MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia & Scotia' 19th - 20th September 2019

Stephen Hedley; Research Surveyor for MARINElife

Summary of Sightings

Marine Mammals:
Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena 16
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 9
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 2
Harbour Seal Phocoena phocoena 1
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 2

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 1
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 2
Eider Somateria mollisima 23
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 58
Gannet Morus bassanus 635
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 2
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 11
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 9
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus 2
Common Gull Larus canus 19
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 12
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 22
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 15
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 288
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 6
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 4
Guillemot Uria aalge 530
Razorbill Alca torda 28
Larus sp. 44
Auk sp. 645

Terrestrial birds and other wildlife
Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Passerine sp. 2

The weather looked promising on arrival at the port, being calm with some mist. I was swiftly processed in the Stena office and then taken on board in time for breakfast. Shortly afterwards I was allowed on the bridge, just as the ferry was leaving the harbour, and there was reasonable visibility with the mist starting to lift.

After an initial quiet period, birds began to be spotted with Herring Gull, Common Gull and Guillemot seen. After half an hour of the survey, in the Lune Deep two circling and feeding Harbour Porpoise were spied off to starboard. Great Black-backed Gull and Gannet were the next birds seen, before a Red-throated Diver flew across the bow. As we passed through the channel between the windfarms, Guillemot were seen on a regular basis, plus some Barrel Jellyfish, which seemed in greater numbers than the Guillemot!

The conditions were clement enough for me to stand on the bridge wing and it was a pleasure to be outside and hear the contact calls of Guillemots. Further occasional Gannet were seen, before a raft of mixed bird species came into view. At first I spotted Gannet, Kittiwake and Guillemot, but then realised that Manx Shearwater were still around as they took off as the ship approached.

Common Dolphin Rob Wicks 01A little later and still outside on the bridge wing I heard a bird call, which sounding like a wagtail. I spotted it eventually low down over the sea, before it disappeared near the bow. It looked like a Yellow Wagtail and it was certainly going in the wrong direction as we headed north! Most of the auks were clearly Guillemot, although there were also some Razorbill. Close to the Point of Ayre at the northern tip of the Isle of Man a Sandwich Tern passed by. A Grey Seal was also seen slowly swimming too.

Moving on past the Isle of Man, another large raft of mixed bird species was seen with five Harbour Porpoise also spotted moving southwards. Just as we passed over the Beaufort's Dyke and off the Mull of Galloway, a pod of Common Dolphin zoomed in to the ship to bow ride. Cetacean sightings continued with three Harbour Porpoise being spotted about half an hour later.

Belfast Fish Stephen HedleyOn the approach to Belfast Lough another large raft of over 250 mixed bird species were seen. I ended an excellent day of surveying shortly afterwards and was treated to a pleasant meal before I disembarked.

I was up early the next day and after a very pleasant stay in the Jury's Inn. I walked through the quiet city to the River Lagan, then along the riverside walk to Albert Quay, passing the impressive Salmon of Knowledge sculpture and other Belfast landmarks on the way.

On board I was offered breakfast and was soon allowed on the bridge just as we were heading out of the harbour and almost immediately I was greeted by a Harbour Seal, sculling quietly around the harbour. Black Guillemot, Herring Gull, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Cormorant, Mallard and a flying Curlew were also seen. Groups of Eider Duck were present, with Sandwich Tern flying southwards. The water in Belfast Lough was reasonably sheltered and as we headed out a single Harbour Porpoise was observed swimming slowly.

Gannet Rob Wicks 01Moving further away from land pelagic birds were seen, these including Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake and Gannet, as well as some Manx Shearwater that were still to migrate. Most of the Gannet were adults although the odd juvenile was also seen. A pair of Harbour Porpoise was seen after an hour.

The wind had picked up slightly since the following day, so the sea state was more energetic, and noticeably so near the Isle of Man. Once near the Cumbrian wind farms conditions calmed and another small passerine was observed in front of the bow, heading this time southwards.

Once past the wind farms and off to starboard, two feeding Bottlenose Dolphin were seen making large splashes. Ten minutes later, on the approach to Heysham, a Grey Seal was seen swimming slowly and a further ten minutes later two more Harbour Porpoise were briefly seen. The survey ended with the accompaniment of gulls into the harbour, including; Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Common Gull and Mediterranean Gull.

My grateful thanks go to the Captains and crew of the Scotia and Hibernia, Stena office staff and the Jury's Inn, Belfast who all made this a very enjoyable survey.

Stephen Hedley; Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884)

Common Dolphin Photo: Rob Wicks
Salmon of Knowledge Sculpture, Belfast Photo: Stephen Hedley
Gannet Juvenile Photo: Rob Wick