Creature Feature – Manx Shearwater

Don’t you just love a legend? I certainly do…I know its maybe an over-used term nowadays meaning something or some one extraordinary but my favourite marine creature is just that….extraordinary. It’s a survival legend, a navigational legend, a homing legend and its lifestyle is legendary.

Ok, so what creature am I talking about? Think bird, black and white, around blackbird-size but with longer wings. You might be thinking of a puffin and you’d be nearly correct as this bird’s Latin name is ‘Puffinus puffinus‘, confusingly! But its not a puffin … it is, drum roll, crash of thunder, the Manx Shearwater.

Yes, the ‘Manxie’, one of the UK’s most pelagic (totally marine-based except for breeding) seabirds and a pretty remarkable one at that.

Manx shearwater are a relative of the albatross and like that bird they make the ocean their home all year except for a short time in spring and early summer when nights are spent underground in remote island burrows, feeding and raising its chick.

It’s double life is amusing and unusual…at sea ‘manxies’ are a superb and efficient flyer, wheeling and looping over seas both calm and mountainous. Totally at home. They’re silent at sea, feeding and getting water from the fish they eat (herring being the favourite). Viewed from land ‘manxies’ are usually a fairly distant black then white shape as they turn in flight, showing, alternately, a black back and wings then a white tummy.

They’re incredibly shy…I’ve done lots of pelagic boat trips over the years and ‘manxies’ really are the least approachable and most easily spooked. Great shearwaters (twice as big and pretty rare in Cardigan Bay) will overfly a boat deck to cast an amused glance at the landlubbers, presumably in wonder but possibly to laugh at anyone being a bit seasick). Sooty shearwaters which seem to be the most confiding. Nice little story…I was on a boat 10 miles off Tynemouth in the North Sea once which was surrounded by several dozen sooties all dozing happily after feeding on the chum we’d put overboard.

But Manxies stay at arm’s length and keep away from people, a bit like storm petrels another ocean wanderer which shares the islands of Skomer and Skokholm in Pembrokeshire as a breeding site.

Come evening, a change occurs as the ‘manxies’ head for the nest burrow. They start to flock, the ones off their breeding sites on Skomer and Skokholm being in their thousands as they get ready to hit land. And when I say ‘hit’, that’s what I mean. The silent, gliding, sleek, superbly adapted day persona is replaced by an awkward, tumbling, clumsy and noisy nightmare of feathers as it crashes down with almost no control and very little elegance in its haste to slither and slide the last few feet to the safety of its burrow as it responds to its chick’s weird cooing calls and grunts.

The next time you’re on Skomer, what you notice, given the importance of the island in having a sizeable proportion of the world’s total manx shearwater population in residence, is the complete lack of ‘manxies’! They’re there of course, but quietly hidden, an eerie experience knowing so many thousands are dozing quietly beneath the ground.

Now to late summer and the first stirrings of the autumnal call to head south for the winter as the nights get longer and the air gets cooler.When many of our summer bird visitors decide to head south, perhaps for sub-Saharan Africa or thereabouts (and its still a pretty remarkable journey for all of them of course) our legend the ‘manxie’ just goes that teensy bit further…entirely over ocean, no land stops, till it gets to southern South America, about 8000 miles from the UK! There’s even a few each year that round Cape Horn and go up the coast of Chile…now that’s a long day out.

The even more remarkable bit is the return journey when they reverse this trip and can pinpoint the correct burrow on their island home when they get back…no map, no road signs! And the even, even more remarkable fact is that some Manxies have been ringed and recorded at 52 years of age, so that journey completed twice annually will bring up 830,000 miles on their dashboard odometers.

So if you’re on a Skomer evening seabird boat trip or even on New Quay harbour wall on a day with a good strong westerly breeze blowing and you’re lucky, no privileged, enough to see this extraordinary legend of a bird, wonder at its incredible lifestyle and wish it a safe return next season.

Written by Living Seas Wales Volunteer Andy Wise

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