Belfast Telegraph

Seabird caught on Copelands, 40 years after it was released

By Linda Stewart

A 40-year-old bird caught off the Co Down coast has got twitchers in a flap.

The adult Manx shearwater was caught on the Copeland Islands, at the same spot where it was first ringed in 1977 - 40 years ago.

The long-lived seabird was a new chick in the same year that Star Wars was released, Marc Bolan died and Saturday Night Fever launched John Travolta's movie career.

Wesley Smith, secretary of Copeland Bird Observatory, which has been studying the islands' seabird colonies for years, said the 'Methuselah' chick was ringed on September 3, 1977 and has been handled 11 times since.

"At one stage we had a 49-year-old one and at that time I think it was maybe the oldest bird in the northern hemisphere," he said. "They are pretty impressive birds. They breed on a lot of offshore islands that are free of predators, particularly rats. They breed down burrows. On Copeland these tend to be dug by rabbits and the Manx shearwaters take over the burrows."

The Copeland colony is Northern Ireland's only colony of Manx shearwaters and has grown from several hundred pairs when the observatory was founded in 1954 to at least 4,500 breeding pairs this summer.

Every September the shearwaters set off on an arduous migration across the Atlantic Ocean to south America where they spend winter, returning to the Copelands in mid-March.

"They are very faithful, not only to the island that they were hatched on, but even the area of the island where they hatched. This bird was caught in the same place where it was ringed 40 years ago," Mr Smith said.

The pairs hatch a single chick during the breeding season. These are expected to start emerging from their burrows in the next couple of weeks.

"We'll be doing a lot of chick-ringing in the next few weeks, going out at dark. Manx shearwaters come in at nighttime when they are returning to the colony because the gulls will attack them in daylight," Mr Smith said.

"The air above you is just thriving with the sound of them calling."

A post about a 36-year-old bird that was caught on the Copelands earlier this summer garnered more than 20,000 views on Twitter.

Shane Wolsey, of the British Trust for Ornithology, said the youngsters will be emerging from burrows until mid-September. "Then they will all head off together down to South America. They go down as far south as Rio," he said. "The youngsters won't be back again next year but the adults will. The youngsters start coming back after three to four years. After four to five years they will breed and they nearly always come back to their natal colony. Their navigational abilities are astonishing. Trying to catch the older ones isn't easy, so catching one that is as old as 40 years is pretty exciting."

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