RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Channel’s chill wind is home to Arctic migrants

“Take your sea-sick pill,” said my wife. An hour later: ‘Brought you a pint of beer,” said my brother.

Nature trails - Herring gull on cross-Channel ferry
Nature trails - Herring gull on cross-Channel ferry

We were rumbling out of Dover on the ferry last week to see the Somme battlefields.

Having once crossed the Bay of Biscay on the troopship Lancashire in a near hurricane one bitter January, I obeyed wife – and stayed on the open deck.

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Shakespeare’s cliff with its King Lear dramas faded into scud. The sea swelled, white-lipped. The wind freshened and the drizzle increased.

A lone herring gull perched on the rail, watched me and waited. I was waiting too, with my binoculars.

Half way to Calais they appeared. First one, then ten, until a score were circling. This is what I want, thought I. While brother Robert is down below with his pint of beer and pie, I’m up here with the real gannets.

White wings like oars, the magnificent birds sheared the cold wind. Soon they had found a shoal, and plunged down to feed, wings closed tight, black-tipped, becoming missiles as they attacked the mackerel packs.

I was hoping for flocks of scoters, but those days are gone for the ocean ducks.

A tern or two floated on their graceful tireless wings. The English Channel probably looked much like Antarctica to them this April day.

Then all at once I saw my real target: a dark brown bird, narrow-winged, big as a black-backed gull, but with a white wing patch. I hollered gleefully to myself. A group of obsessive smokers eyed me suspiciously, and moved away.

It was but a fleeting glimpse, for the great skua en route to the Shetlands or Murmansk sailed on east. A final score was an arctic skua.

On our return journey four days later another young herring gull posed on the rail at Calais as the two ferries passed. It was close enough to easily see the sandy patches of teenage plumage on its flanks (they go through several annual phase changes).

As we came back into the rising seas once more, passing 20 cormorants on the pier end which seemed to have been more successful than the French anglers, these herring gulls took their stations about us in the sky, catching the crusts and crisps hurled by passengers.

Brother Robert was back with his pint below. He sails the seas in a classic wood-hulled sailing boat called Maid of Tesa and is unimpressed by the banality of big-boat crossings.

“I want to steer myself,” he said. While I wanted to see for myself what I knew would be on offer on the return journey.

Sure enough, our wake was no more than a quarter-of-a-mile long before those white aerials of the high seas appeared: the kittiwakes.

Finer, slimmer, more delicate than any gull, wings tipped with black as if dipped in ink, they soared and sailed astern, searching for the tiny fish chopped by our propellers.

Down they went, rising again and diving again, like bits of pure spume.

The fag-puffers (this time mostly French students jabbering in shrill excitement and rushing and pushing like a colony of gulls) saw not one. For my wife, having brought me a cup of ferry tea, it was too cold after a while. My brother was totally dismissive.: “The Irish sea is where I want to be – with a pint of Guinness.”

For me, unwanted pill dutifully stowed, this ocean highway that links Atlantic to Arctic for the April migrants gave me a brief blast of the last of winter and its travellers.