Heysham-Belfast

Sightings Archives: April 2016

MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Precision & Hibernia' 23rd - 24th April 2016

Posted 28 April 2016

Fraser Paterson and Robin Langdon; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Outward - bright, good visibility: light north-north easterly wind. Return - initially squally then bright; good visibility with glare in the afternoon: light to moderate west-north westerly winds

Summary of Species Recorded

Marine Mammals and notable marine species
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncates 1
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 16
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2
Unidentified dolphin sp. 1

Seabirds
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 3
Atlantic Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 18
Gannet Morus bassanus 119
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 457
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 6
Shag Phalocrocorax aristotelis 1
Eider Somateria molissima 1
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 18
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 1
Dunlin Calidris alpine 2
Parasitic (Arctic) Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 26
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minimus 15
Common Gull Larus canus 26
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 200
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 52
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 3
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 129
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 74
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 35
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 6
'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 20
Guillemot Uria aalge 1020
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 42
Razorbill Alca torda 24

Terrestrial birds seen on survey
Swallow Hirundo rustica 1    
Woodpigeon Columba palumbus 1


We were shown up to the bridge of the Stena Hibernia shortly after she pulled away from the berth and commenced the survey a few minutes later once it had cleared the port.  Initially, we encountered typical coastal birds such as Herring Gull, Black-headed Gull and Common Scoter plus a few terns and two Red-throated Diver.  Having turned west through the wind farms, we picked up increasing numbers of Kittewake, Sandwich Tern and Common Tern as well as the odd Manx Shearwater, Gannet and the ubiquitous Guillemot.

There were two mixed flocks of feeding birds inside the wind farm area which brought the first cetacean sightings, of typically fleeting glimpses of a Harbour Porpoise with one group and a Bottlenose Dolphin with the other.  A dark-phase Arctic Skua was also harrying terns and shearwaters into surrendering their breakfasts!

Harbour Porpoise Peter Howlett 17Once through the wind farms, numbers of Guillemot were regularly sighted throughout the day with larger groups flying in V-shaped formations to the south of the Mull of Galloway.  We encountered several rafts of Manx Shearwater with Kittewake, Gannet and other birds in close association and enjoyed further sightings of Harbour Porpoise, courtesy of the generally calm seas.  A solitary Grey Seal was observed resting 'snout out' dead ahead of the ship and treated us to an amazing view as it dived under the bow.  Apart from a pair of Swallow, the only passage migrant we saw on the outbound leg was a 'little brown job' that was too distant to assign to a species let alone identify.

As we neared Belfast Lough a few Fulmar, Black Guillemot and a Shelduck were noted.  As the ship headed for the port numbers of Herring Gull reappeared and we passed several small groups of Eider.  We stopped the survey and cleared the bridge to let the crew concentrate on docking.

After a pleasant evening in Belfast, we boarded the Stena Precision on Saturday morning and in the absence of any terns in the harbour we enjoyed good views of the several dapper Black Guillemot in their full summer plumage until we were invited up to the bridge just after the vessel pulled away from the berth.

Another high tide and some squally rain meant no sightings of waders on the sandbanks nor of the otter which is often seen just outside the harbour.  Still, there were enough Eider, Black Guillemot and coastal gulls to occupy us as we headed out to sea.

After the rain had passed, we had reasonably calm seas and good light in the morning facilitating fairly regular sightings of Harbour Porpoise, usually singles or in pairs although we did see a group of three.   The conditions were windier which meant that we saw more Gannet, Fulmar and Manx Shearwater flying than we had the previous day.  There were markedly fewer Guillemot in the air but pairs and small groups were ever-present throughout, with a few resting pairs of Razorbill to test our identification skills.

As we progressed east glare from the sun, choppier seas and something of a lull in observations was a little frustrating.   Therefore because of the glare we failed to pick up a mixed group of feeding birds ahead until they were level with the bridge.  However, a hurried count also produced another Harbour Porpoise sighting.  Shortly before we reached the wind farm area, a dolphin surfaced twice in the waves ahead of the ship but we could not identify the species in the fleeting glimpses we had.

Arctic Tern Rob Petley-Jones 01Passing through the wind farm, we again picked up small groups of Sandwich Tern, Common Tern and 'Commic' Tern, with a few clearly identifiable Arctic Tern in attendance.  

The numbers of Manx Shearwater dropped off steadily as we sailed east. Another small group of feeding birds produced yet another Harbour Porpoise and a further individual surfaced under some terns east of the wind farms.  A Woodpigeon sighting was a little incongruous and we were soon back amongst the usual coastal birds where a distant Arctic Skua and a Red-throated Diver were of note.  Another high tide meant that the sandbars were submerged so with no waders to scan, so we closed the survey and cleared the bridge as the Precision entered Heysham harbour.

Once again our thanks go to the Masters and crew of both the Stena Hibernia and Stena Precision, for their kind hospitality and interest in our work which made for a very enjoyable crossing.

Fraser Paterson and Robin Langdon; Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)



Harbour Porpoise Photo: Peter Howlett
Arctic Tern Photo: Rob Petley-Jones