Big thank you from

Flying wildlife that makes ferry crossing worthwhile

by Paul Cormacain

ONE of my longer sea crossings was from Egypt to Fiji, and that was a brave few years ago. Last week saw one of my shorter sea crossings, and that was from Belfast to Liverpool, a mere eight hours of travel, with several hours of waiting.

The search for seals at the Belfast terminal was in vain, although it seemed certain that seals were always to be seen in this area.

So we concentrated on the flying wildlife and much roosting wildlife.

The first marker buoy revealed the latter, for there were no fewer than 14 cormorants sitting on the buoy. They were having a rest between eating sessions.

The cormorant is a large, black, seabird. The adults have white patches on the face, while immature birds, this year's young ones, are brown above and off-white below. There were some of this year's birds about.

If you take a walk along most beaches, or along rocky foreshores, you are nearly certain to see cormorants, cormorants sitting on rocks and resting, others fishing, others flying low over the water, others with wings outstretched. They are quite common along our coasts, but you can also see them on Loch Erne, Loch Neagh, even the lake at Loughbrickland.

On virtually every buoy cormorants sat. Some were so used to us they did not even bother looking up to see our fine ship passing.

Only a few immatures were about. The birds were just sitting, or just sitting with their wings open. Obviously, they were just waiting till they became hungry again, and then off they would go to fish for their supper.

There was reasonable traffic about. Ferry vessels were entering and leaving Belfast port at regular intervals, we saw a pilot boat, there was a Norska coastal container vessel, and a tanker. Each ship created a wake, although the pilot boat had only a tiny wake, and wakes attract birds.

With so much water being moved around by the mighty props, and the ferry boats had mostly mighty props, whatever was in the water was also being moved.

So 'food' from a few fathoms depth was being brought to the surface.

We used to be followed for thousands of miles by albatross, attracted to our wake but on the Irish Sea it was mostly black headed gulls who were interested in wakes, and the 'food' brought up by them.

The gulls had already lost their breeding plumage, and had gone to their white colours. They had lost their black head and it was replaced by a black dot, no quite so dramatic.

There was also a smattering of great black backed gulls, a few herring gulls, and the odd common gull.

The one thing they all had in common was a desire to sight and follow ship wakes.

A few terns were flying about, wondering if it was time for them to be leaving yet. sighted a few sandwich terns, and wondered why they had not headed south yet.

The previous week I had seen an immature sandwich tern in the Belfast harbour estate and had thought it was somewhat late in its annual departure, but these bird were later. Perhaps it is the weather.

Then there were the mighty and impressive gannets, flying and fishing during our passage across the Irish Sea.

The gannet spends most of his life at sea coming ashore only during the breeding season. The body and wings are consequently adopted to this lifestyle and she, can fly effortlessly over large tracts o water, seemingly for ever.

There are only three gannet colonies in Ireland, all on the south coast.

Southwest Wales holds one colony, am there is one in north east England Southeast Scotland has a colony, south west Scotland bass three colonies, and the rest are in the northwest of the country.

This effectively means we see Scottish birds here. From Drogheda along the east coast right up till the north coast, then westwards into Donegal as far as Donegal Bay, the birds are Scottish. If you listen closely you will hear their Scottish accent!

The nearest sizeable colony is on Ailsa Craig, Ayrshire, and chances are that most of the gannets we see on the north coast are from Ailsa.

It is believed that living conditions are good for gannets, which leads some experts to believe that new colonies may be set up soon elsewhere, and who knows, we may end up with gannets at Island Magee or the Giants Causeway

In the meantime, to see gannets, try watching for them fishing offshore along the north coast in the breeding season. Or take a trip on the day-sailing Liverpool ferry, and see plenty of them.

Coming Events

Sunday 6 October - Autumn Leaves at Castle Ward with Ralph Forbes, 3pm, contact National Trust on 9751 0721

Thursday 10 October - Update on Irish brent Goose programme, tracking the birds, arrival at Strangford, by Dr James Robinson, at Castle Espie, 7.30, phone Espie 9187 4146

Saturday 12, Sunday 13 October - Watch ' the Irish brent geese arrive from Canada, with experts from Castle Espie and National Trust at various sites, 1.30, more details from 91874146

Saturday 16 October - Colin Glen Forest Park, Tree Planting at 11am, more details by ringing 9061 4115

Sunday 20 October - Colin Glen Forest Park, if you are old enough you can go for a Dinosaur Walk at 2pm. More from 9061 4115

Monday 28 October - Lisburn RSPB will hear about Walking the Irish coast, with David Boyd, in Friends'. Meeting House, Magheralave Road at 7.30.

Ulster Star