The shearwater, like many British Birds, travels south to spend the winter in warmer climes. As a nocturnal species, night flight is favoured and it's at this time of year when an unfortunate number of fledglings are attracted inshore by the lights and sounds of the bustling metropolis that is Village Bay.
Shearwaters are incredible fliers but it's the very features that help them skim the surface of the ocean and gracefully 'fly' under water that makes them terribly unsuited to life on land. Once they come to ground they shuffle about awkwardly on their webbed feet trying to find shelter where they can sit out the hours of darkness. But why don't they just fly off again? Well, the simple fact is that shearwaters just aren't able to jump up and take to the air like other birds and instead need a slope with the wind under the wings to help them become airborne. This means that once grounded, the birds just sit and await their fate. Normally, on St Kilda, this would mean predation by gulls, skuas and mice... but not on my watch!
During the fledging period in September I head out late at night with my torch and a clutch of bird bags to check buildings and other potential hiding places for shearwaters. So far this year I haven't stumbled across any stranded birds but it's important to do another check early in the morning as it's at this time they become increasingly vulnerable to predation. If I find a bird I'll keep it in a cool quiet place before releasing it under the cover of darkness to continue it's journey when predators aren't so active.
Most of the shearwaters I found at dawn were fiesty and despite not being well equipped for life on land gave me the run around as I tried to scoop them up without damaging them, or me! Either that or they gave me a 'grateful' (ha!) peck as I tried to weigh and measure them. The measurements provide an indication of the bird's condition allowing us to make cautious conclusions about the health of the population and the success of the breeding season. One bird was very docile, probably exhausted, and once I had it secured in a bird bag it relaxed and took a wee snooze on our couch!
This species migrates thousands of miles to overwinter off the coast of South America. Hopefully, this brief interruption to their journey hasn't impacted them too much.