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TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Alderney

Thursday 21 - Sunday 24 April 2005




Leaders –
Mike Stentiford – Jersey
Roland Gauvain – Alderney.


It would be perfectly acceptable to say that ‘Alderney 2005’ adequately ensured that each member of the group returned home with a chest full of warm memories. High on this list would surely have been images of some hugely relaxing bird-watching, a bevy of climatic mood swings and, above all, a wonderfully cheerful and friendly group of participants.

We were indeed delighted to welcome as co-leader the extremely knowledgeable Roland Gauvain, Lands Manager of the Alderney Wildlife Trust.

Always an essential ingredient to any brief island stay is the weather which, on this occasion, behaved itself reasonably well apart from an unwelcome covering of dense sea fog on the day of departure. But, with a generous sprinkling of warm sunshine and only the odd momentary shower, the overall ‘weather sandwich’ was sensibly accepted as being typical for late April.

As always in Alderney, it was the huge numbers of seabirds that continually took pride of place with the gannet colony on the sea stack of Les Etacs sitting centre stage. With something in the region of three and a half thousand pairs of these splendid seabirds nesting on this impressive offshore rock, it is easy to understand why.

Although this magnificent sight can still be enjoyably viewed from the mainland’s south-west Giffoine headland, the very best of experiences are always from the deck of a pleasure craft which, on this particular visit, was the good ship ‘Alderney Felix’. As well as visiting the ‘Gannet Rocks’, the sturdy craft also manoeuvred its way around the island of Burhou and the outer sea stacks of Ortac and the Sister Rocks, all of which were completed with the aid of a bracing sea breeze. During the trip, Puffins, Razorbills and a threesome of Atlantic Grey Seals naturally gained maximum points from our highly satisfied group of enthusiasts.

A little disappointing was the more than conspicuous absence of any major flights of migrants although an occasional flurry of hirundines as least proved that summer was well and truly on its way. Despite check-listing a few less species than in previous years, however, ‘Alderney 2005’ will still hopefully have proved a hugely enjoyable trip, especially for the majority of the group who were visiting the Island for the very first time.

Both Roland and I sincerely hope this to be the case!



Mike Stentiford

April 2005

Trip Diary



DAY ONE

Thursday April 21.



AFTER the group’s surreptitious arrival at Alderney airport – unseen by the two leaders – apologies and introductions were quickly made after the short transit to the ever comfortable Belle Vue Hotel.

Due to the morning’s much appreciated sunshine, the offer of morning coffee was unanimously declined and the ‘ten plus two’ set off briskly towards Alderney’s cherished south-west headland known as the Giffoine. Passing through the Island’s capital town of St Anne’s, the route crossed through open fields and St Vignalis Garden, an extremely pretty little woodland cut.

In addition to vocal inputs from Skylark, Willow Warbler, Blackbird, Robin and Chiffchaff, the clear blue open skies yielded not one, but two Common Buzzards – a sizeable ‘tick’ in every respect.

The Giffoine is an impressive grassy headland still bearing the austere remnants of the German Occupation of World War II. Pausing but briefly to wonder at such fortifications, it was off to the headland proper for our first sighting of the ever impressive Les Etacs – more affectionately known as the ‘Gannet Rocks’. To see thousands of these large, super-white, black wing-tipped seabirds continues to prove a delight as they endlessly wheel their way over, around and beyond their rocky nest sites. Numbers are estimated at 3,500 breeding pairs with a further 2,500 pairs colonising the distant and smaller offshore stack of Ortac.

It is, undoubtedly, one of the most impressive ‘birding’ sights in the Channel Islands.

Also seen from this headland, although in far less numbers, were Fulmar, Shag, Herring Gull and both the Greater and Lesser black-backed Gulls.

To reach our next point of call – Platte Saline – the downward path known as the Zig-Zag was enjoyed in the company of Stonechat, Wheatear, Pied Wagtail and a few incoming Swallows. To complete this circular route back to Braye Harbour, the track led past the Napoleonic fortifications of Clonque and Tourgis then on to the gravel bay of Platte Saline. Although Oystercatcher and Curlew were recorded from this spot, the eagerly awaited promise of Little Egret failed to be honoured.

By late afternoon, an alfresco cup of tea and coffee was equally enjoyed and appreciated by all at the Braye Bay cafeteria.

Thanks to a suggestion from Roland, an after-dinner bat walk was duly arranged but sadly, despite deserting our dessert, the evening proved too cool for any bats to appear.

Following this long, sunny and eventful day, a good night’s sleep was quickly achieved by everyone.



DAY TWO

Friday April 22.



Despite a grey start to the day, the group met quickly outside the hotel after having enjoyed a full and highly satisfying breakfast.

Immediately adjacent to the Belle Vue Hotel is Alderney’s ‘village green’, a large area of open grassland known as the Buttes. Because of its short grass and surrounding fencing, it has always proved a site worthy of a determined scan.

