MARINElife Survey Report: Rosyth-Zeebrugge "Longstone" 14 - 16 March 2014

Stuart Murray and Allan Carpenter, Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Southbound, SW backing W 4-5. Northbound, W 5-6. Good visibility and low swell heights.

Cetaceans and seals
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 6
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 1

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata 5
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 33
Gannet Morus bassanus 402
Common Gull Larus canus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 13
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 15
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 56
Puffin Fratercula arctica 15
Guillemot Uria aalge 492
Razorbill Alca torda 3
Unidentified auk sp. 5
Unidentified gull sp. 7

Terrestrial birds at sea
Woodcock  Scolopax rusticola 1
Blackbird Turdus merula 4
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis 2
Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba yarrellii 1

Birds from the ship while docked
Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus 1   (at Zeebrugge breakwater)
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus 1   (in Zeebrugge dock)
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus 1   (in Zeebrugge dock)
Black Tern Chlidonias niger 2   (in Zeebrugge dock)
Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus 1   (in Rosyth dock)
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 2   (in Rosyth dock)

Gannet Carol Farmer-Wright 05aWe were taken aboard 'Longstone' at midnight, an impressive 14,000-ton vessel that the deck crew was busy unloading, while those off duty were catching some sleep before the 4am sailing time. As a result we were led up through silent accommodation decks by a cheery soul who took us to our individual cabins and left us for the night. By the time daylight appeared we had left the Firth of Forth, unfortunately passing the spectacular Bass Rock and its Gannets in the dark. Introductions then followed, first with Peter the cook who asked what he could make us for breakfast, which was a very pleasant start. We were then taken up to the bridge and over the course of the day got talking to the watch officers, including Captain Calum MacLeod. His Hebridean lilt established him as a native of South Uist, and as is the way in small countries, we discovered that we knew many people in common.

Gannet (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Getting going on the survey we had good conditions for the whole day with seabird species and numbers what we expected for the time of year. The commonest being Gannet and Guillemot and despite our proximity to major Puffin colonies, first in the Forth then off the Farne Islands only a handful were seen. At this time of year North Sea breeding Puffins tend to be widely dispersed, mostly down in the English Channel and the Western approaches. The first hint of spring migration was in the air and we had several Blackbirds, all male, briefly come  aboard; a single Pied Wagtail, two Meadow Pipits and a Woodcock were the only other non-seabirds. Apart from birds we managed to find three Harbour Porpoise but only a single seal, a Grey. Darkness came early so we spent the evening after dinner socializing with crew members and learning about their life at sea.

We arrived in Zeebrugge in the small hours and were sailing again at 9am, so had no time to go ashore. We settled for a bird watching hike around the bridge deck instead, with a sharp-eyed Alan very much on form, clocking Little Gull, Black Tern and a single Peregrine. The adult male Marsh Harrier came as we were slipping from the berth.

Arctic Skua Mike Bamford 02The rest of the day running north failed to yield any terrestrial birds but we had good views of of Red-throated Diver off the Norfolk coast. A Harbour Porpoise sighting, of three together 'logging' on the surface, was in the same area. Seabirds were in similar numbers and dispersion to the run south and the day ended with a spectacular sunset at 17:45, neatly timing it for us to go to dinner with a good appetite and a good conscience, having surveyed all the possible daylight hours.

Our last day saw us up at 5am, to enjoy the home run back into the Forth. It was still dark but the sky was clear and the various lighthouses at St Abb's, Fife Ness and the Isle of May were all showing well. No surveying was possible even when the sun came up, because we were heading into the teeth of a westerly gale and the sea was a mass of white caps. Still a beautiful morning to experience, with the sun rising alongside the pyramid of Berwick Law and a full moon briefly balanced on the centre span of the Forth railway bridge before finally setting.

Arctic Skua (Mike Bamford)

Our last 'new' birds came right in the dock at Rosyth, an early migrant Sandwich Tern and a single Arctic Skua, which ended the survey on a very satisfying note.

Our thanks go to Captain McLeod and watch officers Warren and Matthew for being so helpful and friendly to strangers on their bridge and also to Donald the steward and Peter the cook for their catering and attentive hospitality.