Sightings Archives: August 2013

MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Performer' 9 - 10 August 2013

Posted 16 August 2013

Fraser Paterson and Phil Grant; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Outward - overcast, good visibility with some occasional light rain: WNW wind force 6 improving from 6 to 3 during the voyage. 
Return - after early glare cleared, generally overcast with good visibility, dry: WSW wind force 3-4 picking up to a 5 close to destination.

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals
Risso's Dolphin Grampus griseus 3
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 10
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 18
Unidentified Seal sp. 1

Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra 1

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 16
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3159
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 329
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 4
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 2
Unidentified Skua sp. 1
Common Gull Larus canus 2
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 9
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 60
Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 90
Undidentified Gull sp. 15
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 7
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 3
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 10
Commic Tern Sterna hirundo / paradisaea 26
Black Tern Chlidonias niger 1
Other Unidentified Tern sp. 5
Puffin Fratercula arctica 5
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 21
Guillemot Uria aaige 648
Razorbill Alca torda 92
Unidentified Auk sp. 5

Terrestrial Birds
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 2
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 4

Stena PerformerWe boarded the Stena Performer and enjoyed a hearty breakfast before heading up to the bridge as soon as we received clearance.  We started our survey 15 minutes into the trip while the ship headed out into the Irish Sea before turning to the channel between the expanding offshore windfarms.

The first couple of hours were very quiet with only a few observations of Herring Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull and Sandwich Tern.  However, once we passed the wind farms, we started to pick up increasing numbers of Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Kittewake and Guillemot with a pair of Storm Petrel thrown in for good luck.  Just after midday we had our first cetacean sightings off the port side although all too quickly lost from view. These were three animals with high, falcate dorsal fins and visible scratch marks which confirmed them as Risso's Dolphin.

Common ternAs we continued through the afternoon, the numbers of Manx Shearwater, Gannet and Guillemot increased steadily, interspersed with some small groups of Razorbill, occasional Fulmar and Kittiwake, a single Great Skua, and a flight of ten Arctic Tern that passed close to the bridge.
Despite the rather windy conditions and slightly choppy seas, we saw six definite Harbour Porpoise before entering the quieter waters in the approach to Belfast.   We ended the survey in order to clear the bridge prior to docking just as we started picking up the local Black Guillemot.  A Black Tern was also sighted just before the nature reserve.

Common Tern

We arrived at the port early the next morning and joined the Stena Precision for the return trip.  After breakfast as we waited for permission to go up to the bridge, we enjoyed the aerobatics of many Common Tern and the more restrained flight of several Black Guillemot as we pulled away from the dock.  A dog Otter was also seen fishing off the starboard side just outside the harbour, while the silhouette of a skua against the morning light went frustratingly unidentified.

Rissos BrittanyBack on the bridge, the calm sea bode well for mammal sightings and this was confirmed by a distant sighting of a seal that disappeared before we got close to it.  As we pulled further out to sea, the previous day's sightings of small rafts of Manx Shearwater and auks continued.  While Guillemot sightings often comprised adults and chicks, young Razorbill were at a premium amongst the adult birds.  Fulmars, Kittewakes and Gannets were fairly common, and another Great Skua and several Puffin were also seen mixed in with the auk flocks.

Risso's Dolphin (Adrian Shephard)

We enjoyed five separate sightings of a total of twelve Harbour Porpoise, this made easier by the sea state and good light conditions, and the animals helped by rolling typically two or three times before submerging.  
A small group of 8-10 unidentified smallish dolphins showed at distance ahead of the ship just north of the Isle of Man but managed to evade us when the boat finally arrived where they had been seen.

Common gull juvenileJust before we reached the Morecambe Bay windfarms, the rafts of Manx Shearwater increased in size with the largest group comprising a spectacular c.650 birds that gave us an honour guard, flying just ahead of the bow.  Observations tailed off quickly as we passed between the windfarms until we got close to the coast where gulls, including a pair of juvenile Common Gull (that had me checking my guide book!) started to make an appearance again.

Common Gull (Adrian Shephard)

A pair of Oystercatcher and four Barn Swallow were the only terrestrial birds seen at sea on either leg of the survey, although a small flight of Whimbrel flew over the Stena Precision as it entered the port at Heysham.
We would like to thank Captains Bakker and Underwood and the crews of the Stena Performer and Precision as well as the shore-based personnel for their helpfulness, cooperation and hospitality throughout the survey.  

Fraser Paterson and Phil Grant; Research Surveyors for MARINElife