Sheer skill of adaptable bird

When shearwaters come ashore to nest their little legs can't adequately support them. Picture: Richard Mills

Some years ago, Tom McDermott created a pond on his farm near Naas in Co Kildare. Up to 120 mallard roost there nowadays, attracted by the grain he puts out for them.

A pair of swans fledged 17 cygnets over the years, migrating green sandpipers pay a brief annual visit and a rare orchid, the green-flowered helleborine, is a plant celebrity. Now the farm has another distinction.

When walking the land with her master on September 12, Tom’s Irish setter Gren picked up the scent of something lurking in the barley. Nose down, she began to investigate.

Soon she was crouching motionless in the pose setters adopt when they have located a pheasant or a partridge. But the creature Gren had found was no ordinary bird but a Manx shearwater, the most unlikely inhabitant of a cornfield.

Shearwaters are seabirds which visit our shores in summer. Great travellers, they glide low over the surface of the sea on long stiffly-held wings. The short legs are set well back on a cigar-shaped body. At this time of year, these tube-nosed ocean-dwellers can be seen wheeling off headlands as they migrate south to the seas off South America. The decks of cross-channel ferries offer excellent opportunities to observe them.

Some seabird species specialise in flying, others excel at swimming and diving. It’s not possible for a bird to adopt both strategies; the physical adaptations needed for one technique, rule out the other. Shearwaters, however, manage to buck the trend; uniquely among our seabirds, they are experts at flying and swimming. There’s a price to be paid for such flexibility, however. When shearwaters come ashore to nest their little legs can’t adequately support them.

They crawl on their bellies rather than walk, which is why Tom had no difficulty capturing his visitor. To avoid enemies, such as the great black-backed gull, they nest underground on steep grassy slopes of, mostly uninhabited, islands, entering and leaving their burrows only on dark misty nights.

Six shearwater species visit Irish waters but only one, the Manx, breeds here. Its youngsters, just prior to fledging, are especially rich in oils and fats. Dragged from their burrows on wire hooks, the chicks were eaten in Scotland and Ireland. Thousands were harvested each year on the Calf of Man, where shearwaters still breed today. The cured carcasses, a much sought-after delicacy, became known as ‘Manx puffins’ during the 17th century. ‘Puffin’ means ‘fatling’. Two hundred years later, the shearwater lost the name to a totally unrelated species; the former ‘sea parrot’ which we now call the ‘puffin’. The shearwater’s biological name, however, is still ‘puffinus’.

The secretive ‘manxies’ have over 50 breeding colonies on Irish, Scottish and Welsh islands. These hold 80% of the species’ world population. Those on Rum, off Scotland, and Skomer, off Wales, are the biggest. Our main ones are on the Blaskets and Puffin Island. In 2003, a shearwater ringed on Copeland, Co Down, became the oldest wild bird known to science. It reached the age of 55. In 2011, the longevity record passed to a laysan albatross, breeding on Midway Atoll in the Pacific.

Very occasionally, a juvenile shearwater is found inland, driven off course during storms. Robert Ruttledge, in Ireland’s Birds (1966), lists four such instances. The Naas vagrant, probably a young bird, may have lost its way when migrating along the Irish Sea coast. That it should have done so is odd; shearwaters are famous for their navigational skills. In an experiment carried out in 1953, one was taken from its burrow in Wales and transported to the US. It was back in the burrow 12 days later.

The Naas visitor appeared fit and well, so Tom hired a taxi and took it to Dun Laoghaire. Having checked there were no large gulls in the vicinity, he released his guest from the east pier, whereupon it swam immediately out to the open sea.


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