So where does the Manx Shearwater belong? I think of it is as a Welsh bird, in fact most of the UK’s Manx Shearwater population lives around the islands off Pembrokeshire – most notably Skomer and Skokholm which are home to around 300,000 pairs. There are approximately 1.5 million breeding Manx Shearwaters in the world and 95% of them are found in Europe. All the known UK breeding colonies are on the west coast, which enables them to follow the trade winds across the Atlantic ocean and down to Argentina and Brazil on their migration south in the autumn and back ‘home’ the following spring.
What would the people of South America say about this? When I think of the Manx Shearwater, I think Skomer; seals; bluebells and red campion; short eared owls and giant rabbits. If you asked Alejandro Jones, the famous (in Patagonia at least) Eisteddfod performer what he thinks of when you mention this bird’s name, maybe he’d comment: llamas; blue whales; emperor penguins and hummingbird fuchsias.
The Manx Shearwater’s English name was first recorded in 1835 and was named after the large colony of breeding birds on the Isle of Man. Before this time, the bird was referred to by the name used to describe its use as food source. Puffin, pophyn and poffin are all terms used to describe fat, nestling shearwaters that were viewed as a delicacy. The Latin name Puffinus comes from the English word and refers to members of the shearwater family – the Manx is Puffinus puffinus. Incidentally, the bird we call the Puffin is Fratercula arctica (Fratercula is Latin for Friar and is referring to the puffin’s monastic looking plumage) and not a member of the Puffinus family but an Auk. Both birds use rabbit burrows for nesting and if you visit Skomer on a summer’s day you will almost certainly see puffins going about their daily lives but maybe only a shearwater carcass, left discarded by the great black backed gulls that predate them. The Manx shearwaters will be safely out at sea, waiting to return at nightfall. They’ll collect in ‘rafts’ offshore and wait for sundown before returning to their burrows. It is a dream of mine to hear Manx shearwaters – their eerie call has connections with the supernatural and may have given the Faroe islands their association with legends of Trolls – as seen in place names like Trollanes or Troll peninsula as it called in English, and where legend tells of noisy trolls raiding the villages at night.
The labels we give ourselves and others, define us, they affect the way we are treated and the way we view ourselves. Imagine being named after your attractiveness as a tasty snack, like the poor puffin. Take the Halichoerus grypus – a rather grand sounding name for a rather grand looking creature. It’s pictured below in the grey seal photo I took off Skomer a few years ago. Its Latin name may sound quite grand but actually means “hooked nose sea-pig” which sounds more like a pirate insult to me!
I’ve seen a shift in how nature is portrayed in the media. I watch very little television but have always loved a wildlife documentary. My favourites are the programmes about native British wildlife and the creatures you can find in your own back garden. I also love the wildlife of the North American continent. I’ve never visited, but as a child I would dream of living on my own in the middle of a forest with no people and just a few wild animals like bald eagles and moose and maybe I could make friends with a wild bear. I loved those films they’d play at the local cinema on a Saturday afternoon before the main picture – the storyline would usually involve a boy (never a girl, sadly) that tamed a wild animal that would protect him in his log cabin against dangerous hunters or wild wolves – I so wished I was one of those people out there on my own, surviving in the wilderness! Nowadays, there are more and more documentaries that give animals human names. It feels like they are trying to make animals more accessible and relatable. I don’t like this at all because the wonder of the natural world to me, is its diversity and I feel society needs to embrace diversity and recognise it as essential for survival in the world – particularly in these days of growing political intolerance. Ecosystems with more biodiversity are more successful.
The BBC had a documentary called Meerkat Manor which had episodes titled ‘The Rovers Return’ and ‘Farewell, my lovely’. The meerkats had names like Mitch and Phillippe and Shakespeare (for goodness sake!) and the trailers built up the dramatic tension with hints at the unfolding story lines such as ‘Daisy gets too comfortable with a member of a rival gang’ and ‘Things take a strange turn when Yousarrian stays at home to look after Flower’s litter’. It was one of the most popular wildlife documentaries of its time and encouraged a genre of anthropomorphism to follow. Personally, I like my animals to be animals and do animally things. We should observe and cherish and be fascinated by the natural world in its natural state in my opinion – we are part of the natural world, just a part, and we need to let others be their part too.
The Manx shearwater reminds us of how big the world is. This bird migrates from Skomer every autumn down to South America and back again in the spring. The distinctly different outward and return routes north of the equator suggest they are using the trade winds of the north Atlantic gyre. (a gyre is a circular system of ocean currents that spiral around a central point – they are caused by the Coriolis effect and deflect the wind in particular directions. Gyres also collect pollutants and rubbish which is concerning when you consider how animals follow these currents during migration both above and below the water). The Shearwater will make its journey in around a month but doesn’t fly steadily for that time. A study by Guilford T, Meade J, Willis J, et al. ‘Migration and stopover in a small pelagic seabird, the Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus’; revealed the birds made stopovers that appeared to be for refuelling along their route. These stopovers accounted for up to one or two weeks of their migratory travel. The statistics relating to their journeys are mind bogglingly impressive: Manx shearwaters can live to be 60 years old – in 2008, an ornithologist, Chris Mead captured a bird that had been ringed on Bardsey island in 1957. He calculated its age was at least 57 and it would have travelled over 5 million miles in its lifetime. One migrating bird was tracked flying at an average 34 mph for a full 139 hours – it was taking advantage of favourable wind conditions; the average speed on a typical foraging trip is around 25 mph.
Another famous migratory journey concerns the clipper Mimosa which sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia in 1865 with around 150 Welsh passengers in search of “a little Wales beyond Wales”. The journey lasted twice as long as the Manx shearwater’s, and like the birds, made use of the trade winds. The Mimosa had a higher mortality rate than the birds in the study above and would have been at sea during the period the shearwaters were flying out from Skomer each day to feed offshore. Their migratory paths would not have crossed, but I like to think of those travellers aboard Mimosa seeing the familiar Manx shearwater when the birds arrived back in the settlers’ new homeland the following autumn, and I wonder if the birds were surprised to hear the Welsh language being spoken both sides of the equator?
I’m yet to see the shearwaters that use Skomer as their breeding home leave and return each day or arrive and depart on their immense migratory journey. I’ve held shearwaters and seen them up close most years when they strike out for the southern hemisphere but end up being blown inland. We’ve had live Manx shearwaters in our village and also a dead one in the middle of the road that I assumed landed thinking the dark strip of tarmac was water. I’ve also identified one in the main street of Llandeilo. Their anatomy is designed for spending time in the air or water and their legs are placed too far back for them to successfully launch themselves airborne from flat surfaces. It is common to find an out of place Manx shearwater and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales has some advice.