Wednesday 1 September 2021

Drama on Falmouth Pelagic

I spent the bank holiday weekend away in Cornwall. I travelled down with David, Magnus and Paul. We stopped in South Devon on the way to look for Cirl Buntings and got lucky in Labrador Bay RSPB. Cirl Buntings breed only in South Devon and they can normally be seen no-where else in the UK, though they have recently also been re-introduced into Cornwall.


Cirl Bunting

We continued on to Cornwall, watching a few more birds at Stithians Reservoir, where the highlights were a Little Stint and a Wood Sandpiper. A Little Stint is a tiny wader.

Wood Sandpiper - L, and Little Stint - R

We stayed the night in Camborne.  On Sunday after breakfast, we made our way to Falmouth Marina for the pelagic with AK Wildlife Cruises. What’s a ‘pelagic’ I hear some of you ask?

Pelagic – adjective, pəˈlædʒɪk,  (technology) connected with, or living in, the parts of the ocean that are far from land.

So, for birdwatchers, a pelagic is a boat trip out to sea to find pelagic birds, i.e. those which spend all of their time at sea and never come ashore except to breed.

Now, the pelagic didn't start well. The skipper, Keith, had forgotten the chum in his freezer. Chum is quite important on a pelagic. It's a foul-smelling mixture of mashed up fish but is nectar to sea birds and attracts them like bees round a honey pot.  Keith was very experienced, knew the waters around Falmouth like the back of his hand, and assured us that the lack of chum wouldn't stop us seeing the birds we wanted to see. He knew the signs, he explained, of where the fish would be, based on the activity of gannets far off. Fish attract seabirds.

On the boat of AK Wildlife Cruises

Paul - L, and me on the bow of the boat.

The section of water from the harbour to the open sea is always a bit quiet. When we reached the open sea Keith, true to his word, spotted the signs of a ‘build up’. We raced towards it and found a raft of shearwaters and other birds sitting on the sea. Most were Manx Shearwater, a common pelagic species, but there were also half a dozen Sooty Shearwaters which are larger and not so common. A good start for Keith then!

All Manx Shearwaters except the one indicated.
Manx Shearwater - L, Sooty Shearwater - R
Sooty Shearwater. Unusual and imposing!

There were also one or two Balearic Shearwaters. Also uncommon and shy!

Balearic Shearwater. Not that common so nice to see.

The weather was mainly overcast but there was very little wind. The sea was like a millpond. I was very happy about this as I had not wanted to take a travel sickness pill. I don't normally get seasick but on pelagics the boat is often left to drift. It tends to rock uncomfortably, even if the sea is only a little rough.

As the day progressed things got better and better. Keith knew his onions as far as cetaceans were concerned and pointed out not only the pod of local Common Dolphins but also a smaller pod of about a dozen Bottlenose Dolphins which had a couple of small calves with them.

Bottlenose Dolphins with calves

Keith invited us, three at a time, to watch from the bow. I was lucky enough to be there when several dolphins delighted in swimming along with us. We were under power and travelling along but the dolphins easily kept pace with us, hardly needing to move a fin, as this video shows. Amazing!

As well as the dolphins, there were also Atlantic Bluefin Tuna present. These enormous fish sometimes jumped out of the water like dolphins. They fed on anchovy fry near the surface and where the tuna were feeding the shearwaters and other sea birds congregated to dive in and enjoy the fish bounty.


Atlantic Bluefin Tuna jumping. These huge fish reach 220-250Kg!

We also witnessed a disturbing incident which brought home the ruthless nature of life in the wild. Skuas are a family of sea birds with a reputation for being aggressive and piratical. They often harass smaller seabirds who have caught fish and force them to drop their food. The Great Skua is a large powerful bird. We came across one attacking a Herring Gull. Most of you will be familiar with Herring Gulls and will know that they are not small birds. Here is how the story progressed.

Great Skua, commonly known as a Bonxie

When we approached, the Great Skua (AKA Bonxie) was attacking the Herring Gull and was clearly winning!

At our approach the Bonxie flew off.

The poor Herring Gull took the opportunity to make a run for it. However, it had been severely weakened in the attack.

When we were a safe distance away again, the Bonxie moved in for the kill! The gull looks terrified!

Shortly afterwards, the Herring Gull was dead!


Before witnessing this incident, I had never thought that a Bonxie would attack such a large prey. We live and learn!


As well as shearwaters, other pelagic birds include petrels, mainly European Storm Petrels and Wilson’s Storm Petrels. Petrels are rarer than Manx Shearwaters and/or are much harder to see on account of their small size. They are really tiny. They are little bigger than a sparrow, weigh only 25-30g, yet they survive at sea in all conditions.  The first time one was spotted I just couldn’t get on it (i.e. manage to see it, usually with binoculars). The same happened with the second sighting, and the third. I was beginning to get desperate! Only on the fourth sighting was I able to see it and take photos. Here is my rather weak effort at a photo. Not only are they tiny and hard to see, they are also difficult to photograph.

European Storm Petrels

In true Blue Peter fashion, here is one I prepared earlier, from another pelagic from the Isles of Scilly in 2009.

European Storm Petrel

Later, we came across a small number of European Storm Petrels just sitting on the sea. I had not seen this behaviour before.

European Storm Petrels. Tiny, cute and weighing only 25-30g!

Later still, we came across two Arctic Skuas - yes, the pirates! Arctic Skuas come in two colours (or morphs). We had one of each. When we got too close, they flew off and attacked a small flock of Kittiwakes.

Arctic Skuas. Dark morph is on the left and the pale morph on the right. They are robbers!!

Arctic Skua - Dark morph

The missing chum may have brought the diminutive Petrels a little closer to the boat if they had been tempted in by it. We may have seen them closer, or we may have seen Wilson’s Storm Petrel too. Who knows? At all events, it was a very enjoyable pelagic.

The following day we came home via Kynance Cove on the Lizard peninsula. Highlight of our walk was a Red-billed Chough. 

(Red-billed) Chough. Rare outside of the far West of Cornwall and some areas in the West of Wales!

Before leaving for home, we also enjoyed a Cornish cream tea, jam first of course!


  1. Well, I've gone right off Skuas....sounds like a very satisfying trip though x

  2. Lovely birds...except for the Skuas. Handsome is as handsome does.

  3. Great pictures. What size of binoculars do you use as I want to replace them and any recommendations for a camera?

  4. Ha, Skuas are having a bad press! They live as they know how.

    Joyce, I use 8x32 binoculars. I will email you privately about your questions.


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