Thursday 27 October 2016

Burrow birds mew, scream in island nights

Country Matters

Joe Kennedy

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

A GIFT OF WINGS: Breeding season for the Shearwater is now over and they’ve headed for warmer climes in Brazil
A GIFT OF WINGS: Breeding season for the Shearwater is now over and they’ve headed for warmer climes in Brazil

Norse invaders, pulling on the oars of their long-ships, made a landfall on a pleasant isle lying between Britain and Ireland more than 1,000 years ago.

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They didn't stay very long, the story goes, fleeing in terror after one night because of the demonic screams all about them.

They didn't know that this cacophony of howling was caused by a large mass of the resident bird population, ultimately classified as Manx Shearwaters (puffinus puffinus or canog) which, during daylight hours, sit on high sea rafts and ride the rollers, but hit land - in this instance the Isle of Man - before nightfall.

Then they join together in a bedlam of screaming and howling before creeping down into their tunnel homes to feed a pampered chick to plumpness. Up to 100 years ago there was a harvest trade by locals who plundered the nests and salted the chicks (some up to one pound weight) in barrels for London markets.

The shearwater population has been considerably reduced since then, though not necessarily through nest robbing. Fewer birds return to their Manx roots now and most of the 300,000 or so breeding pairs which visit these shores now nest in securer islands off the Irish, Welsh and Scottish coasts.

Breeding season for these birds is over and the few remaining would have departed at September's end to head south and west, black-winged and white-breasted, shearing over the waves, sweeping and veering on a journey of thousands of miles to the coast of Brazil.

Somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 pairs would have arrived at marine islands off the coasts of Kerry, Galway, Antrim, Down, Dublin and Wexford starting from March last. It's a matter of Kerry for the holidays then (to echo Dublin GAA fans), as the Blaskets and, noticeably, Sceilig Mhicil, are the most popular breeding sites. And, hopefully, most of the nesting birds there would have moved out to sea around the time of the arrival of the night-shift movie-makers, a subject that retains more than a whiff of controversy.

While on Sceilig and other secure locations the Manxmen travelled great journeys to fish and feed their young. Some birds have flown to Biscay for the sardine shoals and back to Kerry with full crops, a round trip of about 1,200 miles. One navigation experiment involved a bird being taken by plane to Boston and released to turn up 12 days later at its burrow on the Welsh coast having flown an average of 244 miles a day. Shearwaters have long lives. A bird ringed on the Copeland Islands in Co Down lived for 51 years.

Thousands of Storm Petrels (hydrobates pelagicus or mairtineach), also tube-nosed though smaller bodied sea travellers, make homes on islands too, some partly sharing burrows with shearwaters.

There has been considerable concern about Sceilig disturbance of the petrels as their breeding time continues into early October. The poet Richard Murphy once observed them while staying on High Island off the Connemara coast, listening to the sounds of their mewing and purring while deep in their rabbit burrows. His poem, 'Stormpetrel' describes the bird as a gypsy of the sea, a pulse of the rock, with a song older than fossils; "ephemeral as thrift, it ends with a gasp". It is hoped this has not been ominous and has not been the fate of any "peadairin-na-stoirme", cowering on Sceilig from the cameras, lights and action of Star Wars, a chorus of protest howls blanked by the noise of whirring helicopters.

Sunday Independent

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