Birdwatch: Manx shearwaters prepare for incredible journey

Manx shearwaters can make the 6,000-7,000 mile journey to South America in less than a fortnight.  Picture: Bill Teale
Manx shearwaters can make the 6,000-7,000 mile journey to South America in less than a fortnight. Picture: Bill Teale
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On remote rocky islands off the British coast young Manx Shearwaters are preparing to set off on a marathon journey to the seas off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina.

They have spent ten weeks in the darkness of a nest burrow being fed by their parents who only do so after dusk because of the risk of predation.

With their long wings and short legs Manx shearwaters are superbly adapted to life at sea but on land are clumsy and barely capable of shuffling into their burrows.

This makes them extremely vulnerable to attacks from large gulls so that during the day they have to stay out at sea.

But at the end of August the adults fly out to sea for the last time and the chicks stay in the nest burrows for another eight days or so living off their reserves of body fat – at this stage they weigh around a third heavier than an adult.

Then one night they go out to sea and immediately set off for South America with some making the 6,000 to 7,000-mile journey in less than a fortnight

No one knows what they do in the following summer – almost none of them come to land but the next year, when the young birds are two, some return to colonies, though only on a few dark nights around the new moons in mid-summer.

Remarkably, they tend to make landfall close to the burrow in which they were born. Progressively more birds return at the ages of three and four, spending longer and longer searching for a mate and a nesting burrow until they are ready to breed from six years old. As Manx shearwaters start to leave our shores other shearwater species are arriving.

Sooty shearwaters are being seen off the Yorkshire coast after a similar journey to the Manx – but in the opposite direction. They nest on islands in the South Atlantic, then move up the coasts of South and North America during the northern summer before crossing into UK waters on their way back to the southern oceans to breed again.

Two other species, Balearic, which breed on the Balearic Islands and south coast of France, and Cory’s which breed on Madeira, the Azores, Canary Islands and Berlengas Islands off the Portuguese coast have also been seen off Spurn, Flamborough, Filey, Scarborough and Long Nab, Burniston and more can be expected in the coming weeks.

All four species might be seen on the RSPB’s Skua and Shearwater cruises on the Yorkshire Belle from Bridlington. Ring 01262 422211 for details and to book.

Roseate terns were seen off Filey, Spurn and South Gare, Cleveland and all four skua species were reported.

The western swamphen continued to be seen at Alkborough Flats, North Lincolnshire and the juvenile spotted crake at the North Cave reserve, East Yorkshire.

Waders included a Baird’s and buff-breasted sandpiper both at the Hatfield Moors reserve, South Yorkshire and a pectoral sandpiper at Whitton Sands on the Humber. More little stints, wood and curlew sandpipers and spotted redshanks have also been seen across the region.