Bird tales from the Atlantic

2nd Apr 2003 Put a birdwatcher on a boat in the waters between the Canaries and Cape Verde and you just know that he will have a good time despite the discomfort and frequent spells of queezy tummy. Mind you not that these waters are enormously productive – you might see 3 birds in as many minutes and that would be it for the day. However, so many of the species seen do have an association with Ireland, especially with the Cape Clear area.

So leaving behind the delights of Trumpeter Finch, Plain Swift, Barbary Falcon and the ever present Canary, we left Gran Canaria behind. Soon we started seeing groups of Cory's Shearwater, apparently clipping the waves with their wingtips searching for food or just getting out there and enjoying the day. Some of these large brown and white Shearwaters move north from their breeding grounds and are eagerly sought by birdwatchers in Ireland in late summer and autumn when strong on-shore winds can afford the opportunity to see them.

A smaller Shearwater was also spotted and this really brought hoots of delight. Little Shearwater, cleverly named because of its small size, does not go in for ‘wave shearing' but is a real flapper. This bird is only rarely seen in autumn in Irish waters; again the south-west has provided a number of records.

During the voyage, on day 3, we were surprised to be closely inspected by yet another species of shearwater, this time Manx. Spending our winter in waters off Brazil, this beautiful bird moves across the ocean to breeding grounds in the north Atlantic. Who knows, this bird could have been making its way to one of the many colonies in Ireland, perhaps even to my favourite one on the Copeland Islands less than 10 miles from my home.

The smaller seabirds of the open ocean, the storm petrels, can often give considerable problems with their identification, as a number of species look similar. Not on this voyage. Something seemed to lure them towards the boat for a quick inspection. Perhaps the lack of hygiene has its benefits or the hint of garlic from our meals proved enticing. The most frequently seen was Madeiran Storm Petrel with some present most days. Their twisting flight often brought them alongside where their 20cm length seemed a whole lot more.

Leaches Storm-petrel was also commonly seen. They spend the winter as far south as Namibia and South Africa. They can be seen in Ireland during autumn and winter, but again only during storm conditions if they are blown onshore. Small numbers do actually breed in Ireland, on islets off north Mayo.

The real celebrations were reserved for another, notably smaller storm-petrel, Wilson's. This is a bird of near mythic status. Breeding in Antarctic regions, it has been seen in Irish waters in recent years, mainly by enthusiasts heading out to sea on pelagic trips. They are known to be present off this part of the African coast, but closer inshore. To see this beauty with its amazing flat-winged gliding flight was a delight.

One petrel unlikely to be seen in Ireland is the White-faced Petrel. Seen only rarely at sea, we were lucky enough to spot one during our final days sailing to Cape Verde. This was likely to be an individual from the islands breeding population, making us feels close to our destination. One bird was so close to the boat that I could see it seemingly hanging in mid-air, bouncing off the wave tops using its webbed feet on extended legs.

Carrying the name petrel but belonging to a different group to the storm-petrels, Bulwer's Petrel was also seen early on in the voyage but only offering distant views. Hopefully this will improve in the Cape Verde where they also breed.

Along with the Manx Shearwater, a number of other species were seen that would be heading north to their breeding grounds. The bizarre Red Phalarope spends all of its winter in the Atlantic, south and west of Africa. It returns in spring to its breeding areas in Arctic latitudes. That this long-leg