MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Performer' 6 - 7 December 2013

Steve Morgan and Colin Gill, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather
Outward - wind NW 3-5, sea state 3-5
Return - wind SW 4-6, sea state 4-5

Sightings

Cetaceans and Mammals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 18
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 1
Unidentified dolphin sp. 2
Unidentified seal sp. 1

Seabirds
Gannet Morus bassanus 3
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 73
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 23
Eider Duck Somateria mollissima 147
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 79
Common Gull Larus canus 16
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 74
Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 14
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 5
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 126
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 2
Guillemot Uria aalge 278
Razorbill Alca torda 149
Unidentified auk sp 91
Unidentified Diver Sp. 1
Unidentified Gull Sp. 7

Other birds seen during survey
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 14
Redshank Tringa totanus 2
Goosander Mergus merganser 1
Feral Pigeon Columba livia 1
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 1

We boarded the Stena Precision in good time and were allowed up on the bridge well ahead of departure which gave us plenty of time to set up and prepare for the survey.  As we left our berth in Heysham, we recorded various species of gull - mainly Black-headed Gull but also some Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and an early Kittiwake.  The conditions were remarkably good considering that there had been a Force 10 gale the previous day and even as we entered open sea the sea state was never worse then 3-4.

Pair kittiwakeAs we passed the first few wind farms we speculated on whether these structures would attract or repel cetaceans, a question which was immediately answered by the appearance of two Harbour Porpoise!  Less than a quarter of an hour later a grey back with no dorsal fin rolled on the surface, and it was obviously a seal though we couldn't identify which species from such a brief encounter.

Bird numbers were modest probably as a consequence of the previous day's storm, though cetacean activity continued to be evident.  We spotted further Harbour Porpoise as we passed north of the Isle of Man, including a nice group of at least three animals which surfaced several times as they veered to starboard at about 400 metres.

In the late afternoon, as we focused on a small raft of auks and Kittiwake, there was a splash and two more Harbour Porpoise appeared briefly before disappearing close to our port side.  Further cetacean sightings seemed likely but the light was fading very quickly and at 16.18 it was too dark to continue.

The following morning we departed from Belfast, again on board the Precision.  Black-headed Gull and Cormorant were present in the harbour itself, and a little further out on a sandbank we spotted Redshank, Oystercatcher and a Goosander.  There were also several rafts of Common Eider.

OystercatcherOur first cetacean sighting of the return leg came as we were looking at two Gannet.  One was a sub-adult and as we attempted to code it, Colin noticed two dolphins surface 700 metres to starboard.  However, the sighting was too brief to identify the species and although we scanned the sea intently we could not re-locate them.

Two separate Harbour Porpoise sightings and a Common Seal quickly followed and then, as we passed by the Isle of Man, (which seems a particularly cetaceous area), we got a very nice view of at least three Harbour Porpoise surfacing a number of times in quick succession.

Birds seemed a lot more active than they had on the outbound leg and we recorded over twenty Fulmar and three Gannet.  Small numbers of Guillemot were encountered here and there throughout the return passage, but especially along the northern side of the Isle of Man we found good numbers of Razorbill.

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 01aBeyond the Isle of Man the wind freshened and the sea state worsened slightly to 5, making cetacean-spotting less easy.  However, we stuck to our task and were rewarded late in the afternoon as we drew parallel with the last wind farms before Heysham.  At the spot where we had seen them on the outbound leg, once more two Harbour Porpoises appeared.  These gave outstanding views as they passed very close down the port side, repeatedly making slow surfaces together.

The light was now fading quickly. We had time to record a few more Guillemot and Kittiwake but at 16.00 it was too dark to see anything and we concluded the survey.

Our thanks go to the captain, Peter Underwood, and his crew for being so helpful and so welcoming and for making our job easy.

Steve Morgan and Colin Gill, Research Surveyors for MARINElife