Would you believe it?

I was giving some pointers on the birds of the Bay of Biscay to a group of birdwatchers this week. We set off from Plymouth on Tuesday with hopeful anticipation of seeing a few birds.

The trip started well with a few birds on Tuesday evening as we made our way out into the channel but unbeknown to us the following day was to be completely birdless. I have never seen the Bay of Biscay so lacking in avian interest both in species and number. The cetaceans were a different story – more on that in a later post as it was probably the best trip I’ve been on within the bay for close encounters with whales. However for birds it was complete frustration.

Even a short walk in Spain before our return trip on Wednesday evening was a nonsense. Where were all the birds?

We climbed back aboard and went for an early evening meal before the queues started at the self service restaurant. It was perhaps only as an afterthought that we went ‘up top’ as we disembarked Santander. There was around an hour of light left and we were over the subterranean canyons off the Spanish coast so why wouldn’t we have a look for a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale or two.

Standing at the rail a small ‘shearwater’ was pointed out to me flying with the ship. I raised my bins and was speechless for an identification. It wasn’t until it banked and sheared away from the ship the dawning realisation came over me what we were looking at. I could hardly get the words out … ‘FEA’s PETREL’ I shouted.

It seems all our birdwatching luck was rolled up into the last few minutes of the day. This has to be one of the scarcest seabirds in the world but I have some familiarity with the species from Madeira. However, I’m well aware of the difficulties in separating Fea’s from related species such as Zino’s Petrel in the field. Taking note of salient points such as bill size and underwing colour as well as flight characteristics I’m as sure as I can be that the Gadfly Petrel we saw was a Fea’s.

I took some poor photos in the dying light almost as an afterthought as the distance to the bird increased, took a longitude/latitude reading and started to piece together some notes on what we’d seen. I’m not sure if sightings of Fea’s have been made from the ferry before.

Sadly some of the group missed the bird but the ‘die-hards’ will no doubt be ‘living-off’ what was a new bird for many of them for many years to come.

Click on the photo to enlarge it!

6 Responses to “Would you believe it?”

  1. Aug 9, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    Great photo of a great bird from a great cruise. It does look Fea’s-type but I’m not sure Fea’s and Desertas Petrels are reliably separable in the field? I don’t even think it is straightforward in the hand.

  2. Aug 11, 2019 at 9:52 am

    Check also Shirihai, H, Bretagnolle, V. & Zino, F. 2010. Identification of Fea’s, Desertas and Zino’s Petrels at sea.
    Birding World 23 (6): 239-275. A long paper crammed with excellent photos and a summary table for “At-sea separation of Fea’s Petrel from Desertas Petrel”.

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Aug 2019


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