Puffinus puffinus: the Latin name for the Manx shearwater. With a name like that, are they related to the puffin, I wondered? The one with the stripy beak who is also involved in the book trade? No they are not. Puffins are from the bird family of auks, noted particularly for their ability to ‘fly’ underwater and look bumbling above.
Manx shearwaters are from another seabird family: the tube noses. The family Procellariidae consist of the magnificent seabirds such as petrels, shearwaters and the albatross. All of them have, you guessed it, tube noses. These tubular nasal passages are great for sniffing out oily fish to eat and are thought to help them fly home. ‘Are we close to home? It smells like it.’
If they’re tube nose birds, why are the Manx shearwaters called puffins then? Hmm. Was it a scientific confusion back when Latin names were being handed out? Nope. ‘Puffin’ is from an old Norse word – pophyn. Pophyn describes the way these birds were smoked and cooked. Did you think puffins were called puffins because of the cute way they looked all puffy? Yeah – maybe over the fire. Or bursting in your mouth.
But why do these shearwaters need tube noses to smell so well? It’s because they fly so freaking far. Manx shearwaters breed on rocky islands in the North Atlantic (Wales being a particular breeding stronghold – alright lads!) and then winter in the sunny climes off Brazil and Argentina. My jaw dropped as I read that bit. WTF?! Those little goofy guys that swoop past me on my purple kayak and hang out just outside Borth like it’s the French Riveria? They go across the trans-equatorial Atlantic?
Yep, and sometimes in less than a fortnight, the fact sheet said. WTF x 2. Often in less than a fortnight. And they only fly about ten metres over the water’s surface.
I was hoping to write about these birds in an elegant, scientific/poetic crossover. After all, the world could always do with another middle-aged white person who sees their life through the lens of the natural world. Like a Waterlog, H is for Hawk and The Sea Inside but with occasional swear words. And tricksy teenagers.
Meanwhile, these shearwaters are doing the same thing they’ve been programmed to do since their evolution- they are following the weather. They go from the British summer to the South American summer and back again. And they do it many, many times. Turns out the Manx shearwater is one of the longest-living birds.
A Manx Shearwater that nested on Bardsey Island in Wales in 2008 was more than 50 years old and estimated to have flown about 5 million miles in its lifetime.
WTF x 3 – there goes the metaphorical crossover. 5 million miles! All the while following the good weather.
What are they doing up in the Cardigan Bay then? Since there’s no rocky island to raise chicks on here. Aha. The same reason the dolphins are here – to eat Borth’s population of oily sand eels. The Manx shearwater is on a day trip – no big deal when you breed in your fifties and you travel 5 million miles to stay in the sun.
Ok. I’m officially a bird person.