Stephen Dunstan; Research Surveyor for MARINElife
Summary of sightings:
Common Dolphin (Short-beaked) Delphinus delphis 365
Common Seal Phoca vitulina 11
Fin Whale Balaenoptera physalus 3
Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus 7
Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena 14
Minke Whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata 7
Striped Dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba 15
Unidentified Dolphin sp. 1
Unidentified Whale sp. 1
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 3
Auk sp. Alcidae 1808
Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus 2
Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle 2
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 15
Common Gull Larus canus 45
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 150
Common Tern Sterna hirundo 26
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 24
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris borealis 73
Eider Somateria mollissima 1
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 45
Gannet Morus bassanus 2113
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 32
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 4
Guillemot Uria aalge 613
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 121
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 77
Larus sp. Larus sp. 410
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 320
Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 9921
Mediterranean Gull Ichthyaetus melanocephalus 2
Puffin Fratercula arctica 283
Razorbill Alca torda 134
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 9
Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis 19
Shearwater sp. Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater Ardenna grisea 3
Storm Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus 57
Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto 2
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos 2
Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus 1
Feral/Racing Pigeon Columba livia 15
Sand Martin Riparia riparia 2
Swallow Hirundo rustica 1
After a smooth drive down to Seaforth Docks from Blackpool, I was soon transferred to the Endeavor and welcomed aboard. Following the evening meal, I went up to the bridge for a look round the docks, and met Captain Vladimir Gornev.
Observations whilst we were berthed and as we started to leave included Common Tern, a few Mute Swan and several groups of Canada Geese. As we joined the River Mersey, gulls were flying across the Mersey to roosts, and we followed the cruise ship Magellan out into Liverpool Bay. Coincidentally the P&O ship European Endeavour was coming in to port and passed us.
Before dusk a few seabirds were noted. A few Kittiwake were recorded, as well as Cormorant mostly sat on some of the buoys. In terms of the trip sightings the most notable was a flock of c150 Common Scoter on the sea to the north east; ironically, I watched these with some of the landmarks of my home town including Blackpool Tower and the 'Big One' roller coaster as a backdrop!
Common Scoter (Graham Ekins)
It looked misty viewing through my cabin window just after first light but when I went up to the bridge at around 5am, the visibility was in fact very good. A few seabirds were noted as we passed the Mull of Galloway including Gannet and Kittiwake.
We passed fairly close to Ailsa Craig so it wasn't a huge surprise to see more Gannet. An interesting looking shape in the sea was first thought to be a Basking Shark's fin but turned out to be a Grey Seal's head…. As we came alongside the southern part of the Isle of Arran a Swallow circled the boat, probably a wandering individual rather than a migrant. A Black Guillemot was also some way from its preferred near coastal habitat.
Guillemot & Razorbills (Stephen Dunstan)
Due to congestion at Greenock mid-morning we headed close in to Arran ferry terminal and berthed for the remainder of the day. Some nice views of the Caledonian Macbrayne inter-island ferries coming and going in the sunshine.
The day was mostly spent in dock at Greenock, but there was opportunity for some surveying either side of this. On the way from Arran to Greenock, some sightings of Harbour Porpoise were followed by a couple of Common Dolphin, whilst a group of Common Seal were hauled up. A lone Eider was to prove to be the only one of the survey. Due to the weather conditions, i.e. it was raining, I didn't venture ashore in the limited time available and caught up with paperwork.
There was a bit less time available for surveying on the outward journey from Greenock than the inward leg. A couple of porpoises were seen. Otherwise about the only thing of note other than expected seabirds was an Oystercatcher which appeared to be migrating from the Isle of Bute to somewhere else and went across the box recording area as it did so.
Common Dolphin (Stephen Dunstan)
Most of the day was spent traversing the Celtic Sea, before passing Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. One of the first avian surprises of the day was a pair of Mallard heading south east off the Irish coast; as I was to find out again during the trip migration often occurs even in months when you aren't really expecting it. In seabird terms the highlight of the Celtic Sea part was two separate Sooty Shearwater one of which allowed good comparison with smaller Manx relatives, whilst late in the day a Balearic Shearwater was seen south of Scilly. The Balearic was one of the rather scarce individuals with a darker belly, but having seen Sooty's already it was easy to discount the potential confusion on structure and flight action.
