MARINElife Survey Report: JR Shipping Liverpool-Greenock-Bilbao 'MV Endeavor' 22nd-28th April 2017

Graham Ekins and Steve Boswell; Research Surveyors for MARINElife
Weather: Northbound to Greenock: light westerly increasing slowly from 2 to 12 knots, dry with excellent visibility; cloud light and variable. Southbound to Bilbao: 24th April: Light west to south-west force 2 to 6 knots with light, high cloud and excellent visibility; dry. 25th April Thick cloud and force 3 to 12 easterly with intermittent light rain becoming continuous before reverting to intermittent late afternoon; good visibility. Northbound to Liverpool: 27th April: Wind NW, 8 increasing to 12 knots with intermittent light rain and good visibility. Then skies cleared mid-day and wind speed decreased to 5 knots. 28th April Wind initially NNW, clear skies, excellent visibility and wind 8 knots; pm increasing cloud and winds veering to south and temperature increased to 5C; dry.

Marine Mammals
Risso's Dolphin Grampus griseus 8
Bottlenose Dolphin Tursiops truncatus 57
Common Dolphin Delphinus delphis 1423
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 27
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 16
Fin Whale balaenoptera physalus 16

Common Scoter melanitta nigra 50
Common Eider Somateria molissima 15
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 63
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 3177
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 3
Gannet Morus bassanus 768
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 10
European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 8
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 9
Pomarine Skua Stercoarius pomarinus 1
Common Gull Larus canus 5
Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus 1
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 34
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 121
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 8
Yellow-legged Gull Larus michahellis 15
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 59
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 2
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 112
Guillemot Uria aalge 326
Razorbill Alca torda 17
Black Guillemot Cepphus grille 13
Puffin Fratercula arctica 79

Other birds seen over sea / on board during survey effort
Mute Swan Cygnus olor 2
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator 5
Shelduck  Tadorna tadorna 4
Kestrel Falco tinnunculus 1
Quail Corturnix coturnix 1
Dunlin Calidris alpina 1
Turnstone Arenaria interpres 2
Knot calidris canutus 15
Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola 15
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus 66
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 1
Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur 3
Sand Martin Riparia riparia 2
Swallow Hirundo rustica 4
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis 43
Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis 2
Woodlark Lullula arborea 1
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava flava 2
Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus 2
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros 1
Wheatear (Greenland) Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa 1
Song Thrush  Turdusphilomelos 1
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla 2
Whitethroat Sylvia communis 3
Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca 1
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephalus 1
Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenbaenus 1
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus 6
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita 3
Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia 1
Carrion Crow Corvus corone 4
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix 1
Linnet Carduelis carrabina 5
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis 2

Saturday 22nd April 2017

Steve and I had arrived at Seaforth Docks, Liverpool Friday evening and at 22.00 hours our passports were checked and then we were taken by shuttlebus to J.R. Shippings M.V. Endeavor where we were made very welcome by Captain Vitaly Shutov and his officers.  We were then taken to our comfortable cabins for a good night's sleep. The following morning after an enjoyable breakfast we were given a safety tour and briefing of this impressive container ship by the 1st officer. This was to be a particularly interesting survey for us as the ship was sailing to Greenock and then on to Bilbao rather than the usual Dublin to Bilbao route, a total distance of 2,700kms.

Endeavor Graham Ekins

Endeavor (Graham Ekins)

The ship left the dock early evening and we were able to start recording once the Pilot had left the ship.  During this time we had an opportunity to view from the deck a huge flock of Knot twisting and turning over the Mersey Estuary with the Blackpool tower as a back drop.  We also had brief views of Harbour Porpoise and large flocks of Oystercatchers and Grey Plovers on the Formby Point beach.  Once on the bridge we logged a flock of 50 Common Scoter heading purposely northward as well as our first Puffin, Gannet and Manx Shearwater.

Sunday 23rd April 2017

The following morning dawned bright with a light NW wind and great visibility. We were heading north towards Greenock and were sailing past the superb island of Ailsa Craig to the east then the Isle of Arran to the North-west.  We then past the islands of Bute and Great Cumbrae, it was truly a stunning route with such superb scenery. We recorded both Bottlenose Dolphin and several Harbour Porpoise as we headed into Firth of Clyde as well as a Nuclear Submarine out on exercise.  The sheer numbers of Manx Shearwater was staggering with many hundreds logged as we headed north as well as many Gannet, Kittiwake and Guillemot presumably from the large colonies on Ailsa Crag.  As we headed further north in the Firth of Clyde we encountered our first Eider, Shag and Red-breasted Merganser.  We were also delighted to get more sightings of Bottlenose Dolphin and Harbour Porpoise in almost calm conditions. As we docked we could see several Black Guillemot by the Pilot House. Captain Vitaly Shutov gave us permission to leave the ship and so we took the opportunity to walk around to nearby Campbell Street where the Black Guillemot were nesting in the old sea wall.

