I’ve just returned to Bristol after over a month away, most of it spent at sea, aboard The Bessie Ellen – a tall ship built in Plymouth in 1904. She was once part of a fleet of nearly 700 West Country trading ketches, of which only 3 now remain (including the Irene of Bridgwater, which can often be seen in the Floating Harbour at Bristol). Below is a picture of her I took during a night watch in Velas, São Jorge, Azores.
My Atlantic odyssey began in the Canaries at San Miguel Marina on the southern tip of Tenerife, where I spent a few days exploring the island before embarking on the passage to the Azorean isles. After receiving a series of overwhelmingly negative reports of the Canaries from my friends, I wasn’t expecting too much, but was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife. I didn’t even have to leave the moderately modest grounds of my hotel to see some great birds including Spanish sparrows, Canarian chiffchaffs, blackcaps, Cory’s shearwaters, kestrels and hoopoes – not to mention all of the butterflies, lizards and nest-building swifts..
Below are some hoopoes making a food-pass – part of their courtship ritual. I watched the male digging out grubs from the earth under the shrubs surrounding the hotel for an age, before he flapped up to a telegraph wire, where he spent just about as long trying to attract the female with a pooping and wheezing call. After a long while, she came over to collect her prize, after which he got straight back to work, diligently digging in the dust and dirt.
As soon as we set sail from the Canaries, the frequency of wildlife sharply dropped, apart from a few groups of shearwaters and bottlenose dolphins on the passage through the islands. After a day at sea and our first night sail, pretty much all there was to see was open ocean, occasional Portuguese men-o’-war and sea turtles floating by, the starlit sky – which seemed to be reflected by the bioluminescent plankton disturbed by the motion of the ship cutting through the water, and a few streaks of lightning from distant storms. During the passage to the Azores, Cory’s shearwaters were the most common birds, followed by bonxies, gulls and an occasional petrel. When we were about 200 miles off the Azores, we had an unusual sighting of a bird flapping low above the water, which I first assumed to be a petrel, but as it approached and its silhouette became clearer, I realised it was a kestrel. It hovered above the boat for a short while before it flew off in the direction of a large tanker on the horizon. With the lack of thermals at sea to give it any uplift, and our distance from land, I assumed it to be lost and destined to doom, but as the tanker (the Doric Champion) passed to our stern, the kestrel appeared again and I realised that it must have been a stow-away, living on passing insects and the mice and scraps on board, and had only approached The Bessie Ellen to look for pickings. About 50 miles later, a solitary swallow found us, which flitted around the rigging a few times, very nearly alighting on one of the shrouds, before continuing its journey north (the only swallow I encountered over the entire journey). As we approached the Azores, common dolphins riding the bow-wave under the bowsprit (see video at top) and Cory’s shearwaters became a familiar sight and we got our first few whale sightings, including fin whales, sei whales and an unforgettable encounter with 3 blue whales – one of which rolled over whilst feeding to display the full length of its pectoral fin!
The Azorean islands were lush, verdant and beautiful, and apart from a few vagrants like a solitary brown booby passing over and the endemic canaries, most of the wildlife was quite familiar, including buzzards, grebes, finches, starlings, sparrows, herons and egrets.
The only common sights that weren’t familiar were the Azorean gulls, black crabs, lizards and men-o’-war that had washed up on the volcanic beaches around the old whaling station at Porto Pim, Faial.
All in all, I can’t recommend the experience of adventure, hijinks and skulduggery aboard a tall ship in the Atlantic highly enough. It was worth the trip just to be close enough to hear wild dolphins whistling, squeaking and clicking at each other!
Although it has been an awesome opportunity, full of amazing experiences I’ll never forget, it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to getting back to Bristol to catch the arrival of spring migrants at Brandon Hill and see the busy butterflies, nesting birds and bats out of hibernation and feeding over the meadow again. Just before I left,the newts were busy displaying in the AWT wildlife pond and the frogs and toads had been busy spawning in the pools around the tower..
The peregrines had left the Wills Memorial Building to find a more suitable nest-site, but the pair in town were still hanging around Castle Park. Spring was just starting to spring, but the redwings were still at the hill and the meadow was bare. After a quick walk around yesterday though, it’s clear that spring is well underway, with plenty of nest building going on, a few flowers like the snake’s head fritillaries starting to go over, whilst bluebells and ramsons are full out, but there’s still plenty of it left to spring. The redwings are long gone, but I’ve noticed a few new songsters – blackcaps and chiffchaffs are back on territories and yesterday, a willow warbler stopped for an hour or so. I Haven’t seen any swallows or swifts since I’ve been back in the UK, but as Cabot Tower is open this year I’ll be up nice and early with the Cabot Tower Bird Study Group this weekend to see what else is coming home to roost, perhaps after their own Atlantic adventures!
peregrine image ©Duncan Miller 2012