It is hard to believe that Skomer Island supports the world’s largest breeding colony of the manx shearwater, a cousin of the wandering albatross. Certainly a visitor to Skomer during daytime would see almost no evidence of the 120,000 pairs of birds raising their chicks on the island.
The reason for this is that, like the puffin, the manx shearwater nests in burrows. But unlike the puffin, the shearwater only leaves and returns to Skomer under the cover of darkness. These small white and black birds are almost entirely designed for life on the wing, with legs that are small and tucked far back under their bodies. On land they move awkwardly, and are easy pickings for the gulls that live on Skomer. To avoid them, shearwaters return to their burrows at night calling to their mates and chicks below ground. This call is quite unique, and once heard never forgotten.
Shearwaters return to Skomer in early spring, and lay a single egg in late May. The chicks hatch after 51 days, and take a further 70 days to fledge, one of the longest breeding periods of any of the seabirds on Skomer. Fledging occurs in September and October, but surprisingly for a bird destined to fly to the South Atlantic, the parents do not guide their chicks. Instead, the adults depart Skomer before the young, leaving the chicks to survive on fat reserves. How these young shearwaters make such a huge journey is a marvel of nature.
For a chance to see shearwaters the National Park Authority offers shearwater walks during the summer. These mainland walks offer views of the adult birds resting and feeding offshore. See Coast to Coast for more details.