Species Spotlight - Manx Shearwater, the 'Manxie'
A glimpse of a Manxie speeding past our coast is always an exciting moment. With it's characteristic up and down side to side flight, one second in a wave trough, the next sweeping upwards in a large glide followed by rapid beats of the wings. They are usually a fair distance out and can be difficult to spot at first, especially during a gale. But once you get your eye in during a strong west wind it can be surprising just how many are steadily making their way through Liverpool Bay.
One of my favourite books is ‘The Island’ by Ronald Lockley; here he describes his life on the lonely island of Skokholm, Pembrokeshire, in the 1930s. At a time when little was known about the breeding habits of sea birds RL spent 10 years studying the birds of Skokholm, in particular the Manx Shearwater. He expands on the subject of Manx Shearwaters in the monograph 'Shearwaters', long recognised as a classic in scientific nature writing. Even after all these years and many other studies since the fact that his name is mentioned ten times in the Manx Shearwater account in the Birds of the Western Palearctic and four times in the BTO Migration Atlas shows how important his work was. It was he who discovered the remarkably long breeding season of this species with an incubation period of c51 days and the fledging period of c70 days. He also discovered that the adult birds could be away from the nest several days at a time and that many travel long distances away from the breeding colonies in their search for food. This, of course, has a large bearing on trying to determine the origins of birds we see off the Dee Estuary out in Liverpool Bay.
Currently Skokholm has at least 46,000 pairs nesting each summer, and the nearby island of Skomer a remarkable 100,000. The combined total of breeding pairs on these islands makes them easily the most important site in the world for this species with c45% of the world's population. It is likely that many of the birds we see here are from these two islands; Liverpool Bay is only an easy 12 hour flight away for this fast flying species. The island of Rhum in Scotland also has large numbers of Manx Shearwaters breeding with c36% of the world's population and, although further than South Wales, Liverpool Bay is easily within foraging range. RL found from ringing recoveries that they could fly as much as 600 miles from the nesting site during a feeding trip.
above (based on Hilbre and north Wirral records) demonstrates that a peak is
reached in June followed by a smaller peak in late summer/autumn. The peak
in June coincides with the period of egg incubation and it is typical during
this period for each parent to be away from the nest for about five days,
each taking turns at sitting on the egg. Five days would be ample time for a
few circuits around the Irish Sea. This is followed by a sudden drop off in
numbers when the adults are feeding the chick; they return to the nest more
often at this time and therefore do not range so widely. By the end of
August migration will have begun and there is probably also some
post-breeding dispersal prior to their southward movement. If there is a
strong north-west wind in September many Manx Shearwaters get blown in to
Liverpool Bay within sight of land and it is probable that a lot of these
are Scottish breeders blown in through the North Channel in to the Irish
Sea. During September and October the majority of birds will make their way
rapidly to the South Atlantic off the east coast of South America where they
spend the southern summer; very few are seen in the Irish Sea after
mid-October. However, a few do spend the winter north of the equator and
this explains the presence of one observed off
Hoylake during strong south-west gales on Dec 9th 2006, the latest ever
sighting for Cheshire and Wirral.
During most years the largest numbers in our area are observed off Point of Ayr and Gronant. Unfortunately my records for here are incomplete which is why these counts haven't been included in the above histograms. The table below shows some notable counts from Gronant and Point of Ayr between 1989 and 2001.
Voluntary Wardens wanted for Gronant Little Tern Colony
Gronant is a wonderful place to spend a few hours in the summer with the constant activity of the Little Tern colony, some great sea-watching, skylarks and meadow pipits singing over head and wildflowers covering the sand dunes. 2007 will be the 32nd year that there has been wardening here, and as can be seen from the graph below the Little Terns continue to increase in numbers despite the best attentions of the foxes, crows and kestrels; great credit must go to all those wardens doing a great job over those 32 years.
Wardening will be starting in May and usually ends early August. If you want to help out as a voluntary warden, or just want to come along to see what it is all about, contact Adrian Hibbert at Denbighshire Countryside Services, email: email@example.com, tel no. 01745 356197.
