An Honest Account – August 2010
Intrigued and, I admit, a tad sceptical about the sudden rush in autumn claims of Yelkouan Shearwaters from land-based seawatches in SW England. I definitely think they have occurred in Britain and will occur. I definitely there are false claims which relate to pale Balearic Shearwaters. Even some well-marked Manx Shearwaters will masquerade and be claimed as Yelkouan’s.
Into this sea of doubt enter Tom McKinney’s account. Liked that it was honest, not shoe-horning and, to me this kinda sounds like he (and they) might have seen the real thing. No photos this time, just a good read! See what you think.
“With 4,600 Balearic Shearwaters in a raft off the Atlantic French coast, during my week seawatching for the Seawatch-SW project there was always the thought that should the weather prove conducive, this raft may possibly enter British waters and bring good numbers past Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra. Whether it was the French raft or not, on the 6th August we experienced a Herculean passage of Balearic Shearwaters – 160 in total over 12 hours, a new record for the project, though Nick Adams has since gone on to smash my pathetic effort with his Balearic hurricane of 268.
The assembled team consisted of my wife Sarah, John Swann and Phil Collins, and by 16:28 we had already surpassed 130 Balearic Shearwaters and were confident that we could cruise through the 150 mark by dusk, when we picked up a bird coming from far left that I instantly demanded that the others should get onto ASAP. Head on, though at a slight angle, it was immediately obvious that this was structurally wrong for Balearic, and the first feature noted was how long necked it appeared, followed by a long pointed rear end that lacked the plump rear end so characteristic of Balearic. It then did exactly what it was supposed to do, and raised its head well above the line of its body – a feature which Martin Garner had espoused as essential for picking up a suspected vagrant in his Yelkouan chapter in Frontiers in Birding. It continually repeated this, and was a much higher lift than that shown in the occasional upward glances of Manx.
As it came closer (we estimated its range to be c400m) we were able to ascertain the upperparts were a very dark mahogany (a definite brown hue), the bulk of the underwing clean and crisp but with extensive dark on the axillaries (still within the range of a Balearic with pale underparts), the undertail coverts/vent dark and dirty, dirty breast sides, and – most importantly – that the feet extended well beyond the tail, so much so that – using exaggerated language – l mentioned that the bird looked to be struggling to hold its rear end up, almost as if the whole of its rear was dragging. Good views also eliminated any hint of a white crescent behind the ear.
The bird dropped onto the water twice, allowing me the chance to scribble down a few field notes as John Swann kept his scope on it, before vanishing around the corner to the west, with a new viewing angle allowing us to confirm the lack of a plump rear end, the considerable amount of feet extending past the tail and what appeared to be a relatively long bill. Overall viewing time was about 3 minutes.
Whilst the plumage was certainly within the range of paler Balearics, the length of the neck and unusual appearance of the rear was not consistent with any of the Balearics I have seen (I saw 325 in that week alone). Although also having feet beyond the tail, I believe that Balearic’s characteristic appearance of a plump rear end (as I politely call it, though a big fat arse is what I really mean!) comes from a fat belly and broad hips, which at certain angles gives Balearic the look of a blunt tail end. Our bird never showed that from any angle.
After the bird had gone, one of the things I immediately wanted to test was the upperpart colour of Manx at that distance and in the late afternoon light, because at certain times of day under intense sunlight, Manx had been looking very brown above. I began checking the Manxies passing by, and that distance they were all coloured in a simple monochrome black and white, lacking any brown hue to the upperparts.
We later discovered that another group had also picked up the same bird from in Porthgwarra cove, and had also suspected it could be a Yelkouan.
These are the actual field notes I wrote as the bird took a rest on the water:
Structure lacked Balearic’s plump rear end. Seemed very long necked and slightly longer bill. Feet projected well beyond tail giving impression of pointed rear and almost dragging its tail. Constant head lifting, not just an upward glance but actually raised head. Extensive dark on undertail coverts and vent. No notch behind ear. Underwing as on Balearic, extensive dark axillaries. Dropped on water twice.”