Sightings Archives: March 2013

MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Performer' 15-16 March

Posted 23 March 2013

Emma Bateman and Steve Morgan; Researchers for MARINElife.

Cetaceans and Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 8
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 14
Unidentified Dolphin Sp  1
Common Seal Phoca vitullina 2
Otter Lutra lutra 1

Common Eider Somateria mollissima 199
Red throated Diver Gavia stellata 1
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 11
Gannet Morus bassanus 81
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 37
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 7
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 75
Common Gull Larus canus 4
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 185
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 75
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 24
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 3
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 44
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 13
Guillemot Uria aalgae 210
Razorbill Alca torda 25
Unidentified Diver sp  5
Unidentified Auk sp  239
Unidentified Gull sp  252

Terrestrial Birds
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 67
Gadwall Anas strepera 2
Pintail Anas acuta 2
Wigeon Anas penelope 30
Coot Fulica atra 8
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 10
Curlew Numenius arquata 4
Mute Swan Cygnus olor 3
Feral Pigeon Columba livia 5
Magpie Pica pica 2
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 9
Starling Sturnus vulgaris 2

We arrived at Heysham Freight Terminal in good time and were rapidly checked in by the extremely efficient Stena staff. After breakfast in the drivers' mess we then went up to the bridge just after 09.00 as our vessel, the Stena Precision, pulled away from our berth.

The outbound leg proved extremely productive, especially along the northern side of the Isle of Man. We had five encounters with Harbour Porpoise, on one occasion seeing three animals surface simultaneously. A distant splash and a brief glimpse of a falcate dorsal was our only dolphin on the outbound crossing and, frustratingly, it was impossible to make a positive identification to the species level.

Conditions were good with the occasional squall seldom creating a sea state worse than four or five. Visibility was good too, with the slightly subdued light perfect for cetacean spotting.

Our best bird was probably Little Gull; we had a trio heading to port at about four hundred metres, displaying their diagnostic dark under-wings well. Otherwise, we recorded good numbers of the expected auks, gulls and Gannet. A surprise was two wayward Starling which passed close to the bridge in the middle of the Irish Sea!

Migrant Starlings
Starling (Adrian Shephard)

As we drew into Belfast Lough we found several divers winging past and various terrestrial birds on Belfast Lough Nature Reserve. We even sighted a large male Red Fox foraging on the reedy banks of the reserve in broad daylight. The real shock was spotting an Otter just outside the harbour mouth. Its long, sleek body, chocolate coloured fur and domed head were all plainly obvious before it did its customary forward roll and disappeared.


Otter AS
Otter (Adrian Shephard)

The return leg on the Stena Performer treated us to even better conditions. The sea state frequently calmed to 2 or 3 and in hazy sunshine we were able to spot cetacean activity at distance. Thus, we encountered a pod of ten or more Bottlenose Dolphin at 1200 metres, their stately surfacing clear and obvious even at such range. We watched them draw closer for several minutes before they suddenly all dived deep and we lost them. Soon after, a nice group of three more Bottlenose Dolphin surfaced in unison a few hundred metres ahead of our bows and, later, a lone Bottlenose Dolphin showed well for a short while as it hurried past on our starboard side.

We also came across two Common Seal, both the centre of much attention from gulls. The second lay on its back feeding on some food item, probably a fish. As it "trod water", we could see its tail flashing above the surface - an unusual view! Soon, eleven or more Herring Gull, mostly juveniles, had congregated around it, presumably hoping to scavenge a few morsels for themselves.

Common Seals
Common Seal (Adrian Shephard)

We returned to Heysham in bright evening sunshine with armies of Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gull festooning the jetties and quayside buildings.

Finally, we must pay tribute to the warm welcome we received from all the Stena staff and crew. No-one we met could possibly have been more helpful; for example the captain of the Precision having first invited us to dine with him then arranged free transport to our hotels in Belfast. Thank you, indeed, to everyone concerned.