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Birkenhead-Belfast survey report 'Stena Edda' 25 June

Summary of sightings:

Birds

Common Tern Sterna hirundo 17

Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis 27

Gannet Morus bassanus 42

Guillemot Uria aalge 91

Herring Gull Larus argentatus 2

Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla 59

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus 376

Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon Columba livia 4

Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis 4

Auk sp. 2


Weather

Good visibility, predominately dry: south-south-westerly wind force 4, backing south-south-easterly force 7: decreasing cloud cover and increasing glare once in Belfast Lough.


It was the first time since February 2020 that we were able to survey on this route. Arriving at Stena Line in Birkenhead my cabin key and boarding pass were issued, I went through to the waiting area to have a coffee before boarding the bus that would take us to the ship.


Since I last surveyed on this route the Stena Laggan and the Stena Mersey had been replaced by two new vessels, the Stena Edda and the Stena Embla. I would be surveying on the Stena Edda this time. This ship was introduced on this route in March 2020 and its larger size and spacious passenger areas enabled people to sit with views of the sea without feeling crowded.

Route and main bird feeding aggregations for the survey

I went to my cabin, left the items there that weren’t required for the survey and went to the Guest Services desk to let Jamie know that I was on board and was ready to go to the bridge when convenient for the captain. As I had a little while before access to the bridge would be granted, I went to the restaurant on deck 7 and had a light breakfast before returning to the Guest Services desk.


Once permission to survey had been granted, Eamonn kindly escorted me to the bridge where I met captain Jan Bakker who welcomed me and informed me of who I should speak to if I had any queries while surveying.


I started the survey at 11:35, by this time the ship had negotiated the manoeuvring and narrow navigation channel from Birkenhead into the Irish Sea. For the first part of the survey, we would be travelling towards the Calf of Man before heading up the west side of the island and on to Belfast. A low-pressure system was positioned off the West Coast of Ireland and as we moved west the wind speed and wave height increased, the swell around 8 feet in height. The Stena Edda was more than a match for the conditions and the ship’s movement was hardly noticeable.

Chicken Rock lighthouse (Carol Farmer-Wright)

Windy conditions are favourable to certain pelagic bird species, resulting in a steady number of Gannet, Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake and Fulmar being seen. These birds take advantage of the air currents above the waves and save energy by gliding close to them. This can make them difficult to spot, particularly birds like Manx Shearwater their white underbelly can easily be seen, until the bird twists and shows it’s dark brown to black topside. A case of now you see me, now you don’t. Guillemot were also recorded, unlike the other birds mentioned, they rapidly beat their wings to keep aloft.

Manx Shearwater - difficult to spot in conditions like this (Carol Farmer-Wright)

As we passed the Calf of Man and Chicken Rock lighthouse, bird activity increased. Gannet were recorded feeding and two further areas of feeding activity involving Manx Shearwater, Kittiwake, Gannet and Fulmar were noted. Despite scouring the area to look for mammals in the vicinity, sadly none were seen.


Two species of tern started to be recorded as we moved further north. Common Tern with bright orange-red bill with black tip were seen, some returning to land with small fish. Sandwich Tern were also evident recognised by a black bill with yellow tip. Sandwich Tern have a black crest on their head when breeding but they start to revert to non-breeding plumage, with the black head receding to white, in the summer. Sure enough, the birds I saw had already started to change into winter plumage.

Sandwich Tern (Library photo: Peter Howlett)

As the ship rounded the headland by Mew Island into Belfast Lough the summer sun, still high in the sky, created a glare on the water reminiscent of liquid mercury. Spotting and identifying birds would be too difficult so I stopped the survey and waited to go back down to the passenger area for the return voyage.


My thanks go to Stena Line for allowing us to continue with our work on this route and Captain Bakker, his officers and crew for making me feel welcome once again on this important route.


Carol Farmer-Wright, Research Surveyor for MARINElife (Registered Charity No. 1110884; Registered Company No. 5057367)

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