Bob Flood Tubenose@Tiscali.co.uk
6.55 pm: on board MV Sapphire with skipper by Joe Pender about 7 miles south-east of Scilly
Another European Storm-petrel appeared over a wave heading in our direction with its characteristic short wings, slightly bowed, batting towards us. I kept scanning in search of a Wilson’s that our visiting birders were after, expecting soon to see its distinctive head-on profile with medium-length and flattened wings, flying towards us with a hirundine-quality. What in fact I did see was a long-winged storm-petrel and my heart missed a beat. I shouted to everyone to get on this storm-petrel!
It approached the stern quartering the sea surface showing upperside and underside, structure and plumage, displaying a very distinctive flight jizz, and it was a big and chunky storm-petrel. By now I knew it was a Madeiran and yelled it out.
We were lined up along port side and as if scripted the Madeiran flew parallel to the boat past us at just 12 yards! I could see individual feathers and its black eye that glinted in the light as it flew past. It flew off methodically quartering the sea surface and every now and then would rise up about two to three yards so even at a distance it could be seen appearing above the horizon and disappearing rather like a shearwater.
Then I rang RBA with the shock news … effectively we had just seen a first for Britain and thousands of birders across the nation, indeed across Europe, were about to find out!
You cannot begin to imagine the scene and atmosphere on the boat. Jumping, shouting, hand clapping, hugging, complete mania, and utter hysteria. I was so overwhelmed with joy that I let pass by that one of the birders kissed my cheek.
The scene calmed after about 50 minutes and I started to think, ‘if only we had managed to get a record shot.’ I was then amazed to see the Madeiran heading in again and yelled it out once again! I also screamed at the skipper Joe Pender who was fishing off the stern, to get his camera and ‘take a f**king photograph of it’. The Madeiran made a carbon copy pass by again at about 12 yards. Again it worked its way off into the distance.
Joe had run into the cabin, unzipped his camera bag, fired up the camera whilst running back out onto deck in time to take just one shot. Now we had our memento!
The photograph is a record shot but shows several features that combined are diagnostic of Madeiran Storm-petrel. It reminds me so much of seabird photographs from the 1970s that lured me into seabirding in the first place; smallish image, slightly grainy, set against a choppy sea … but oh so evocative!
For a more complete account of the event see: Birding World volume 20 number 7.
Identification issues are discussed in: Flood, R.L., and Thomas, B. 2007. Identification of ‘black-and-white’ storm-petrels of the North Atlantic. British Birds 100: 407-442.
Flight behaviour of North Atlantic Storm-petrels is covered in: Flood, B., and Fisher, A. 2007. Flight behaviour of ‘black-and-white’ storm-petrels of the North Atlantic. DVD privately published (£6.50 from Bob Flood).