Seabirds on our Island

Following on from our blog post which featured some of our most diverse and cool creatures that can be found on our waterways and seas in Ireland, we have another one for you guys which might especially interested any twitchers out there! Here, we will take a look at some of our most unique and impressive avian friends that frequent our coastal waters.  

The Atlantic Puffin 

I’m going to start with one of the most iconic and recognisable seabirds, which also happens to be my personal favourite – the Atlantic Puffin. The Atlantic Puffin is a migratory bird that can be found on the rugged terrain of our western shores, with islands being their preferred habitat. They can be identified by their tell-tale features, their black backs and heads with white around the eyes and down the chest, and their large, hooked beak of vibrant orange and red. The Atlantic Puffin isn’t a huge seabird, with their height reaching up to 20cm and a wingspan of 47-63cm. Male and female puffins often become mates for life but spend their winters alone on the oceans. Puffins will lay one egg each year, distinguishable to the parents by its unique markings, like a fingerprint. They puffin parents will sing their egg a song and when their chick (or puffling- how cute is that?), is hatched, they will recognise their parents through this song. When the Puffin chick fledges to the juvenile stage it still cannot fly, so it will make its way precariously down the cliff/rock face and into the sea where it will remain for the next 2-3 years, never grouping with its own kind or returning to land until it has fully matured and can fly. Only then will it return to land and its cliff face as an adult puffin. These hardy little creatures are small but extraordinary, and have a lifespan of up to 20 years! Islands where you can view puffins include the Skellig Islands of Kerry, Rathlin Island on the Causeway Coast In Northern Ireland, the Saltee Islands in Wexford and Inisboffin Island of Connemara. The best time of year to spot these migratory birds is from early April to as late as August, during mating and nesting season.  

The Gannet 

The Gannet is a large seabird related to the laughably named, boobies. They belong to the ‘Morus’ family. This word comes from the Ancient Greek for moros, meaning ‘foolish’. This family of birds was aptly named so due to their inhibition during breeding season, where their behaviour allows them to be easily killed. They are characterised by their long white bodies, with black tipped tales and yellow heads. Their wings are pointed and long, as are the bills. They have an impressive wingspan of up to 2m! The gannet has an incredible and distinctive hunting method which you may recognise from some brilliant camera work courtesy of Blue Planet 2. They dive from a height of up to 30m into the ocean and can reach startling speeds of 100km/hr. These depths give them an advantage over other airborne birds when feeding and catching fish. The gannet has certain features which allow them to perform these kamikaze feats, which include nostrils that are actually located inside the mouth rather than externally, their eyes are positioned forward on the face giving them binocular vision at which they can accurately judge diving distances, and they have air sacs located under the skin of their face and chest, forming a bubble wrap like shield for them to protect them from the impact when hitting the water.  The main Gannet colonies in Ireland are located on Great Saltee, Co. Wexford, the Bull Rock, Co. Cork and on Little Skellig in Co. Kerry. A small colony is also found on Irelands Eye, Co. Dublin. Little Skelligs is by far the largest colony with over 26,000 nests. The Gannet winters at sea but can be sighted all year round on our shores. 

The Manx Shearwater 

The Manx Shearwater hales from the Isle of Man. Its genus name is that of ‘puffinus puffinus’, and was known throughout the 17th century as the Manx Puffin. The Manx Shearwater is a small-medium seabird, reach only 30-38cm in height but a larger wingspan of 76-89 cm. It has been named a shearwater due to its shearing action when in flight, it will generally dip from side-to-side, its wings out stiff and tips touching the water. It actually looks like a cross when viewed flying, its wings held at right angles as it alternately exposes its white underbelly and black backside when travelling low overseasWhat’s really interesting about the Manx Shearwater is that it actually can’t walk on land, it kind of drags its body along. Due to this, the Manx Shearwater will only go to its nesting colony and return to its burrow by dark moonless nights to avoid being attacked by any predators. These birds have long lives, with one bird being ringed in Northern Ireland in 1953 at aged approximately 5 years, and being re-trapped in July of 2003, making it at least 55 years of age. The Manx Shearwater engages in a behaviour called ‘rafting’, so rather than on land you may spot them in their colonies in groups sometimes of upwards of 10, 000 floating on the water. They get closer to land at night and further away in daylight, to avoid predation. In Ireland, the largest colonies are to be found in the Blasket islands of Co. Kerry, the Saltees off Co. Wexford as well as Copeland Island of Co. Down.  

The White-Tailed Eagle  

The white-tailed eagle belongs to the genus, Haliaeetus, or more commonly known as sea eagles. The Irish name for these birds is ‘Iolar Mara’. They have brown bodies with white pale heads and are the largest bird of prey found in Ireland. They have an impressive wingspan of up to 2.4 metres, with females being approximately a third larger than males, weighing in at 6kg compared to males at 4kg. Although juvenile birds will range across different areas, when paired the birds will find resident territory and be mates for lifeThe birds will feed on carrion of dead sheep, seals as well as fresh fish caught during a dive. These dives tend to be shallow, although some have been recorded to have dove from 200m during flight. The last wild breeding pair were bred in Co. Mayo in 1912, since then these sea eagles have been reintroduced, most recently at PortumnaThe reintroduction programme began in Killarney National Park in 2017, where 15-20 young birds from Norway are released each spring. As of 2017, there were 10 confirmed breeding pairs and 21 fledged chicks. They are located across Cork, Kerry, Clare and Galway. These rare beauties are under red conservation status in Ireland, meaning they are at the highest level of concern. They face threat from poisonings, which has been responsible for over 50% of white-tailed eagle morality in Ireland. Other human-related mortality causes have been shooting, as well as incidents with wind turbines.  

Although there are so many birds that inhabit our coastal shores, I found these 4 to be spectacularly impressive, reminding us that the wilderness is not so far from our front doors in Ireland, and that we are surrounded by unique and impressive creatures.  

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