Quarter of a million seabirds

Since 15th August this year two Leica APO Televid 82 field scopes have been scanning the sea at Peniche, Portugal. They are part of the Peniche Seabird Count, a project initiated by Professor Johan Elmberg from Kristianstad University, Swedish birder and author Erik Hirschfeld and local birder Helder Cardoso.

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With one week to go, we today (Nov 7th) counted our 250 000th bird. And this in an autumn when onshore winds and severe storms have been comparatively scarce. We hit our target in the first half hour count this morning, but despite being four people on site we could not identify exactly which bird in the constant stream of Gannets and Cory’s Shearwaters that actually was number quarter million.

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Our counting site is situated by an old building facing west and north. We are sheltered by a roof, which is very useful on rainy days. And a café offering decent espressos is within a 90 second walk for those days we are more than two people counting and one can leave for refreshments. It cannot be better. We stand on high ground, maybe 20 meters above the sea surface, so it is essential to scan with the Televids on low zoom for a maximum field of view. The seabirds often pass in lines, some (mainly Gannets and Balearic Shearwaters) at cliff edge distance (approx. 75 meters away), others, like Sooty Shearwaters and some Cory’s, a kilometer or two out.

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To keep track on busy days we use talliers supplied to us by Countersales uk Ltd, using a set of three for Gannets (juveniles, immatures and adults on separate talliers) and two for the most common shearwaters  (Cory’s and Balearic). But there have been days when we have had to use our extra talliers for Great Skuas and Manx Shearwaters. The zoom is very useful when sexing individuals in flock of Common Scoters, looking up Storm Petrels and trying to find Guilemots rather than Razorbills in the auk flocks.

But it is not all about seabirds. The site holds a resident party of Black Redstarts, including an extremely obliging female/young male and a very territorial nice male with white wing patches. Migrant Chiffchaffs forage in the short vegetation, a Turnstone often visits the rainwater pool a few metres away from us and a pair of Yellow-legged Gulls have taken up terrritory  in front of us, perhaps knowing that some crumbs from our field breakfast is easier food than following a fishing boat with hundreds of congeners and the ever-present risk of a Great Skua attack. A Zitting Cisticola and a Stonechat occassionally also visit us and there are frequent flybys of Grey Wagtail, Peregrine Falcon, Pallid Swift, Siskins and Skylarks. There is also a local flock of Bottle-nosed Dolphins off the cliffs.

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The total figures can be found here and we usually update the totals once a week. Adrenalin-filled observations include a Red-billed Tropicbird and an unidentified Sooty/Bridled Tern. But it is not all about rarities. Observations can be very dramatic, such as the Grey Heron we spotted several kilometres out at sea but was so tired it had to land in the water almost ten times before it reached land, each time leaving us wondering whether it would lift once again or not.

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A migrating Woodcock was a surprise, while Short-eared Owls come in from the ocean now and then, two species perhaps not always associated with this kind of birding. Spare time birding has produced two Yellow-browed Warblers and good observations of the wintering population of Richard’s Pipit as well as Black shouldered Kites and Booted Eagles. More sad sights are the Gannets with plastic lines hanging from their bills, a daily and very obvious sign of man’s impact on the oceans.

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The idea of counting seabirds here in an scientific way was triggered by a livid acount by two Swedish friends of Erik’s of seabird numbers past this formidable point on an October day in the early eighties. Johan and Erik visited for a week in 2012 when we met Helder and were very impressed, both by his and other Portuguese birders’ records (not to mention the amazing seafood and good wines on offer in the local restaurants).

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The possibility of seeing Great Shearwater in easterly winds and calm conditions and Madeiran Storm-Petrel from land also played a role. So we returned in 2014 with a more standardized methodology and in December 2014 Erik travelled down a couple of days to meet the very supportive town mayor, António José Correia. After that meeting we had a commitment from the Municipality to provide accommodation for our volunteers, the tourism authorities were interested in flying down journalists on fam trips to follow our project and to show this interesting region and a local institute (Escola Superior de Turismo e Tecnologia do Mar) was offered to bring their students to the counting site for following our work and gathering data for their field of studies.

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We have had around 20 volunteers in place and always have at least two persons on site simultaneously. Counting takes place three hours after dawn and three hours before dusk, except Saturdays when we sample the full day. We will spend the winter compiling our results and hope to repeat this project next year.

For more information visit the project’s website www.penicheseabirdcount.com

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by Erik Hirschfeld & Helder Cardoso