The cetacean action was relatively limited. Common Dolphin were seen on a number of occasions during the day with an estimated final tally of 64 animals, and whilst it wasn't ideal conditions for picking out porpoises a handful were seen.
At first light we were in northern Biscay. It took a while for the first cetacean to be seen, but then several pods of Common Dolphin were noted. We had a close range encounter with a group of five or so Minke Whale and I managed to get some pictures of these. Bird wise, a few Cory's Shearwater and groups of feeding Storm Petrel were noted, and three Great Skua that were giving the first two Cory's noted a torrid time.
Fin Whale (Stephen Dunstan)
Later in the day we had Fin Whale blowing on two occasions. On one occasion we could see the two animals involved, on the other, we were only able to see the blow due to distance and sea conditions. A couple of Collared Dove independently arrived on the boat, the first one landed and the second one decided not to. The former dove was still on board when the sun set and we approached Bilbao. Near the end of survey effort, we also had the second Balearic Shearwater of the trip, a more typical paler bellied individual than the first.
Collared Dove (Stephen Dunstan)
We were in dock all day so I did what all good marine watchers and surveyors have done since the time of the Pride of Bilbao and went up the hillside overlooking the port for a fix of local Spanish wildlife. Some people take a taxi up to the top and walk back, those who know me won't be surprised that I eschewed this option on the grounds that after four days on a ferry I wanted some exercise.
Bird highlights included Zitting Cisticola, Melodious Warbler, Serin, Black Redstart and Grasshopper Warbler. I was particular pleased to see the cisticolas (aka Fan-tailed Warbler) as I saw them on my first trip across Biscay on the Pride of Bilbao but not on the last two visits on JR Shipping survey. An array of butterflies included Swallowtail, Brimstone, Clouded Yellow, Marbled White, Gatekeeper and the continental form of Speckled Wood.
We spent the day in Biscay. The sea state wasn't ideal for picking out cetaceans, but even allowing for that the totals were relatively modest. The undoubted highlight was a pod of 15 Common Dolphin. A brief false alarm was provided by an apparent 'shark' which turned out to be an upturned surfboard or similar with two different sized 'fins' protruding above the water.
Birding was also less productive than on the equivalent southern leg. A more standard looking Balearic Shearwater flew across the front of the boat, it is always a thrill to see this critically endangered seabird in its natural environment. Otherwise there were again a few Cory's Shearwater with their languid flight action, and a single Storm Petrel.
Cory's Shearwater (Peter Howlett)
In theory this should have been the quiet day to finish after the highlights of Biscay the day before. In practice it was a great day of wildlife watching in the Celtic Sea, which just goes to show you can never taking anything for granted with wildlife.
Things started a little quiet, but then a few pods of Common Dolphin began to be seen. A Minke Whale was seen well on the port side as it surfaced a couple of times. Lots of seabirds were seen off south Pembrokeshire, particularly Gannet presumably from Grassholm. Then as we passed Ramsey Island and St David's Head the sea went flat calm and we were treated to an amazing wildlife spectacle. Everywhere you looked there were rafts of Manx Shearwater and auks with their young, including good numbers of Puffin and Pufflings. Another Minke Whale was also seen and the captain and crew were able to watch it surface in the calm conditions.
Passing Bardsey two Sand Martin flying south well offshore was a surprise at this time of year, a group of pigeon that had passed earlier were thought likely to be racers. As we headed towards Liverpool along the North Wales coast the weather closed in so surveying was stopped prematurely but after a great day.
Many thanks to Captain Gornev and his crew, when you are surveying alone it is particular appreciated when the JR Shipping staff make you feel so welcome.
Stephen Dunstan; Research Surveyor for MARINElife