Cheryl Leaning and Martin Hutton, Research Surveyor for
Weather: Visibility mostly clear; 100% cloud cover; slight-moderate NNW breeze; short period of heavy rain mid-survey
Summary of Sightings
Seal sp. 2
Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 6
Gannet Morus bassanus 5
Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo 38
Common Scoter Melanitta nigra 10
Great Skua Stercorarius skua 1
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus 8
Herring Gull Larus argentatus 27
Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 73
Guillemot Uria aalge 13
Auk sp. 1
Diver sp. (prob.Great Northern Diver Gavia immer) 4
As this was my first MARINElife survey, I arrived in Birkenhead
early on Saturday morning not entirely sure what to expect. The
ferry terminal was well sign-posted and easy to find, and a big
plus point was free parking, while check-in and boarding was
straightforward. We were greeted on board by a very friendly Taylor
who gave us our cabin keys, and then it was down to the ferry's
café for coffee and chat about what would happen once the survey
Taylor took us up to the bridge as we left port, where we met Captain Paolo Fresa and some of the officers who made us feel very welcome, and I quickly got acquainted with the recording forms and navigating my way around the instruments. I have taken part in wader migration surveys in the past so was used to scanning the sea and found that I soon got my eye in.
The sea was very calm with no swell, and the ferry made swift time getting out to sea. Bird-wise it was initially quiet. We were getting good views of the more common and expected seabirds, like Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Black-headed Gull. These were joined by Cormorant, many of which were resting on buoys as we left the Mersey and entered Liverpool Bay.
It was interesting to be observing from the bridge, as my experience in the past of birdwatching from a ferry has usually been outside on the deck. Inside was much warmer and I was pleased not to need my waterproofs!
About an hour into the survey we started to get frequent sightings of Guillemot, many Kittiwake and some divers. The visibility was beginning to drop and at a distance it was difficult to confirm the species, though these were likely to have been Great Northern Diver, given their location, previous experiences and their general 'jizz'.
We were pleased to chat to Captain Neil Whittaker as he came on shift, and Officer Adriana Constantin was very attentive, ensuring we did not go hungry or thirsty, and had somewhere to sit for the remainder of the survey.
Our anticipation increased in almost diametrically-opposition to the worsening weather conditions as we approached the southern tip of the Isle of Man. A Great Skua rushed by, but apart from the occasional Fulmar riding the north-westerly gusts there was very little about for this bird to target.
We got a great view of the island as we passed, and this was fortunate as there was precious little else to see. I spotted a solitary seal as we pulled away from the Calf of Man, but it dived beneath the waves before there was time to confirm whether it was one of the resident Grey Seals, or the less frequent Harbour Seal. This was to be the only sea mammal sighting of the day.
We stopped the survey when it went dark with the Belfast lights twinkling in the distance though some way out of Belfast Lough.
This was not my first time in Belfast, having lived there for some time in the late 80s and visited regularly many times since for personal and professional reasons. I was pleased to reverse the roles and lead Cheryl on her first experience of Belfast city centre for a couple of hours, while the crew cleaned and turned the ferry around ahead of a comfortable overnight trip back to Liverpool.
As a bird survey it was quiet, though still fun and interesting. As a sea mammal survey… it was really too quiet to tell, and I hope to have a chance to stretch my cetacean identification skills on another occasion.
We are grateful to both Captains, officers and staff of Stena Mersey for their hospitality and to Stena Line for their support in allowing this to continue.
Cheryl Leaning and Martin Hutton, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)
Great Northern Diver Photo: Steve McAusland
Great Skua Photo: Peter Howlett