Black Guillemot Graham Ekins 03

Black Guillemot (Graham Ekins)

On returning to the ship we entered the first of the data. We then started recording again late afternoon as we headed south. This time there were many sailing boats out in the superb conditions and we did not record any more Cetaceans.  The seabirds were however just as numerous with 1400 Manx Shearwater, 180 Guillemots and Gannet logged by dusk.  We then left the bridge for an enjoyable cup of tea before heading for bed.

Monday 24th April 2017

This morning we awoke to light westerly winds in the Celtic Sea as we headed steadily south. Initially it was thick cloud but as the morning progressed this thinned and the day became much brighter.  We immediately started recording Manx Shearwaters crossing our bows heading west in increasing numbers the further south we went. We presumed these were out foraging from colonies on Grassholm and Skokholm off the Welsh coast.  We were also seeing many summer plumaged Guillemot and the occasional Razorbill following the same path. At 08.00 Steve picked up an adult Pomarine Skua moving steadily North, this proved to be the only one on this survey. This was quickly followed by our first of many pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin coming in to bow-ride on the Endeavor. From mid-morning we started to see Puffin flying west or sitting on the sea, presumably from nearby Welsh colonies. We also started to see increasing numbers of adult Lesser Black-backed Gull and the occasional Kittiwake. By mid-day we were in the southern Celtic Sea and found several large flocks of roosting Manx Shearwater, these presumably were waiting for dusk before flying to their breeding colonies. By late afternoon we were between Lands End and the Isles of Scilly, the numbers of Manx Shearwater had decreased but we were seeing more Guillemot and increasing numbers of adult Great Black-backed Gull, presumably breeders from the Isles of Scilly. It was then that we saw a close Bottlenose Dolphin, the only one seen that day. As we continued south towards the Brittany Peninsular the numbers of birds decreased steadily, the exception being the sighting of several Great Skua, often flying in the direction of distant fishing boats surrounded by hundreds of Lesser Black-backed Gull, Gannet and Kittiwake. As the light began to fade we left the bridge but not before seeing a beautiful sunset over an almost calm sea.

Tuesday 25th April 2017

We had an excellent overnight sleep as the winds were fairly light.  The almost flat calm conditions and beautiful sun set of the previous evening had been replaced by thick cloud, luckily the winds were still only force 3.  We had expected it to be from the NW but it was blowing from the east and this continued all day. We were now in Central Biscay, initially we had the occasional patch of drizzle but before long the rain became constant but luckily only the occasional heavy burst and the visibility remained good. Within a few minutes of getting on to the bridge we had spotted a blow from a Fin Whale on the Starboard side as it dived. At the time I had been watching a group of 50 Arctic Tern roosting on the sea, something I had only seen previously in the South Atlantic. A few minutes later 2 more Fin Whale showed well on the port side before diving out of sight.

Fin Whale Graham Ekins 01

Fin Whale (Graham Ekins)

Almost as soon as the rain started just after 07.30 the first passerines dropped on to the boat and during the first hour we logged several Willow Warbler, Woodlark and most unexpected a Quail that came rocketing in and dived under one of the containers. Seabirds included our first Yellow-legged and a few Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Then the first of several Whimbrel flew in and landed on the containers.  Initially they just stood with wings drooping suggesting that they had flown a long way but after an hour they looked more alert and later they took off and joined a passing flock. We then had another great Fin Whale sighting with 3 showing well on the port side. We managed to get images of this group. Two hours later three more were seen well before they disappeared below the waves, this brought the total to eight for the morning.  We had been travelling down the 2,000 metre deep St Nazaire Canyon and this was clearly a popular location for these large Cetaceans.
As the morning progressed we continued to have birds drop on to the boat, this included a totally unexpected Sardinian Warbler which showed briefly on deck before diving amongst the containers, we also found a grey continental Song Thrush and a Sedge Warbler while 2 Swallow and 2 Sand Martin battled their way east.  The Cetacean activity continued with 4 Risso's Dolphin showing off on the starboard side quickly followed by our first bow-riding Short-beaked Common Dolphin. Over the next few hours we had several hundred Short-beaked Common Dolphin approach the boat to bow-ride, this included a pod of 300 that we estimated had about 50 youngsters with them.

Whimbrel Graham Ekins

Whimbrel (Graham Ekins)

Then mid-afternoon we spotted a group of Yellow-legged and Lesser Black-backed Gull circling over a pod of Cetaceans, they prove to be 10 Striped Dolphin and the first of the survey. During the afternoon yet more birds appeared on deck, this included Yellow Wagtail, Goldfinch, Common and Black Redstart, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat and a Grasshopper Warbler.
While many flocks of Meadow Pipit and 2 Tree Pipit passed east and 5 Linnet flew over heading North. Then as another rain shower started a superb male Greenland Wheatear dropped out of the sky along with a near summer plumage Turnstone and a Female Kestrel.  Another Turnstone then made a brief appearance and a Dunlin flew around the ship before heading east. Into the evening pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin continued to appear and bow ride, then Steve picked up a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphin that did the same. We counted 35 with both adults and young present. As we approached Bilbao towards dusk it was gratifying to see many of birds that had arrived during day lifting off and heading towards the Spanish coast.

