A Colony of Screechers And Wailers

A Manx shearwater rests on the ground.

A Manx shearwater rests on the ground. Sigurgeir Jonasson/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Sigurgeir Jonasson/CORBIS

The oldest bird on record is a Manx shearwater, who lived to be an estimated 55 years old, says wildlife recordist Asta Bowen. But Manx shearwaters are remarkable for another reason, too, Bowen says: The birds migrate "heroic" distances from their summer homes in the United Kingdom to winter quarters off the coast of Brazil, traveling some 5,000 miles every year.

They migrate "every year with unerring homing [accuracy], and that's their truly extraordinary feature," Bowen says.

She traveled to a Manx shearwater summer colony on the tiny Great Blasket Island, off the west coast of Ireland. When shearwaters nest, they burrow in the sand and dirt; they brood and hatch their eggs underground. The island has been uninhabited by humans since the 1950s, and Bowen says many of the shearwaters' burrows are in the old village.

Bowen recorded the rowdy, whining cacophony of the shearwaters returning to their burrows at night.

"According to local wisdom, they only really call on misty and moonless nights," she says.

These foot-long birds, with an average wingspan of 33 inches, spend much of the day foraging over the ocean and diving for fish. Some forage as far as 600 miles from their nesting grounds, returning at night to their burrows.

"There is something compelling about the shearwater," Bowen says. "There are wailers and screechers and screamers, and it's a very electric sound.

"I felt like this was one of the highlights of my life."

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