Finders in the Field: Fea's Petrel, Isles of Scilly, 16 Aug 2015
By Bob Flood
My mind is buzzing from today’s close encounter with a Fea’s off Scilly. It is now late in the evening but I am writing this, whilst what can only be described as a simply crippling experience is still fresh in my head. I’m mind effed and this might turn out to be rubbish but here is how things unfolded.
Alright, let’s turn back the clock to 8.00 am. There was no wind and that normally means petrels and other seabirds will not fly much, the smell of chum will not disperse much, and we will have to work hard to find something for the Scilly pelagic goers. So, the plan was to head north out of the islands, look for Manxies and maybe a Balearic just off the coast, then steam 11 miles to Seven Stones Reef chumming on the way attracting gulls and by so doing making a visual attractant that says to seabirds for miles around, ‘grub available here’. The upwellings around Seven Stones drive food productivity, bring in seabirds, and might give a helping hand. Fishing over the reef to get fresh fish liver to add to the chum might help further.
Instead of Manxies we found a whale carcass and it stank. First cetacean of the day! Soon we came across Bottlenose Dolphins, a Sooty swept in, and then a Great Shearwater. Things were going far better than I had hoped. We trundled on toward the Stones with more Great Shears and then a Pom Skua flew over the boat. I started to think maybe things were going to go our way.
So, now turn the clock forward an hour or so and there we are gently drifting over the reef. Great Shears were showing off, stormies were trickling in, fulmars were squabbling over liver-soaked chum, and fishing was pretty good. I scanned eastward and saw what I call ‘the real world’ – mainland Cornwall. Enough of that! So I scanned southwards downwind and, a very long way off, I briefly glimpsed a petrel that slightly interested me, but it was very soon out of view. I looked again but nothing so I returned to chumming duties.
Hmmmm… that petrel was nagging in my mind. So, I scanned again, but nothing. I chucked over some more chum and eye-scanned the stormies looking for Wilson’s. That nagging feeling wouldn’t go away, so I scanned south again, but again nothing. I threw some more chum over and tried one last scan.
This time I saw a petrel heading directly toward us low over the water about 200 metres out and its wing actions, flight adjustments, and apparent greyish look reminded me only of Fea’s-type petrels. At this point everything moved into sloooowwww mootttiiiioooonnnnnn…
The bird was so low that at this point I couldn’t really see anything extra, and with 100% cloud cover there was weak definition of this greyish bird against the greyish sea. I had to say something so I yelled, ‘get on this petrel’.
That got everyone’s attention alright!
There was a split second when I thought, ‘hope I’m not screwing up here’, before my brain registered for sure that it was a Fea’s. I can’t remember exactly what it was that triggered confidence to yell, ‘Fea’s Petrel’. So many thoughts rushed through my mind in slow time, but by now head-on I could see this bird had girth, unlike Zino’s. I think there was more to it than that and I guess it was in the jizz of the bird. Zino’s remind me so much of the small cookillaria petrels from the southern oceans and the bird before me was not like that. Such thoughts became irrelevant because the Fea’s then treated us to spectacular views. You’ve seen the photos by now so I hardly need to brag endlessly about it.
While my eyes watched the bird my ears tuned in to people’s voices and believe me the atmosphere on board was electric. Mainly I heard voices of utter disbelief that we were really watching a Fea’s Petrel, it really was passing the stern at 10 feet, it really was circling the boat yet again, it really was doing all the things that photographers dream of by rising above the horizon to give those all so important ventral views.
No words can describe the very special atmosphere aboard MV Sapphire at that time and for the rest of the trip. Moments like this define why we are all birders, right?
I guess I should say something about the bird’s ID, but it is getting very late and I’m wasted. May I point you to the robust bill, thickset neck, chunky body and so on. This bird is way outside of the overlap range of Fea’s and Zino’s. It is a Fea’s. And, can we say it is a Desertas Fea’s or a Cape Verde Fea’s. I doubt it, but I will revisit this issue when compus mentus. It is perhaps only the beastie-boy Desertas Fea’s that we can ascribe to taxon (sexual dimorphism, and on average Desertas Fea’s are more heavily built than Cape Verde Fea’s). Structurally, the bird could fit a smallish male Desertas, a largish female Desertas, and a largish male Cape Verde. The extent of blackish in the underwing-coverts is more typical of Cape Verde Fea’s. More on that in due course.
Now it really is time to sleep.
16 August 2015
Fellow pelagic goer Jim Almond describes being on-board when the Fea's flew by... oh and he got a few haf-decent pics too!
"We were nearly the hours into the pelagic (my eighth of current season) Despite very light south easterly winds, the mood on board was upbeat as we had already exceeded expectations. Exceptional views of Great and Sooty Shearwater plus a Pom Skua, European Storm Petrels etc. had proven the unpredictability of pelagics. Having steamed to the reef near Seven Stones lightship, we were waiting for the chum to work its magic, surrounded by Fulmars, Gannets and Gulls - a bit of a lull in pelagic terms?"
"I took a break from scanning and amused myself by photographing Fulmars by the side of the boat but noticed Bob was looking intently up the slick. It would be fair to say that pandemonium then broke out as he yelled "everybody get on this Petrel flying towards us" followed by "FEA'S"!!"
"The next two minutes or so seemed like an eternity, I was luckily on the 'connecting' side of the boat as the Fea's came closer, breaking the horizon and giving amazing views Suddenly my side of the boat was packed solid, a few expletives / wows broke the electric buzz of excitement as it gave a really close pass. I was now locked in a personal bubble, trying to keep the camera on the fast flying Fea's! The action moved swiftly to the far side of the boat as it circled around, soon completing another full circle. I got a second chance - everyone now stood their ground and had views to die for."
"Eventually the Fea's headed off, the silence was now truly broken amid a flurry of fist pumping, handshaking and huddles over camera backs! There was residual air of disbelief - did we really see what just happened? Scilly Pelagics are a good bet where Fea's Petrel is concerned but historically never as good or as close as this encounter and in good light. The magic of the chum had been weaved and Bob summed it up quite simply by declaring: "Guys, that's a moment you will never forget"! You bet we won't!!"
Jim will be writing up a review of his 2015 Scilly pelagic adventures in due course
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