While binoculars were trained on a septet of Meadow Pipits, an incredibly speedy dash by a Sparrowhawk was impressively welcomed, at least by the group if not by the pipits.

With Roland in lead position, the plan for the day was a walk through the scrubland alongside the Alderney Golf Club, down through Barrack Master’s Lane and finally to the Longis bird hide and common.

The greyness of the day and the impending threat of rain obviously had an impact on bird species although the sighting of a single soaring Buzzard was greatly appreciated. Although the morning produced all the usual garden bird suspects, the strong and delightful vocal efforts of a handful of Blackcaps in Barrack Master’s Lane lifted the spirits magnificently.

Unfortunately, the morning ended as the rain began at the Longis bird hide. Apart from a lonesome Coot, a duo of Mallard and some ‘wheezing’ Greenfinches, the raindrops grew larger and forced an early retirement back to town.

The damp return along Braye beach did, however, produce a twosome of Ringed Plovers – a very welcome ‘tick’.

As with all trips of this nature, there is always the deviously constructed ‘Plan B’ should the weather decide to turn malevolent. Emerging from Roland’s sleeve was the ace of an idea to make a double indoor visit, firstly to the Alderney Museum and then on to a private viewing of an empty, yet impressive, Regency building known as Mourier House. While the museum’s wide variety of displays and objects provided something for everyone, it was obvious that Mourier House was indeed in need of some tender care and expensive attention. The reason behind this latter visit focussed on the extensive garden which is currently receiving ‘wildlife-friendly’ transformation by Roland’s sterling team of conservation volunteers.

A trifle wet, but not in the least dejected, it was back to the Belle Vue to peruse the menu for another gargantuan dinner.





DAY THREE

Saturday April 23



A much brighter start to the day as the group gathered in customary style at the Buttes. Gaining the first ‘gold star’ of the morning was group member Jack Sharman who quickly spotted a lone Redstart on the distant fencing. This splendid migrant was accompanied by a duo of Wheatears who were obviously feasting up before embarking on another leg of their journey northwards.

An air of expectancy was evident on this sunny morning with the possibility of an afternoon boat trip along the Island’s western coastline. Prior to this, however, the decision had been made to fill the morning with a visit to Bonne Terre, an extremely attractive little shelter-belt valley close to the granite fortress of Tourgis. It was here that Linnet, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Sand Martin, and what appeared to be Alderney’s only Long-tailed Tit, were again all set firm on the check list.

Following a light lunch – breakfasts and dinners are hugely energy-laden in Alderney – it was down to Braye Harbour for a tight squeeze aboard the water taxi which took the intrepid team out to the awaiting ‘Alderney Felix’. Admirably skippered by Stuart Trought and his one-lady crew, the two-hour trip was an absolute joy.

Viewing, at close quarters, the gannet colonies at both Les Etacs and Ortac, the enthusiastic skipper then went on to generously provide a similarly close view of the offshore island of Burhou where close encounters with some 80 plus Puffins were keenly enjoyed. A further thrust into the bracing swell then circled another group of rocks adjacent to Burhou which obviously proved the perfect ‘des-res’ for three Atlantic Grey Seals – the first time any of our groups have seen them on our ten visits to Alderney!

The final point of call before our return to Braye Harbour was the Sister Rocks, an impressive outcrop and home to several pairs of Razorbills and Guillemots. Totally refreshed and revitalized after the splendid boat trip - and the customary ‘cafe stop’ - it was back to the hotel via the affectionately christened ‘incline’.

Undaunted by the day’s surfeit of fresh air, and urged on by another superb evening meal (with pudding), a second attempt was made to hold a bat evening. Under the expert direction of Roland, the team were kitted out with a quartet of bat detectors and were taxied down to the ‘bat cave’ at Barrack Master’s Lane. Unlike the previous aborted attempt, ‘bat night number two’ proved hugely successful with the sonar communications of both Soprano and Common Pipistrelle bats hurtling the detectors into overdrive.

Most aerial activity appeared around the Longis sewage works so it could be argued, perhaps, that ‘where there’s muck there’s bats!

The evening ended rather poetically gazing at the calm moonlit sea and the twinkling town lights on the nearby Normandy coast.

Sleep that night came deep and contented!



DAY FOUR

Sunday April 24.

Our final – or so we all thought – day in Alderney dawned grey and overcast. To fill the morning Roland escorted the group to Telegraph Bay and the Alderney Wildlife Trust’s bunker visitor centre.

This south-west corner of the Island is dominated by a profusion of wild flowers during the early summer. While the densely yellow coconut-smelling gorse spreads in almost every direction, the winding cliff-paths are edged with Common thrift, Sea and Red campion, Pennywort and the heavily perfumed Three-cornered leek – better known as ‘stinking onion’.

