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Pembrokeshire Wildlife feature: Manx shearwater

25th August 2018

In our first piece looking into the nature that makes Pembrokeshire one of the UK’s best locations for exploring wildlife, we look at the Manx shearwater – one of the world’s most important birds that makes its home on the island of Skomer each year.

What makes them so important?

The birds are deemed to be an important indicator of the ecological health of the world’s oceans, with the health of the colony being a topic of interest to scientific researchers from around the world – so much so that scientists working at Oxford University have made the journey to the west coast of Wales in a bid to conduct the latest census of the animal.

A beautiful, charcoal grey bird with a light underbelly, black bill and eyes, over 300,000 birds are believed to breed on the colony – making them one of the most prominent birds within the county.

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The shearwater makes a significant annual migratory journey, travelling some 7,000 miles to the coast of South America every year, spending what would be the winter in the northern hemisphere feeding at sea, before returning to the same part of the island – and sometimes even the same burrow – to breed again in the following spring.

The shearwater lays one egg annually, but their longevity means that they can have multiple chicks – with the longest living bird recorded at over 50 years of age.

On Skomer, the chicks are fed by their parents – even outgrowing them – before shedding their fat to reach their ‘flight weight’ ahead of their maiden journey back to the southern hemisphere, a process that is facilitated by their parents ending the feeding process.

Home to a number of indigenous creatures, including the famous puffin population, the island is maintained by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, with trips available to visit the island running across the summer.

Manx shearwater often ‘raft’ on the sea just off the island before dusk, waiting for the safety of night to return to their burrows as they look to avoid predatory black-backed gulls.

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What should you do if you see a Manx shearwater in distress?

If you are exploring the area around Skomer and do find a fledgling shearwater in distress (it is the case that they can be blown ashore in high winds) then the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales has the following advice:

“If you find one please just keep it in a box, with as little disturbance as possible. Handle with care, wear gloves and keep the bird away from your face.

“Please release it to sea, at dusk, on a sheltered bit of the coast. It’s not a problem for the birds to be kept for a couple of days as they will have a lot of fat reserves, and when the wind drops off a bit they will find it easier to navigate out to sea.

“Don’t try and release them in the daytime or if it’s flat calm. It can be distressing to see so many birds blown ashore, but it’s only a tiny proportion of the hundreds of thousands still safely at sea.

“If anyone has a bird that they are not able to keep and release themselves, there are volunteers on Pembs who can help.”

Check out this great video of these beautiful birds migrating from Skomer, if you’d like to learn more about one of the jewels of Pembrokeshire’s diverse wildlife!

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