MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia & Scotia' 22nd - 23rd August 2019

Rob and Jane Petley-Jones; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Outbound: Overcast; Sea State 4-5; Wind SW 4-6; Homeward: Sunny with significant glare; Sea State 4 decreasing 1; Wind S 4 decreasing 1

Summary of Sightings

Marine Mammals:
Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena 11
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 6
Harbour Seal Phocoena phocoena 4
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1

Eider Somateria mollisima 66
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 7
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 24
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 952
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 18
Gannet Morus bassanus 434
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 109
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 5
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 5
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 138
Common Gull Larus canus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 53
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 53
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 12
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 347
Little Tern Sterna albifrons 4
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 3
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 6
'Commic' Tern Sterna hirundo/paradisaea 204
Guillemot Uria aalge 488
Razorbill Alca torda 6
Small Gull sp. 1
Larus sp. 1
Mixed gull spp. 50

Terrestrial birds and other wildlife
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa 68
Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Sand Martin Riparia riparia 1
Painted Lady Vanessa cardui 2

Storm Petrel Mark Darlaston 01The winds on the outward voyage were stronger than forecasts had predicted, so sea states were not good for spotting cetaceans. However, by the end of the day and almost by mistake while we were looking at other wildlife, we had seen a small number of Harbour Porpoise and a solitary Grey Seal.

There was a steady flow of Gannet and Kittiwake once we cleared the windfarms off Barrow Island, and Manx Shearwater numbers grew as we passed the Isle of Man. However, it was worry that we did not see the large rafts of migrating shearwaters that should have been congregating off the Irish coast this time of year; presumably birds are still at their breeding waters further north?

The most exciting birds of the crossing were the good numbers of Storm Petrel. We would normally be happy with just one of these tiny birds on every other crossing, but the outward voyage of this survey produced a total of 17 individuals including a flock of five! This flock was associating with a large number of Manx Shearwater and a few Fulmar, all being harried by three dark-phase Arctic Skua! A spectacular few moments!

As we sailed down Belfast Lough to the new Stena berth opposite the Titanic Centre, we were treated to good numbers of 'Commic' Tern (some being positively identified as Common Tern) and a large flock of juvenile Eider.

Common Seal Rob Petley-JonesDespite a badly timed rainstorm as we were walking to the bus stop, we arrived happily at Jury's Inn and spent a very relaxed evening with a couple of pints of Guinness (why does it taste so much better in Ireland?) and a beautifully cooked plate of fish and chips; perfect! The TV in the room did not work, but we were too tired to worry, and Jury's Inn's perfect bed allowed us to get to sleep nice and early.

Jury's Inn breakfast is a highlight of this survey and this trip this was no exception. A very efficient taxi to the Stena berth allowed us to get on board the Hibernia nice and early and we were on the bridge early enough to begin our survey as the vessel slipped into the channel and out towards Belfast Lough.

The sea was still on the rough side for most of the crossing, and bright sunshine produced very challenging glare forward and to starboard. However, two Painted Lady butterflies settled briefly in front of the bridge window as we left port, so these at least were enjoying the sun!

The 'Commic' Tern were very active on their breeding platforms while a large flock of Black-tailed Godwit were seen feeding in the shallow waters of the lagoon south of the river. The Eider of last night had dispersed, but there were lots of terns and various gulls to keep us occupied. Jane was very effective in spotting the several Harbour Seal as we sailed up towards open sea, and the first of many Gannet and Manx Shearwater were seen in the mouth of the Lough.

Steady numbers of Guillemot (paired adults and juveniles mostly) and Gannet were the fare for most of the crossing, while the Storm Petrel had also moved on, with only one being seen. A couple of dark-phase Arctic Skua were seen as we passed the Point of Air, but it was not until the seas began to calm as we passed through the windfarm that we began to see Harbour Porpoise again. A small number of terns greeted us as we turned north up the Lune Deep toward Heysham, including a couple of Sandwich Tern and three Little Tern; a very nice end to a pleasant and productive survey.

Thanks, as ever to Stena's Captains Pakenas and Kasprzak and their crews, and huge thanks to Belfast's Jury's Inn for their warm welcome and superb care. This support makes carrying out this survey such a pleasure.

Rob and Jane Petley-Jones; Research Surveyors for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Storm Petrel Photo: Mark Durleston
Harbour Seal Photo: Rob Petley-Jones