25 Aug 2008

Anthony McGeehan's Pelagic off Inishbofin Island Co. Galway Summer 2008

I have always been a bit wary of going on a Pelagic as I am very prone to seasickness. In the Eighties I came back from New York on the QE2 and I was sick for the full five days!!! Then a couple of summers ago I decided I would go out deep sea fishing with my father out of Downings in Co. Donegal and had to be put ashore in Dunfanaghy the other side of Sheephaven Bay less than four miles away.

So the idea of heading out into the Atlantic from Inishbofin in Co Galway was to put it mildly fairly alarming to me. However on the positive side I was going with some fairly experienced seawatchers. There was also the added enticement of seeing a number of birds I had never seen let alone photograph. Anthony had asked me last year if I wanted to go out and I had chickened out. Then he posted a trip report on the Birds Ireland Website and when I saw the photos I thought I must go on the next one.

During the week running upto the Pelagic I told Anthony I would make up some chum for the trip. I went to my local Fish Wholesaler and got some mackerel and the filleted remains of some rainbow trout that he was going to throw out. I then added two tins of tuna and some cod liver oil , olive oil and bread and water before semi pureeing with a large stick blender. I then put the revolting looking mixture into the freezer.

On Saturday morning the RSPB Belfast Harbour Volunteers met up at the reserve , where Anthony was driving the minibus to Cleggan in Co.Galway. I was driving down seperately with the chum and some of the tents etc as there was little room for extra on the bus. I was also taking Rob Straughn The RSPB Northern Ireland's Red Kite Officer with me. (Kites have been recently reintroduced into Northern Ireland) Rob talks with a broad Geordie accent added to which he had a cold which almost required me having a translator to accompany him so that I could understand what he was saying.

We all met up in Westport Co.Mayo after a fairly rain soaked journey for a cup of tea before finally arriving at about 6.30 in Cleggan in time for the 6.45 last sailing of the day.

We unloaded onto the pier and Anthony met up with some Dutch Birders who were coming on the trip. There was Magnus Robb who had recently published "Petrels Night and Day The Sound Approach Guide" with Killian Mullarney. Also Pim Wolf another well known Dutch Ornithologist and Seabird Expert , who had won The Swarovski Digiscoper of the Year in 2006.
Anthony talking to Magnus

We then embarked on the Ferry and set off for Inishbofin.

As we were crossing I saw a strange looking Fulmer and I asked Anthony whether it was a young fulmer and he said it was a Blue Fulmer. There are two races of Fulmar - nominate glacialis in the Atlantic, and rodgersii in the Pacific. Each race has dark and light morphs, and everything in between. So Blue Fulmar is not a race, but a colour phase (dark) which, in the Atlantic, predominates in the high Arctic, and is basically a scarce visitor to the southern part of the range.
This Photo was taken last year by Anthony McGeehan on his Donegal Pelagic.

He reckoned this was a good omen for the following days Pelagic. We had got a call suggesting that the trip might be off because of the weather.
This photo is looking back out of the Inishbofin Harbour towards Inishark.

We disembarked and made our way up to the Hostel where at this point I didnt know whether I was camping or staying in the hostel fortunately they had one spare bed in the dormitory. I think it was the first time I had spent a night with eight other men in a room since leaving boarding school. I was on the bottom bunk. Some of the others set up their tents and then we all went and had a meal in the Dolphin Hotel. I was keeping in mind that one of the tips to avoid seasickness is not to drink much the night before so I had a pint of Guinness and left it at that. I finished my meal with a seasickness pill before heading to bed.

Kick off was going to be 9.00am so after having a fairly disturbed night with the upper bunk occupant getting out a few times in the night. I was woken at 8.00 had a breakfast of toast without anything and a banana and another pill. No point in spending money on breakfast to feed the fishes a few hours later. Especially as I could see white crests on the waves in the sound between the island and the mainland.

We met down at the pier where the second Inishbofin ferry was going to take us out on the Pelagic. At this point Eric Dempsey owner of the Birds Ireland Website turned up with some friends.

We then headed out to sea with a quick stop at a seal colony nearby. It was decided to go about six miles straight out from Inishbofin into the atlantic. As we were heading out there a couple of Great Skuas were seen. I was quite glad that the boat was quite big as the swells seemed to be fairly large and I was desperately watching the horizon to make sure I didnt feel bad. I decided I would sleep until we got to the area where the chum was going to be put in the sea.

In addition to the chum we were going to use DMS.DMS is DiMethyl Sulphide. It is a preservative for vegetables which has a very pungent smell and has been found very effective at attracting Petrels to chum.

Here is the block of chum floating above and below its visitors

I think it was the DMS that set me off for my first of three trips to the side of the boat to provide chum!!!

Its effect was fairly pronounced the first visitor was a shark then the Storm Petrels came in soon after followed by a Sooty Shearwater.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

The Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus spends its winter in our summer in the North Atlantic and then heads down to the bottom of South America to its breeding grounds.

The next bird to turn up was the Great Shearwater and definately my favourite of the trip.

Great Shearwater

Great Shearwater

Storm Petrel Great Shearwater and Fulmer

The Great Shearwater breeds in Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island in the South Atlantic. After the breeding season it migrates north along the American continents and spends its summer off the coasts of New England, Eastern Canada and South Greenland and then in late summer appears off the Western European coasts. One of the Pelagic party Brad Robson RSPB Fermanagh Area Manager is taking a year out to spend it on Tristan da Cunha working in Conservation. I wish him all the best.

Soon Anthony came down and said that Magnus Robb had thought he had seen a Wilson's Petrel and was trying to relocate it. It wasn't long before a shout went up and it appeared right next to the boat.

One of the diagnostic features of the Wilson's petrel is that it has yellowish webs between its toes.

Another feature is that there is a lack of white on the underwings as in the Storm Petrel.

The other feature is that its legs are longer than the Storm Petrel and extend beyond the tail feathers.

Here you can see the shorter legs of the Storm Petrel.

Another bird that I really love is the Fulmar they have to be one of the most graceful of flyers.

They were everywhere but unfortunately no 'Blue Fulmars' today.

The frozen chum worked particularly well as it was still providing a slick two hours after we first put it into the water. This ensured that the likes of the Great Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwaters hung round the boat alot longer than would normally be the case.

Around one o'clock Anthony called it a day as there were a few people who were feeling pretty awful and we headed back to Cleggan with a passenger transfer to the other ferry half way through our journey for those remaining on the Island for another night.

Some of the Birders waiting to disembark at Cleggan.

I have to give a Big Vote of Thanks from everybody to Anthony for arranging this trip which so easily could have been a logistical nightmare . It was a great success with three new lifers for me and two new birds for the Co. Galway List (Great Shearwater and Wilsons Petrel) and I hope the next time he can get a slightly better hold on the weather and frankly I wouldn't put it past him :-)