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Birds in Spain
and photos by Hugh Harrop
The 3rd September 2003 saw myself and 30 guests from The Company of Whales www.companyofwhales.co.uk on day two of one of our twenty five four-day cetacean and seabird holidays, which we operate throughout spring, summer and autumn in the Bay of Biscay. We utilise the 37,500-ton vessel Pride of Bilbao that sails twice-weekly from Portsmouth to Bilbao as our holiday base and observe marine wildlife from the Monkey Island of the vessel. This superb position allows uninterrupted views that are a problem if viewing from the heli-deck or side decks of the vessel. I had been at sea since 9th August but the Bay was proving to be extremely quiet for seabirds. A couple of close and showy Little Shearwaters, a handful of Cory’s Shearwaters, several Sabine’s Gulls but absolutely no Great Shearwaters just about summed up our ornithological highs and lows. It was, however, proving once again to be an excellent season for cetaceans and having identified the second-ever True’s-beaked Whale to be seen in the wild just two days previously, I was more than content!
rounded the French coast off Ouessant we headed towards the shelf edge
and were soon tracking south on a slight divert to run along the 1000 metre
contour. We had encountered some magnificent pods of Common Dolphins earlier
in the day and were hopeful for more sightings, but a force six to seven
south-easterly wind made finding cetaceans difficult to say the least.
None of the 30 or so independent birders on deck 11 paid any attention to the bird and so I carried on scanning ahead for cetaceans. The day was proving to be a good one for migrant passerines landing on the ship and we had already recorded a Serin and an Ortolan among commoner migrants such as Wheatear, Willow Warbler and Yellow Wagtail. P&O Wildlife Officer and Biscay Dolphin Research Programme director Clive Martin was in the bridge and contacted me via radio to come and identify a strange bird that had just landed on the railings beneath his position. Assuming it to be another passerine, I walked to the port side window and was amazed to see ‘our’ bird sat right in front of me asleep.
The head was partially obscured as it was tucked in the wing but from what I could see of the basal region, the bill was not Gannet-like at all. The bird also lacked the bluish orbital of a Gannet and appeared very dusky around the eye. I had only ever seen Masked Booby in the Galapagos Islands and I was pretty sure at this stage that this bird had to be just that! I could hardly contain my excitement and rushed back to Monkey Island to grab my camera. I told Mike that the bird was a Masked Booby and returned to take a series of pictures. One feature I remembered being diagnostic of Masked Booby was the presence of black on the scapulars - after several minutes the bird woke up to show a both a classic bill and head pattern and black scapulars and secondaries during a wing stretch. I could hardly contain my excitement and left the bridge to inform all onboard that there was a Masked Booby on the bridge wing! The bird stayed onboard for the rest of the evening, often taking short flights directly beneath us, allowing a series of photographs to be taken of the bird in flight.
with us overnight and at 0530 GMT the following morning, Nicholas Race
and Gary Jenkins saw the bird leave Pride of Bilbao and enter Santurtzi
harbour, to the north of Bilbao. I sent text messages to several of my
guides to inform them of our sighting and called Steve Gantlett in order
to alert any Spanish birders in the vicinity of Bilbao. We spent around
three hours on the hill above Santurtzi and returned to the boat around
1015 GMT. Despite a good search of the surrounding harbour we could not
find the bird.
Harrop, The Company of Whales, Maywick, Shetland Islands, UK ZE2 9JF
All photos copyrighted by Hugh Harrop. Please contact him for any commercial use of these
Ricard Gutiérrez would like to thank Hugh Harrop for allowing us to create this page which also serves as a document to be analyzed by the Spanish Rarities Committee. This interesting report is already to the Spanish Rarities Committee since it happened at least partially in Spanish waters and coasts. When accepted it will become the 3rd for Spain. Despite the alert given through Avesforum, the e-mail network of Spanish birders, and the search conducted along the bay, the bird was not relocated.
Booby Sula dactylatra on board of Pride of Bilbao ferry and off
Santurtzi, Bizkaia on September 2002
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