Help save the original puffin crash landing into Tobermory and Mallaig

A Manx shearwater shuffles out of its burrow on Rum to begin its epic migration to the South Atlantic off Argentina. A J Bellamy/RSPB Images

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Beside the splashy puffin, the drab, middling Manx shearwater will never be the star of the British seabird show – until you know the remarkable story it has to tell.

For this master of the skies, and clumsy clown on land, is the original ‘puffin’, Puffinus puffinus. Most of the world’s Manx shearwaters begin life on Britain’s west coast islands, notably on the world’s second largest breeding colony on the Isle of Rum.

In spring and summer every year, Rum’s national nature reserve becomes home to 100,000 breeding pairs, who mate for life and fly hundreds of miles out to sea each day to feed a single fat, fluffy chick nesting underground. Their eery, night-time screech freaked out the Vikings, who believed Rum’s Cuillins to be infested with hairy, ugly trolls, naming one peak Trollaval – Hill of the Trolls.

If the chick survives attacks from rats, cats, hedgehogs, and even killer sheep and red deer, it takes to the air on its maiden flight, battling storms and tempests on an epic 10,000km migration across the Atlantic Ocean to the fish-rich waters of South America. One fledgling was found on the coast of Brazil 16 days after being ringed as a chick in a Welsh burrow.

Until recently, a Manx shearwater off Northern Island was also the world’s oldest wild bird, reaching the same great age as Mike Tyson, Cindy Crawford, and Paul Hollywood (55). By then, this ‘Manxie’ had over a million air miles under its wing (not counting day-to-day fishing trips), the equivalent of a return trip to the Moon – twice.

But not all of them make it. On the way, lured by the bright lights, many are crash landing into Tobermory, Mallaig, and cruise ships. Unable to take to the sea and air again, the seabirds blunder about until they are eaten by cats or gulls, or starve. Now Conor Ryan, a guide for Nature Scotland who lives in Tobermory, is appealing to Mull residents to help the lost and bumbling seabirds resume their marathon journey.

‘Manx Shearwaters live up to 50 years,’ Conor said. ‘They fledge in September and head to Argentina. But not all make it, as they are attracted to lights. Each year some crash into Tobermory and risk starvation or predation by cats. They cannot easily take-off from the ground and need to be released away from gulls. Communities in Mallaig, Arisaig, and the Small Isles make efforts to reduce light pollution to help shearwaters survive, and hopefully we can do the same in Tobermory.’

What can you do to help? Reduce outdoor lighting and draw curtains during September. If you find one, please contact Conor, who will assess and release it, on 07850 250156.

‘If people need help, call the mobile,’ added David Sexton, RSPB Scotland’s Mull Officer in Salen. ‘We find the bird. They are quite easy to catch. I’ve rescued a few shearwaters from under cars and back gardens in previous years. They’re normally not badly injured, just a bit stunned and disorientated, and can’t take off. After a quick check, we allow them to paddle off back out to sea. They take off from there. It is just helping them get up in the air.

‘They are attracted to lights. If you can reduce light levels: pull the curtains, if the lights in the garden are not being used, perhaps turn them off, just for a few weeks in September. It is not going to solve it. It is just going to reduce it. Every bird that does not crash land is on its way to Argentina. It is nice to give them a helping hand.’

One of the newest and highest hurdles shearwaters now face is the cruise ship.

‘We’ve had three calls in one week, all from cruise vessels, and all involving multiple birds on deck,’ Conor said. ‘I was able to advise on how to release, but haven’t needed to take any birds home yet. I work on expedition ships in South Georgia where the government there has strict ‘black out’ regulations for ships to alleviate this very problem.’