May Bird News
Rarities this month included an overflying Great White Egret at Burton Marsh, may be it's still out there somewhere, and an unconfirmed report of a summer plumage Red-breasted Flycatcher at Leasowe Lighthouse. A Dipper was at Arrowe Park, a rare bird on Wirral although it breeds in streams on the Welsh side of the estuary. The Wheatear migration seems to have been very prolonged this spring with good numbers still coming through all month with 40 Wheatear at Leasowe Lighthouse early morning on the 19th being the peak count. Whimbrel have been passing through in good numbers including 20 at Hilbre on the 12th and 33 at Heswall the following day.
What to expect in June
Early in the month we can still get some late migrants hurrying through, in particular Sanderling, the tundra race of Ringed Plover and Dunlin, all on their way to the high Arctic. But already by the end of the month birds will be returning from breeding; expect to see a few hundred Curlew and Redshank off Heswall. We may also see Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers, all early breeders, plus a handful of early Spotted Redshanks and Greenshanks, the former in their glorious summer plumage. As well as late and early passage birds we get a good number of non-breeding waders on the estuary with several hundred Black-tailed Godwits at Inner Marsh Farm, may be with a few immature Knot. Over a thousand Oystercatchers spend the summer on the estuary and these usually roost at Point of Ayr, but look out also for the few breeding pairs we get around the estuary. The pair or two we get at Gronant within the Little Tern Colony are particularly effective at chasing away crows!
If we get some fresh west or south-west winds these can blow in good numbers of sea-birds. Storm Petrels are fairly regular off our coast but usually only one or two a year are seen, partly as they are so difficult to see flying so low over the water; but the last three summers has been exceptional for this species with good numbers observed including a remarkable 30 in the Mersey mouth in June 2006 during strong winds. Also expect to see plenty of terns, Gannets and, hopefully, Manx Shearwaters and Arctic Skuas. By the end of the month we should have a good idea how successful a season our tern colonies are having and there will certainly be plenty of activity at both Shotton (Common Terns) and Gronant (Little Terns).
Many thanks go to Colin Davies, Paul Vautrinot, Karen Leeming, Mark Turner, Andrew Wallbank, David Esther, Ray Wilson, David Haigh, Geoff Harrop, Neil McLaren, Yvonne Taylor, Dorothy Jebb, Tanny Robinson, Iain Douglas, Pete Button, Phil Woollen, Damian Waters, Jason Stannage, Stuart Taylor, Steve Oakes, David Small, Ian McKinnon, David Harrington, Dave Edwards, Allan Conlin, Dave Wild, Colin Schofield, Steve Round, Steve Williams, Chris Butterworth, Jane Turner, Sheil Blamire, Charles Farnell, Jonathon Potter, Richard Steel, Richard Graham, Paul Shenton, Mark Kendall, Paul Rowlands, Kristian Rowe, Mark O'Sullivan, Keith Duckers, Paul Roberts, Mike Jones, John Fisher, Chris Davies, Andrew Wingham, Gilbert Bolton, Paul Mason, Andy Astbury, Philip Gabriel, Philip Barnes, Barbara Greenwood and the Hilbre Bird Observatory for their sightings during May. All sightings are gratefully received.
Spring Tides (Liverpool),
Forthcoming Events (organised by the
Wirral Ranger Service,
Flintshire Countryside Service and/or the RSPB):
Wednesday 6th June, Evening Sunset Walk to
Thursday 7th June. Night Owl Watch, 8.30pm - 11pm.
Saturday 16th June. Walking the Wirral Way, 2pm -
Thursday 28th June. Night Owl Watch, 8.30pm - 11pm.
Saturday 30th June. The History and Habitats of Royden Park,
1pm - 3pm.
Sunday 1st July. Greenfinch or Goldfinch? 10am -
Wednesday 4th July, Evening Sunset Walk to
NOTE: Many of these forthcoming events are extracted from the 'Birdwatchers Diary 2007', which covers both the Dee and Mersey regions. Hard copies available from the visitor centre at Thurstaston, Wirral Country Park 0151 648 4371.
All material in this newsletter, and indeed the whole web site, has been written by myself, Richard Smith, unless specified.
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