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A Report from

Heysham - Isle of Man: Ferry crossing,

John Girdley

Outward journey. 28/8/00

Having lived near to Heysham for about fifteen years, and being a fairly regular sea-watcher of Heysham Harbour I was intrigued to know what species might be lurking in the Irish Sea.

Sea-watching off Heysham can be frustrating at the best of times. On an ideal day in autumn, usually after three days of SW gales, then Leaches Petrels can arrive in good numbers along with the odd Skua or Manx Shearwater. However, these days are few and far between. To put things in a more realistic perspective, some locals will fail to get Gannet on their local year lists!

My outward journey was on the "Ben My Chree" a standard passenger ferry. The only deck space for passengers was up about eight flights of stairs, which was rather too high for comfortable viewing, the best views were to the sides and stern.

The day was flat calm, which didn't bode well for seabirds, however I resolved to stick it out for the whole three and a half hour crossing.

On a good late summer day at Heysham Harbour, Common and Arctic Terns can be seen on the Power Station outfalls. (2000 was an unprecedentedly bad year). Mediterranean Gull, Little Gull and Kittiwake are all frequent possibilities here. The ferry passes close to the end of the outfalls but views tend to be brief. A better option would be to visit the outfalls on foot, prior to your trip. Cormorants grace the end of the pier.

The first hour of my trip was almost birdless. Occasional Lesser and Great Black Backed Gulls flew by but that was all. Once we cleared Morecambe Bay I started to see the odd small raft of Guillemots on the water, perhaps about fifty in total over the next hour. One or two Fulmar, distantly, flew parallel to the ship.

About two hours into the trip, at a point almost level with the furthermost of the Morecambe Bay Gas Rigs, Gannets started to appear in close proximity to the boat. The arrival of a flock of Kittiwake was followed almost immediately by two piratical Arctic Skuas. The first Manx Shearwater flew across the bows. Gannets suddenly became very common. Excitement at last, with birds all around the boat.

A flock of ten Manx Shearwaters flew by, and then another and another... Large rafts of Shearwaters could now be seen on both sides of the boat. A Bonxie put in a brief appearance. At least a thousand Gannets were now visible from the stern of the boat. On the sea, at least eight hundred Manx Shearwater were in the range of my times eight binoculars. I assume there were many others beyond my visible range. Information gleaned on the Isle of Man leads my to believe that large shoals of fish can be present in these waters in late summer.

Almost as quickly as they appeared, the birds were left behind. The whole event lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. Continued watching provided just a few more Manxies and Fulmars.

As we approached Douglas, the commonest bird became Herring Gull. In Douglas Harbour, Heysham's Cormorants were mirrored by Shags, a common bird here.

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Return journey: 1/9/00

My return was by Sea Cat, a speedy two hour journey. Viewing space at the rear of the Sea Cat is limited, and has to be shared with the smokers and all those feeling seasick. This and being buffeted by a 35 Knot breeze does not make viewing easy. Being a a smaller boat, the viewing angle was better though this was small consolation.

A similar collection of species was seen, the highlight was two Bonxies. Rough weather the previous day had broken up the large feeding flock and so the birds were much more dispersed and so seemed to be thinner on the water.

Other thoughts:

Whilst on the Island, I managed just two, ten minute slots of sea-watching, at the adjacent Ayres and Point of Ayre respectively. At each I saw a continuous stream of Manxies, Gannets, Fulmar and Kittiwakes. At the Ayres, a lone Pomerine Skua harried a flock of Kittiwakes before flying off to join another seven loafing on the water!

The birds are out there in the Irish Sea, what a pity they so seldom fly into Morecambe Bay!

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