A brief separation of the group resulted in certain bird species being independently spotted. Receiving listing in this category were Peregrine Falcon, Raven, Jackdaw and Bullfinch.

With foreboding skies, it was back to St Anne’s for a selected Sunday lunch at the admirably named Gannet Restaurant. No sooner had the first dish arrived than the heavens fulfilled their promise of a heavy downpour. Unfortunately, the rain quickly turned into low cloud which subsequently thickened to reduce visibility to a few metres.

Arriving by taxi at the airport increased feelings of pessimism as it became obvious that, barring a miraculous change in the weather, Alderney was likely to remain ‘flightless’ for a considerable time. Despite a ‘near call’ for the flight back to Southampton, it was more of a ‘taxi back’ to the Belle Vue Hotel for an extra night of luxury – including dinner with pudding!





DAY FIVE (OF A FOUR-DAY TRIP!)

Monday April 25.

With Alderney airport still fogbound at first light the following morning, it was, regrettably, not until 11am that the group eventually bade their fond farewells and finally boarded the Trilander aircraft for home.

As for the leaders – Roland was obviously unaffected by the weather and had no other option but to reluctantly return to his Monday morning desk while yours truly eventually touched down at Jersey airport in time for tea at 4pm.

Despite this last minute hiccup (and the absence of Little Egret), it is sincerely hoped that the combined cheerful fortitude of the entire group, the much appreciated kindness and local expertise of Roland Gauvain, and the highly entertaining and relaxing attractiveness of this northerly Channel Island ensured another joyous, successful and above all, memorable Travelling Naturalist holiday break for all participants.

On a final personal note, can I say that it was indeed a huge pleasure to have shared these few days in your splendid company – a terrific time – thank you!


Mike Stentiford
Jersey – Channel Islands
April 2005.



SPECIES LISTS

BIRDS



  1. Northern Fulmar - Fulmaris glacialis

  2. Northern Gannet – Sula bassana

  3. Great Cormorant – Phalacrocorax carbo

  4. European Shag – Phalacrocorax aristotelis

  5. Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea

  6. Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos

  7. Eurasian Sparrowhawk – Accipiter nisus

  8. Common Buzzard – Buteo buteo

  9. Common Kestrel – Falco tinnunculus

  10. Peregrine – Falco peregrinus

  11. Common Pheasant – Phasianus colchicus

  12. Common Moorhen – Gallinula chloropus

  13. Eurasian Coot – Fulica atra

  14. Eurasian Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus

  15. (Greater) Ringed Plover – Charadrius hiaticula

  16. Eurasian Curlew – Numenius arquata

  17. (Ruddy) Turnstone – Arenaria interpres

  18. Herring Gull – Larus argentatus

  19. Lesser Black-backed Gull – Larus fuscus

  20. Greater Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus

  21. Razorbill – Alca torda

  22. Atlantic Puffin – Fratercula arctica

  23. Common Guillemot – Uria aalge

  24. Feral Pigeon – Columba livia

  25. Wood Pigeon – Columba palumbus

  26. Eurasian Collared Dove – Streptopelia decaocto

  27. Skylark – Alauda arvensis

  28. European Sand Martin – Riparia riparia

  29. Barn Swallow – Hirundo rustica

  30. Pied Wagtail – Motacilla alba

  31. Meadow Pipit – Anthus pratensis

  32. Rock Pipit – Anthus petrosus

  33. Winter Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes

  34. Hedge Accentor (Dunnock) – Prunella modularis

  35. Common Blackbird – Turdus merula

  36. Song Thrush – Turdus philomelus

  37. European Robin – Erithacus rubecula

  38. Common Redstart – Phoenicurus phoenicurus

  39. Common Stonechat – Saxicola torquata

  40. Northern Wheatear – Oenanthe oenanthe

  41. Willow Warbler – Phylloscopus trochilus

  42. Common Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita

  43. Blackcap – Sylvia atricapilla

  44. Long-tailed Tit – Aegithalos caudatus

  45. Great Tit – Parus major

  46. Blue Tit – Parus caeruleus

  47. Common Raven – Corvus corax

  48. Carrion Crow – Corvus corone

  49. Eurasian Jackdaw – Corvus monedula

  50. Common Starling – Sturnus vulgaris

  51. Common Chaffinch – Fringilla coelebs

  52. European Greenfinch – Carduelis chloris

  53. European Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis

  54. Common Bullfinch – Pyrrhula pyrrhula

  55. Common Linnet – Carduelis cannabina

  56. House Sparrow – Passer domesticus


MAMMALS

Rabbit – Oryctolagus cuniculus

Common Pipistrelle – Pipistrellus pipistrellus

Soprano Pipistrelle – Pipistrellus pygmaeus

Atlantic Grey Seal – Halichoerus grypus



© The Travelling Naturalist 2005