We saw burly great skuas powering their way through the stiff breeze. Snow-white gannets sliced the air and tickled the waves with their wingtips. Pilot whales appeared from the depths, a jet of spray came from a sperm whale and a pod of common dolphins joined us to surf our bow wave!
I saw lots of new and fascinating things in the Bay of Biscay. My favourites were the great shearwaters - relatives of the albatross family which breed in the South Atlantic - which flew just above the waves with such skill and certainty. The pod of more than 100 common dolphins which burst through the waves was a pretty amazing sight, too...!
We couldn't help but be impressed by the whales, dolphins and seabirds that we saw. Way out of sight of land, they were in their element and wonderfully adapted to deal with whatever the ocean threw at them. Even the storm petrels - tiny seabirds not much bigger than a sparrow - were right at home among the heaving waves.
Perhaps oddly, there were other creatures out at sea which impressed me more. Things you might not expect...
We had stowaways. While we watched for sealife from the deck of the ferry, more passengers came to rest onboard. Robins.
You've got to ask yourself: why does a robin want to cross the Bay of Biscay? We're not talking about just popping over the Channel... some of the birds were a hundred miles from land. They fluttered alongside the boat and found nooks and crannies to hide in, some in the lifeboats, which seemed entirely appropriate.
Most robins from the UK stay in Blighty, but a few have been found in France, Spain and Portugal during winter. It's likely that the birds I saw originated from mainland Europe - perhaps Scandinavia, from where robins and other thrushes will be arriving on the UK's east coast very soon. However, you really would think that it would be more sensible to fly over land!
There were other birds too, including a redstart, song thrush, a few swallows and meadow pipits. A chiffchaff joined us for part of the trip and there was even a migrant marmalade hoverfly for a while!
But it was the robins which stole my heart. Never underestimate a robin...
I love to make the most of the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working for the RSPB, but you can't beat that feeling of coming in to work on a Monday morning knowing that I got out and about at the weekend, - preferably having been somewhere fabulous and seen something to keep me smiling all week!
My Saturday treats started with the surprise sight of a hunting migrant osprey off the Norfolk Coast.
For 15 minutes, the adult bird (clearly an experienced fisher) patrolled high over the beach before I finally saw it fold its wings and drop like a stone. It came up with a big fish – something tasty and salty no doubt!
There were other migrant birds from far afield around too. Later in the day I was watching a wryneck. This little woodpecker is a beautiful (but indescribable!) combination of bars, stripes and anchor marks. I’ve posted a picture I took of one last year so you get the idea if you’ve never seen one!
It was hopping around on some short grass and sidled up to rocks to whip out its long tongue and collect ants hiding in the cracks. It would have almost certainly originated from Scandinavia (they don’t nest here) and made landfall overnight on its migration.
The wryneck is one of my favourite birds that I’m lucky to see maybe just once every year.
Walking back, a barn owl was hunting right next to the path and then I noticed the tide had come right in, pushing all the waders off the mudflats and up into the air. I estimated the flocks of knot stretched for almost a quarter of a mile against the setting sun – an incredible sight. That’s a lot of birds. I reckoned about 60,000 in total.
Of course this is a great time of year for seeing big numbers of birds.
Lots of birds from garden birds to geese start to form big flocks for winter as the autumn goes on. And keep an eye on your local starling flocks as Russian immigrants join your garden regulars to create big, noisy, swirling flocks. So you don't need to go far to see amazing things this autumn.
Feathers are a marvellous thing. That's what struck me today when I was out walking at The Lodge, in search of our flock of Manx Loghtan sheep (they're the little ones with dead-bracken-coloured wool and up to six horns...).
I was busy not seeing the sheep, who were doubtless hiding in amongst the dead bracken, when I spotted a feather lying on the ground. I was pretty sure it was going to be from a woodpigeon (there are a lot around at the moment), but something prompted me to flip it over with my foot for a closer look.
All was revealed.
I'd stumbled across my holy grail!
When I saw the bright blue patch on one side, I gasped. I'd dreamed of finding one of these, a beautiful feather from a jay's wing. I remember a few years ago, when Mark showed me one he'd found, and feeling distinctly jealous.
Though I don't actively go looking for feathers, I most definitely keep an eye out for them on my travels. I like playing at being a nature detective.
Finding and identifying feathers means you gain a little insight into who's been there and what's been going on. A couple of weeks ago, I found a sad little pile of stripy, khaki-green feathers - some with bloodstaining - that showed a green woodpecker had been eaten, probably by a sparrowhawk. The bad news for the woodpecker meant good news for the hawk. That's how it goes...
I've seen plenty of jays at The Lodge, specially in the autumn months when they're busy flying around looking for acorns and places to stash them. Now, whenever I open the chest of drawers under my desk (where my feather 'collection' lurks), I'll be reminded of those charismatic, elusive birds. I wonder whether the jay that it belonged to is the one that's squawking outside my window now...?
It felt, and smelt, like autumn as I walked to the bus stop this morning. The sky was a beautiful bright blue, but there was a chill in the wind that had swung overnight to the north-east. I’d been optimistic choosing a T-shirt, but I’m loathe to put on an extra layer until I really have to!
Walking past a new housing development, I glanced across a patch of ground cleared for building. A small, pale bird standing on the brown earth caught my eye.
It’s not the sort of place you tend to see many birds, so I had a feeling it might be quite interesting. It’s meerkat-like upright stance and the type of terrain it was on made me think it could be a wheatear.
I was right. Pulling my binoculars out of my bag, to the surprise of commuters driving to work, I laid eyes on a lovely little wheatear. Wheatears are always nice to see, but this one was special. Wheatears only pass through my part of the world in spring and autumn and only in relatively small numbers.
This one’s appearance on this patch of bare earth probably resulted from an overnight journey from Scandinavia, flying high and true below the stars before spotting a suitable place to have a rest and a feed up before continuing on its way to Africa.
Migration is amazing enough when you just read about it, but there’s nothing like the thrill of finding a bird like this (particularly in an unexpected place), so keep your eyes peeled.
The next six weeks or so are a time of migration of epic proportions for millions of birds. I’d love to know what you see in your travels, or close to home. Oh, and I’ll let you know if my little patch of bare ground attracts any more migrants!
Coming into work this morning, I noticed a lone swallow perched on a wire by the side of the road.
Although fairly impossible to tell what mood a bird is in, he looked a little lost and forlorn, and I imagined him sitting on the wire, wondering where all his mates had gone.
I didn't have time to stop and tell him that they were probably already well on their way to Africa, and that he, too, should probably set off in that direction soon.
Autumn is on its way
I love autumn, don't get me wrong - it's a beautiful time of year, but while the hot rays of the sun still tingle on my skin (and I can still eat ice-cream outdoors!), the thought of colder and shorter days just round the corner isn't that appealing.
Although I am excited to find out what the wonders of migration will bring to our shores this winter, I will be sad when we have said goodbye to all our summer visitors.....so until next year, I guess I'll just have to make do with my fluffy singing swallow!
What are the signs that autumn is on its way for you? Are there any winter migrants you're particularly looking forward to seeing?