CHASING SHEARWATERS

Departing in a small boat from Inishbofin and heading west into the North Atlantic makes you feel like a pebble tossed into the Grand Canyon.

The Irish lose it when a heat-wave hits. On the radio, Shay Byrne’s early morning show becomes inundated with listeners’ celebratory messages proclaiming wall-to-wall sunshine. Not since Ireland defeated Italy in the Euros has the national spirit soared so high. All this for a mere two days of heat: 18th and 19th July 2016. I was more interested in where the heat came from. A plume of tropical air crept north, a zephyr that could carry seabirds with it. Cory’s Shearwaters are common once you hit blue waters off Iberia and can be tempted our way if the wind is at their back.

Looking west from Inishbofin on the day before the heat, I peered into rain that obliterated the coast. Lines of Manx Shearwaters disappeared into the murk but among them were several larger, lanky-winged silhouettes. These were Sooty Shearwaters, a species that breeds in the extreme South Atlantic bordering Antarctica and migrates beyond the equator to feed in the North Atlantic, chiefly between Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and south-west Greenland.

In late summer some Sooty Shearwaters, precisely how many is guesswork, congregate in the north-east Atlantic between Ireland and Rockall. They also moult, raising the possibility that the ocean northwest of Ireland is home to more than we think. A comment in SEA-BIRDS (1954) by James Fisher & R M Lockley, indicates that this is nothing new: ‘At Rockall on 17th May 1949 J.F. saw none, but from 18th to 27th June 1948 R.M.L. found them always present there, singly and up to eight together.’ In autumn, a larger slice of those in the North Atlantic track south through Ireland’s continental shelf.

Three Sooty Shearwaters flying among Manx Shearwaters off Inishbofin. Although both species occur in the North Atlantic during summer, only Manx Shearwaters nest in Ireland’s latitude. Sooty Shearwater breeds during our winter, in colonies dotted around the cold waters of the South Atlantic. The species could well be the world’s greatest traveller. Even during the breeding season, males foraging for food have clocked up 18,000km over the course of 36 days. That’s an average of 500km per day.

A different story comes with each kind of shearwater. Manx Shearwaters breed by the thousands on predator-free Irish islands and spend the winter in the South Atlantic between the Falkland Islands and South America. Although streamlined for a life on the high seas, the bird is maladapted for terra firma. An awkward shuffling gait and inflexible glider-shaped wings make incoming burrow nesting adults vulnerable to attacks from gulls and Peregrines, even though landings are only made at night. Before running the gauntlet, flocks gather offshore.

In light evening airs I could see distant rafts from shore, scattered like lead filings over a sleepy sea. Manx by the bucketful but what might be among them? If a cauldron of onshore wind and rain compressed the cornucopia closer to land, I might be able to lift the curtain and discover what else lay among the masses. Such weather was a pipe dream. Instead, maybe I could reach the flotillas by boat?

Manx Shearwaters settled on the sea below the cliffs of Inishark. Among them are at least nine Sooty Shearwaters.

Based on Inishbofin, the Concannon navy supplied the skipper. Seamus Concannon and I headed west in a small rhib (rigid hull inflatable boat). The vessel was black. That, plus its shape and rate of progress unsettled the flocks. Probably, we resembled an approaching Killer Whale. Seamus cut the engine and we metamorphosed into a lolling Minke Whale look-alike.

Manx Shearwaters are flying machines fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution. Irish birds commute to the Brazilian coast twice a year.

Manx Shearwaters are Trappists. The smooth sea seemed to chime with their silence. Each shearwater sat in the same pose and faced the same way. None bothered to feed even though shoals of tiny fish gleamed just beneath the surface. Manx Shearwaters have a comfort zone and once that is crossed flocks become airborne. There is no panic, just en masse pitter-pattering lift-off. Swimming among the hordes were Gannets, Puffins, Razorbills and Guillemots. Fulmars crisscrossed the wake and juvenile Arctic Terns patrolled a few metres aloft, occasionally swooping at finny prey and maintaining a chorus of trills and staccato notes.

A veil of grey cloud removed shadows but darkened the horizon, suggesting that the Battle of Jutland was raging farther out to sea. With Ireland several miles astern we had entered a different realm. The Sooty Shearwater count went up and up. The texture of their body plumage evoked velvet. Across the back and wings, pale-fringed feather groups stood out like roof tiles. Although dusky-bellied with blackish spiky wing tips, the centre of the underwing is silvery. Depending on the tip of the body in flight, the linings can beam bright as a lighthouse.

Despite its name, Sooty Shearwater is not uniformly dark.

It was hard to decide between taking in the grandeur of the experience or panning for gold by sifting through the cast. With so many birds, there must be a chance of something unusual? It was Seamus that spotted the odd-man-out first. He shouted, ‘What’s that big white yoke?’ [1] I spun around, sure in the knowledge that I was not going to be disappointed. Seamus had caught a blast of snow white underwings and belly on a banking shearwater. Manx Shearwaters have a similar pattern but the target was bigger. It was gliding among a kettle of Manx. Seamus understood instantly when I said, ‘it’s lazy; that means it’s a Cory’s!’ I meant its flight action. Although ‘elegant’ might be kinder — because Cory’s Shearwater is sublime in appearance and movement — the flight style is languorous.

A glorious Cory’s, the world’s largest shearwater. Like a heavyweight boxer, the bird’s size and bulk are no impediment to grace. Cory’s are consummate fliers and their superior size generates a relaxed flight. Manx Shearwaters are more frenetic and — compared to Cory’s — flap more and glide less.

We punched the air and then tried to give chase as the flock wheeled away. The Cory’s rose and fell like a noiseless metronome. An average of four flaps topped up momentum and swept it high to the apex of an invisible Ferris wheel from which it slid steeply down. Encore followed encore in a kind of soporific medley. Seamus got the beat but we could not catch the bird. Later we found another, again uncatchable, even at 30 knots.

All the world’s shearwaters possess an external nostril stacked on top of the bill, at the base. A canal connects from inside the skull to the nostril. To rid itself of salt, the bird processes its food and then extrudes brine through the nostrils. The out-of-focus bird is a Great Shearwater. Great Shearwaters breed on Tristan da Cunha but spend the summer in the North Atlantic, mainly on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.

The voyage became a cruise. A Great Shearwater, another seafarer that travels from remote breeding outposts in the Roaring Forties, sat among a smorgasbord of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters. Somehow the Cory’s trumped the lot. It felt like royalty, floating in flight and making me think that, hailing from hot climes and exuding an easy-going manner, it might be more easily identified by beginner birdwatchers if re-named Manana Shearwater.

1 ‘Yoke’ is a vernacular term, common in Ireland. It means ‘thing’. The specific identity of the thing in question may be known or unknown. Either way, ‘yoke’ defines the object.

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