Whitethroat Graham Ekins

Whitethroat (Graham Ekins)

Several birds had found the large number of Silver Y moths that were on board an excellent food source. Even the tiny Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were eating them.  This was one of the most memorable MARINElife survey days that either of us had experienced.

Wednesday 26th April 2017

We were moored overnight in the new harbour at Bilbao and awoke to heavy rain and a forecast that suggested this would continue into the afternoon.  After breakfast and during a short interlude we scanned the nearby hillside and saw the local Red Kite, Raven and Spotless Starling. It then started to rain heavily again and so we abandoned our plans to get a taxi to the summit and walk down through the small fields, allotments and woodland. Instead we concentrated on entering the data from the previous few days.  This was great as it would save me a lot of time on getting home. By mid-afternoon the rain had eased and the sun started to come out. With the warmth the first Black Kite started to soar with the local Yellow-legged Gull over the nearby hills as did White Stork and Raven.  In the nearest fields were more Spotless Starling as well as Iberian Stonechat and a White Wagtail.  A few hirundine started to move including a flock of Swallow flying low north over the harbour. Over dinner we said goodbye to Captain Vitaly Shutov, he and his officers had made us very welcome since we left Liverpool. He was going home for a well-earned break. Towards dusk the loading of the containers was completed the pilot came aboard and the Endeavour left the port for its trip back to Liverpool.

Thursday 27th April 2017

The morning dawn dull with rain showers and a cool NW wind.  We met Captain Vladimir Gornev who had arrived on board, he had arrived the previous evening and was very interested in our MARINElife sightings. It proved to be a very busy day with superb views of several of the 8 Fin Whale, 4 Risso's and 17 Striped Dolphin. We also logged 20 Bottlenose and 537 Short-beaked Common Dolphin.  The seabirds were quite scarce for the early part of day but as we headed north Manx Shearwater became more common as did Gannet and Kittiwake. We also had a few summer plumage Puffin.

BND Graham Ekins 02

Bottlenose Dolphin (Graham Ekins)

Waders were very much in evidence during the afternoon with flocks of 15 summer plumaged Knot and Grey Plover and 6 Whimbrel all heading NE.  We also had 2 Storm Petrel which could have been from the Spanish breeding population. This was another varied and enjoyable day.

Friday 28th April 2017

Steve and I arrived on the bridge just as it was getting light.  The sky was overcast but the winds were just a light NW. As the morning progressed the cloud started to thin, all day the visibility was excellent.  At 06.00 the Endeavor had passed north between Lands End and the Scilly isles, we were now in the southern edge of the Celtic Sea and soon to enter the area of the Celtic Deep with 90+ metres of water. We started to log Gannet heading out west, presumably from the large colony on Grassholm to the NE. We also had many Manx Shearwater travelling in the same direction. A phenomenon observed the southward leg of the survey.  With such light winds we were able to pick up small pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin in groups of up to 20.
One group near the ship was so busy hunting for fish in a tight group that it totally ignored the Endeavor.  It was also pleasing to see that most of the pods contained adults and young. The westerly movement of Gannet and Manx Shearwater continued most of the morning with the occasional Fulmar, Guillemot and a few summer plumaged Puffin.

Common Dolphin Graham Ekins 08

Common Dolphin (Graham Ekins)

In the afternoon the numbers of Puffin steadily increased with groups as large as 12 being recorded. Late morning a flock of 5 Whimbrel overtook the ship heading NNE while several Great Skua rapidly overtook the ship also heading north.   We also had our only Harbour Porpoise of the day when 2 were spotted only 250 metres from the ship. As we steadily headed north the temperature started to rise and for the first time on this survey the winds went around to the south-west.  By now the numbers of birds recorded had slowly decreased but we did start seeing summer plumaged Razorbill, they had until now been a scarce bird. We continued to record the occasional Manx Shearwater, Puffin and Gannet as we headed towards Anglesey.  The visibility was so clear that we could see the Isle of Man 70kms to the north.  At dusk we packed away our equipment for the last time and thanked Captain Vladimir Gornev for the way he and his officers and crew had made us so welcome on the M.V. Endeavor on the northward journey. We also thanked Oscar the chef who has supplied us with such excellent meals.

We arrived in Liverpool in the early hours of Saturday morning.  After an enjoyable breakfast we left the ship for the long journey home. It had been an incredibly successful survey with 1,547 Cetaceans and 5,100 birds logged.

Our thanks to Captains Vitaly Shutov (southbound), Vladimir Gornev (northbound) and the officers and crew as well as to J.R. Shipping for supporting this important survey route.


Graham Ekins and Steve Boswell, Research Surveyor for MARINElife