MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia' 8th - 10th December 2017

Michael Duckett; Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Outward: Wind NW speed 38 knots; overcast; good visibility. Return: NE speed 20 knots; overcast; good visibility with glare at times

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals:
Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena 1
Unidentified dolphin (Common Dolphin?) 3

Black headed gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 2
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 5
Great black backed gull Larus marinus 3
Lesser black backed gull Larus fuscus seen
Common gull Larus canus 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 45
Larus sp. (large gull) 8
Gull (unidentified) 8
Guillemot Uria aalge 36
Razorbill Alca torda 8
Auk (unidentified) 33

Birds Seen in Belfast Lough:
These were seen in between the two survey efforts, while on shore at Belfast Lough
Red-throated diver Gavia stellata
Brent geese Branta bernicla
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo
Grey heron Ardea cinerea
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Shoveller Anas clypeata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Tufted duck Aythya fuligula
Wigeon Anas penelope
Teal Anas crecca
Curlew Numenius arquata
Black tailed godwit Limosa limosa
Bar tailed godwit Limosa lapponica
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Redshank Tringa totanus
Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Dunlin Calidris alpina

Storm Caroline was passing over the UK, leaving the Irish Sea choppy with winds of up to 40 knots at times. Checking ahead of time with the port, I was forewarned that the sailing would be delayed and that this would reduce the amount of daylight hours available for surveying. I chose nonetheless to go ahead with the survey, which began as we left port around midday on Friday 8th December.

Although the sea state ranged above 5 and at times reached 8 neither the visibility, nor the feel of the crossing, was as bad as that suggests! A north-westerly wind meant the waves matched our course and there was no notable rolling. While snow showers added drama to the horizon, and the hills were coated in a lovely white snow, no precipitation hit the vessel itself. Overall, I found the three hours of surveying no harder to conduct than on other much milder crossings.

Kittiwake Peter Howlett 17As proof that surveying could still reap rewards, at 14.00 I looked to where four active Kittiwake were busy in the waves, and a Harbour Porpoise appeared in dark profile within my sights. Unsurprisingly this was the only cetacean sighted on the outward leg, but adds yet another reason to always check those feeding gulls, even at sea state 7!

The delays caused by Storm Caroline also allowed me a bonus of three hours surveying on the return leg before docking at midday on Sunday 10th. A calmer sea, with winds of 20 knots from the north-east, was hindered by some glare, but again I was fortunate with sightings.

Common Dolphin Rick Morris 01cOne bridge officer had already seen a dolphin before I joined them on the bridge, and his colleague was happy to see the two dark swift shapes I was able to point out to him, heading in the opposite direction to our course. I have recorded these, with a third cetacean on the same bearing five minutes later, as 'unidentified' dolphins because I failed to see their fin or discernible features in time, but their swiftness and speed suggests Common Dolphin. Seeing the three of them suggests that more were around, under the waves.

Birdlife generally was sparse on both the outward and the return crossings, with only numbers of Kittiwake and Guillemot rising above double figures each way. I had much more luck on my free time between crossings, as I strolled along the shore near RSPB Belfast Lough.

Michael Duckett; Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Kittiwake Photo: Peter Howlett
Common Dolphin Photo: Rick Morris