by any means. Reindeer wander across blankets of snow. Long-tailed Duck, Snow Bunting and Barnacle Geese mingle on the tundra with Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones. Long-tailed, Arctic and Great Skua careen through flocks of Kittiwakes and terns that are feeding just off the shore. It is hard to say goodbye to such a dramatic and beautiful place as the ship headed away once again surrounded by Little Auk and Brünnich’s Guillemots.

Humpback Whale lunge feeding 

The final stop is Magdalena Bay, the most northerly, remote and wild of all the places we visit. Here the mountains are closer, looming perhaps ominously above a small circular bay where once again icebergs swirl. Glaciers sweep down between the sheer cliffs and rocky screes. Closer inspection reveals thousands of Little Auks swarming around the mountainside where they are nesting amongst the rocks. The ship nestles itself at anchor amongst the icebergs and we spend a morning watching the Auks, soaking up the wilderness. Again it is hard to leave such a raw and beautiful place, but as we leave with the smooth rippling waters giving way to waves and white caps, a sudden movement alongside reveals seven or eight Walrus! They surge up through the waves, tusks bared, tumbling over each other as the ship headed out to sea.


And so we head south, our adventures on Spitsbergen itself were over, but its incredible waters still had some surprises in store for us…

Friday, 11 July 2014

To the Arctic

The Saga Pearl II left Dover to the tune of beautiful evening sunshine, calm seas and even a couple of Harbour Porpoise. Its ultimate destination was Svalbard in the Arctic and there were four additional passengers who were highly excited about the prospect of the trip ahead. Since 2007 the marine charity ORCA has been working in association with the cruise company Saga in order to place survey teams onboard trips making their way around the European Atlantic, from the Mediterranean to the high Arctic and Iceland. In this way the charity’s collection of sightings data from various ferry routes from the UK has been complemented in areas where ferries do not regularly venture. In addition the trips are a perfect chance to raise awareness about the charity and the plight of whales and dolphins.

For four days the weather is against us, with windy conditions hampering sightings across the North Sea and when continuing up the Norwegian coast. Then in the morning light from a night where the sun never set, and with the team on deck early for the approach to the Lofoten Islands, that magic shout went up ‘Blow!’ Ahead of the ship a Fin Whale surfaced, its breath catching in a million sparkling droplets before it disappears beneath the waves. A short while later and another whale is sighted on the horizon, its blow hanging in the cold air. But to be totally honest it is the feathered wildlife that steals the show on the approach to the beautiful harbour of Leknes. While we are relieved to have our first large cetacean sightings, we are completely delighted by the reams of Puffins that stream past our bow.

Fin whale surfaces in the morning light near the Lofoten Islands

While the Lofotens are located within the Arctic Circle, the climate here is mild what with the influence of the Gulf Stream. The beaches are almost white, the waters of the harbour a clear blue green and teaming with jellyfish. Around us tall mountain peaks, some still capped with snow, rise and from their tops the majestic White-tailed Eagle soars.

On leaving this little piece of paradise the ship sails in the lea of the Lofoten Islands the ocean is like a mill pond, calm and serene. More Puffins stream by, Arctic and Long-tailed Skua’s chase and harass the Kittiwakes stealing their hard earned food. Balls of fish boil at the surface, disturbing the rippling calm with a silver flash as a Minke Whale surfaces in their midst. Turning the corner of the islands, the ship continues her journey north aiming dead straight for her ultimate destination, Svalbard. With the turn comes the wind, for so long sheltered by the tall mountains the Saga Pearl is now buffeted. She rolls up and down on a moderate swell, white horses dancing in the steely blue waves around her. As with the previous day there will be no sunset tonight but there would come a point where the team would need to go to bed…. It was almost time; the wind was cold in the eyes and the body ached from being continually buffeted. Then amongst the waves, and spray something catches my eye. I look again scanning the deep troughs and peaks with binoculars and something big and dark surfaces in my view. ‘I’ve got Orca!’ the words rip from my dry lips! The sighting is brief but lifts our spirits like only Orca can, and it is with a smile on our faces we retire to bed in anticipation of the next day.

Puffins streaming by

Once again the sun never sets and is still hovering low in the sky the next morning which dawns with much calmer seas and brings a fantastic day of whale watching with nearly 50 encounters. It starts with another four sightings of Orca brushing the horizon, followed by Minke Whales and White-beaked Dolphins. Then mid-morning we cross what seems an invisible line but beneath the gently rolling waves the sea floor had dropped, sloping away to the even darker depths. The way we knew? The whales got bigger! Now we were seeing the tall spouts of Fin Whales, the distinctive sinking surfacing pattern of Sei Whale and the majestic flukes of Sperm Whales the largest of the toothed whales and the inspiration behind Moby Dick. Ahead a magnificent Humpback Whale breaches clear of the water, its body slamming back into the waves with a massive splash; it then lifts its long brilliantly white pectoral fins up and slaps them repeatedly into the ocean. The day draws to an end, still light but none the less sleep beckons, although not before a beautiful Fin Whale surfaces less than 500 m from the ship and just behind it something smaller, a White-beaked Dolphin, an association between two cousins that share the same ancestry but that have taken very different evolutionary path ways. One now huge, with two blow holes and baleen to filter food from gulps of water. One smaller, stockier, one blow hole and teeth for grabbing slippery prey.

Fin Whale and White-beaked Dolphin surface in unison

And so the team retires from deck knowing the next step of the adventure is just a sleep away - The magical island of Spitsbergen.