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Mallaig man Martin Carty has joined forces with CalMac to provide a much needed-lifeline for the local population of Manx shearwater seabirds.
From late August until early October, hundreds of newly fledged Manx shearwaters depart their nesting sites on Rum and begin a migratory journey that takes them as far as South America. However, many are blown off course by westerly winds before they have even left the Sound of Rum.
During the month of September, when most of the birds fledge, Mr Carty, a retired golf professional, leaves his home at 10pm on the dot and walks the same route around Mallaig, looking for the young Manx shearwaters that have been stranded.
Mr Carty explained: ‘These are very inexperienced birds, possibly on their first flight. The birds hide after crash-landing during the day, waiting until the following evening to come out and attempt to take off.
‘We put posters up around the village and along to Morar and Arisaig asking people to contact us if they see any of the birds, but most are found in a 1.5 square kilometre area around Mallaig.’
Their physical shape means that the birds find it difficult to take off from land. At sea they run along the surface of the water, but on land they are obstructed by walls, fences, houses and cars.
The grounded birds are also quickly predated by gulls, cats, dogs, otters and pine martens. Without the rescue efforts of Mr Carty and the community, most would perish. For the past five years, students from Anglia Ruskin University and Merton College, Oxford, have also volunteered for the rescue operations.
The highest number of birds recorded in a month is 709, with 154 found in one night alone. However, this year there were 127 birds rescued during September.
Mr Carty collects data on the numbers of birds landed, as well as the moon phases and wind direction, as the reasons for the crash-landings are not clear-cut.
He added: ‘The birds only go in and out of their burrows at night, so their problems are potentially exacerbated by bright light. The research so far would suggest that if there is no moon, the bright lights from Mallaig add to the confusion of the birds.
‘If there is a moon, then the light is dissipated and seems to be less of a problem. Similarly, drizzly or misty weather can create problems by affecting the dispersal of the light.’
Before being released, each bird is ringed, weighed and down-counted, and biometrics are also sent to a research facility in Spain. Mr Carty then transports the birds onto the Mallaig to Armadale CalMac ferry.
Byron Griffiths, ship’s master on the MV Lord of the Isles, told us: ‘The Manx shearwaters are recovered, taken to sea with us and released back into their natural habitat. We’ve certainly delivered a lifeline to these beautiful birds.’
Rescued birds were previously released from land, but gulls learned of the location and would lie in wait.
By releasing the Manx shearwaters from the moving vessel, they are given a better chance of survival, and the hope is they will return to Rum the following spring.