Michael Duckett, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Outbound: Wind N-NW; Sea state 3: Visibility poor to moderate - 500 metres to 4 kilometres
Return : Wind N-NW; Sea state 3-4; Visibility Strong glare ahead/starboard
Summary of sightings:
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 8
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 1
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 3
Seal sp. (on rocks at Lough entrance) 39
Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 1
Great Northern Diver Gavia immer 5
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 19
Gannet Morus bassanus 6
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 7
Great Skua Stercorartius skua 1
Common Gull Larus canus 8
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 11
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 12
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 13
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 66
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 3
Guillemot Uria aalge 45
Razorbill Alca torda 4
Diver sp. 1
Grebe sp. 1
Gull sp. 29
Large gull sp. 22
Auk sp. 12
Shore birds at Warrenpoint
Brent Goose Branta bernicla 1
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 4
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 1
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 5
Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
Redshank Tringa totanus
Rook Corvus frugilegus
Carrion Crow Corvus corone
Hooded Crow Corvus corone cornix
Wader sp. 1
Otter Lutra lutra 1
It was a cold wet walk into port, with sunrise hidden by a light rain which persisted for the first half of the survey. Visibility was sometimes down to 500 metres, although in some ways this made the job of surveying simpler as I didn't have any horizon to scan!
Unexpectedly at two hours in I was rewarded with the closest sighting physically possible of a disappearing fin right below me at the side of the boat. This could only have been a Harbour Porpoise moving off from the ship. Later in the day I had an equally tantalising sight of parallel lines of spray striking through the water, these being dolphin of an unknown species. Further identification was not possible with no body pattern visible to me, as their fins continued to break the surface as they swam strongly ahead of us and away.
I had been very keen to do this survey, perhaps my favourite of the Marinelife routes, because of the sheer beauty of the Mountains of Mourne as you approach Ireland. It was also my first open-seas experience of the year, so I was also especially happy to see my first Guillemot, Razorbill, Fulmar, Gannet and Kittiwake of the year. Also seen on the outward leg were Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Cormorant and Shag. As we came closer to Warrenpoint, my first Great Northern Diver of the year appeared, along with Black Guillemot (always a delight) and a Brent Goose flock.
Overall this first day of the survey was satisfying to me for being just within both my skill-level and my stamina. I retired to bed pretty exhausted however and did not manage to stay up long enough to eat any tea!
Next morning, I was invited up to the bridge before departure and so had time to scan the birds on the strandline, and watched Shelduck, Brent Goose, Oystercatcher and Redshank, alongside both Hooded Crow and Carrion Crow. Just as I was gathering my forms together and telling the captain of the otter we had seen last time, I looked behind the ship and there, just on cue, were ripples that led me to an Otter, sinuously rolling to the surface and along.The return passage had visibility reduced by the glare, but with some window-shades down I was able to see more divers, and this time there were both Great Northern Diver and Red-throated Diver recorded. I then saw something that surprised me, and for which I wish I had been carrying a good-enough camera. I took a while making sure it was not an odd-looking Guillemot in winter plumage holding its neck up at a fixed angle, but I concluded (at least to my own satisfaction) that it must have been a species of grebe. Not having much experience of these species, and certainly not on the open sea, I can only record that it was 'one of them' in winter plumage, sitting in the water and watching us go by.
On this return leg, which was hot, sunny and glare-filled where the outward had been cold, misty and glare-free, I was rewarded with two much clearer dolphin sightings close together. A group of breaching Common Dolphin appeared directly in front of the boat and I was delighted to notice one much smaller individual, certainly a juvenile. Two minutes later another pair from the same pod appeared, and again it was a mother with calf. Sadly, the bridge officer who had dearly wished to see these dolphins that we talk about was just outside of a viewing angle: so much gets missed when your eyes are focussed on the farther sea.
Around midday, I had a moment of thinking I had seen an early-arriving shearwater weaving into the waves, but ultimately identified this as a Gannet doing a really impressive shearwater impression. At least that leaves me one familiar species still to look forward to seeing on a future survey, telling us when spring has fully returned.
Kittiwake (Rob Petley-Jones)
Common Dolphin (Sharon Morris)