MARINElife Survey Report: Heysham-Belfast 'Stena Hibernia & Scotia' 23rd - 24th January 2020

Jenny Ball, Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Weather: Outward: Fog, giving way to clearer visibility, NW 2-6; Return: Overcast but clear, becoming misty and drizzly, SW 2-3

Summary of sightings

Marine Mammals
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 1
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 11
Harbour Seal Phoca vitulina 3

Eider Somateria mollisima 71
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer 8
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 4
Gannet Morus bassanus 2
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 10
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 33
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 16
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 7
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 3
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 46
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 2
Guillemot Uria aalge 111
Razorbill Alca torda 2

Terrestrial birds
Curlew Numenius arquata 1
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix 2
Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus 62
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 40

GN Diver Steve McAusland 01As I looked out of the window in the Drivers' Lounge on the Stena Scotia in Heysham port I could only just see the harbour entrance some 500m away, but thankfully the mist had lifted a little by the time we set off for Belfast. Visibility for the first half of the survey was quite poor, deteriorating so much that I suspended the survey for nearly 1.5 hours. As we passed the Isle of Man however, we suddenly sailed into a completely different day, with a stiff breeze, good visibility, and even a hint of sunshine later in the afternoon.

Despite the murky conditions, I managed to see several Harbour Porpoise, twice spotting two animals together - possibly an adult with a juvenile each time - and then a group of four. The bird life was as expected for this time of year, with two flights of Pink-footed Goose seen early in the day, and mainly Guillemot and Kittiwake being seen offshore. Several Great Northern Diver were seen as we approached the port at Belfast, with Shag, Eider and Cormorant adding variety.

Black Guillemot Jenny Ball 01It was still just about daylight when we arrived in Belfast and as the ship is currently berthed opposite the Titanic Museum, I enjoyed walking along the river and through the city to the Jury's Inn hotel. The next morning the Hibernia's schedule had been a little disrupted by fog at Heysham the previous evening, so a later sailing time meant I could walk back to the Albert Quay. On the way I spent some time watching the Black Guillemot on the River Lagan, and one obligingly flew onto the quayside so that I could see its mottled winter plumage, together with its smart red legs and gape.

The second day of this survey started off bright with very little wind, and I saw some of the resident Harbour Seal population rolling around in the shallows on the way up the channel. Two Harbour Porpoise were seen in Belfast Lough, and later we caught a cetacean unawares - it was right in front of the ship but instead of diving away it took several leaps to get out of the way, eventually diving to safety. I could not see it clearly but as it did not behave like a porpoise and from what I could see of its shape as it dived, I assumed it was a dolphin, possibly a Common Dolphin.

Hooded Crow Jenny Ball 01After seeing Eider and Shelduck outside the harbour, it was a quiet day for birds with the usual scattering of Guillemot and Kittiwake, and the occasional Fulmar and Gannet flying by. In the afternoon, we had a pair of Hooded Crow with us for around 15 minutes, perched towards the stern of the ship. One of the birds was preening while the other investigated its surroundings. However, it then spent some time helping to preen its mate's head and neck - interesting to watch.

Despite the misty conditions this was an enjoyable survey. I am grateful as ever to Captains Bakker and FitzGerald and their crews for their hospitality on board the Stena Scotia and Stena Hibernia, and to Jurys Inn for a comfortable night's rest in Belfast.

Jenny Ball, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

Great Northern Diver Photo: Steve McAusland
Black Guillemot Photo: Jenny Ball
Hooded Crow Photo: Jenny Ball