The Manx Shearwater
I began my life in a burrow – perhaps 50 or so years ago – there were thousands of other families nearby all with one chick in homes like ours. Before that mum had been away eating rich fish in the Bay of Biscay whilst dad looked after our burrow. On returning she laid her egg which weighed over 15% of her bodyweight and she immediately went off to feed again. They took turns to incubate me ‘swapping over’ every 4-7 days.
Because we have such long wings, and large webbed feet and legs well back on our bodies we are perfectly adapted for life at sea but very poor movers on land often crashing to the ground with spectacular belly flops when arriving home. This means my mum and dad could easily have been eaten by Greater Black Backed Gulls if they had not returned only on very dark nights. One night mum had to go to feed and dad did not dare to return because it was too light under the moon. It did not matter because our eggs can remain in a torpid state for a few days and then develop normally when incubation resumes.
I hatched after 51 days and was fed on regurgitated fish every few nights. Mum or dad stayed with me initially, but when I grew larger they would both be away finding food. Often they went to feed in Cardigan Bay, in places such as off Borth beach, they could be in big feeding frenzies of 30,000 birds and more. On their way back down the coast to our burrow they would often rest on the sea in huge ‘rafts’ off places like New Quay and Llangranog. Other good feeding places are in Dublin Bay, The Isle of Man, and off the Pembrokeshire coast.
By mid August I was about 50% heavier than my parents and the burrow was over run with fleas and other insect vermin. One night they did not return and I was left alone and hungry. I used to come out of the burrow and exercise my wings, but one night I plucked up courage and left the Island. I think I was about 10 weeks old. Without the aid of RAC Recovery or Sat Nav I headed for our traditional over wintering grounds in the seas off Argentina and Brazil. The journey took less than two weeks. Humans don’t really know what we do for the following year and I am not going to say.
Like many others I first came back to the burrows where I was born after a couple of years. At about 6/7 years old I had found a burrow, a partner and started having chicks of my own. Our long wings enable us to fly for many hours at about 50 Km/Hr. Flying close to the water we can use any available updrafts and use the cushion of created between our bodies and the waters surface to help keep us air born. We are very efficient travellers crossing the Equator twice each year as we move between breeding and over wintering grounds. Some people say we will fly over 5 million miles in our lifetimes.
We face many problems in life including constant predation by Greater Black Backed Gulls particularly round our burrows but out at sea as well. Men used to eat us, now we get trapped in their nets and long lines. Pollution is also a constant worry as well. There are about 190 thousand pairs of us breeding and living each summer in the waters of Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion and Gwynedd. That’s about 60% of the world’s breeding population, so you have a huge responsibility if we are to survive.
Luckily many of our breeding colonies are now in protected areas. We know good people like the Friends of Cardigan Bay who are helping to look after the seas where we live. With your help they can make a real difference for us and for our many friends who live in this wonderful area.
Oh – by the way, I am a Manx Shearwater
Article by Lyndon Lomax October 2008