[from Ellan Vannin vol 1 #3 p111/116, 1924]


By P. G. RALFE, M.B.O.U.

FROM a strictly scientific point of view, the interest of the Manx bird-world centres, perhaps, chiefly in a comparison of its specieš with those of the surrounding mainlands—in the presence or absence, the abundance or scarcity, of those birds which are found in England, Scotland, or Ireland, and the agreement of the Island with, or its difference from, one or other of the larger British lands. To the nature-lover whose knowledge of birds is less technical, the interest of Manx bird-life con-sists rather in the variety and beauty of its sea and coast inhabiting birds : those with which its long and varied shore line, the centre and culminating feature of the Irish Sea, is so abundantly and richly furnished. It is from the latter point of view that I shall, in this short paper, mainly consider the subject.

Most birds which have a wide distribution in Britain generally inhabit, in something like the same relative numbers, the Isle of Man. The blackbird and song thrush, the robin, hedge-sparrow, and wren are found here, as there, all the year round ; the swallows, the cuckoo, the willow-warbler, abound in summer; ~nd the woodcock, the snipe, the wild-duck, and the fieldfare visit us in considerable numbers in winter.The chaffinch is very plentiful in our gardens and woodlands, the yellow-hammer in our more open country, and the meadow-pipit (twite) on our heaths and waters. The rook, which I 50 years ago, seems hardly to have been known in Man, has established and retains very numerous colonies indeed, in spite of organised attempts, especially in war time, for its destruction. The starling, once scarce, has also increased with the improvement of farming.

Some of the less known of small British summer birds which occur in our latitude in England are absent or scarce both in the Isle of Man and in Ireland. The jay very local in the latter country, is unknown as a native bird in the Isle of Man. The magpie, on the contrary, nearly or quite exterminated in the interests of game in many British districts, is an ornament of our Manx scenery.

While speaking of game, it may be re-called that game-birds in general lead a rather precarious existence with us. The " kept cock-pheasant " of Kipling’s verse is far from being ‘ ‘ lord ‘ ‘ of the Isle of Man ; he goes in fear of a multitude of foes, though at the present time he is perhaps as abundant as ever he has been in Manx his-tory. Our red grouse date from a fairly successful intro-duction some 5o years ago ; partridges, which are better able to take care of themselves, are pretty numerous for a country of small properties.

Of the many species of British ducks, only the mallard, teal, and sheidrake seem to breed; the first two not in great numbers, the latter mainly in one locality, where its brilliant plumage and numerous brood of duck-lings are a feature of the neighbourhood.

The nests of lapwings are far from abundant, as compared with many localities around us ; large flocks of the bird are a familiar occurrence in hard weather. Snipe breed with us both on the high and lowland; though the snipe is probably much more common as a winter bird, its strange humming in the twilight sky in spring has long been well-known to the observer of the sights and sounds of the country-side. Another sound of the wet lands, the monotonous but welcome ‘‚ crake " of the land-rail is, perhaps, more frequent in the Island than on the opposite English shore.

Birds of prey are fairly represented on the Island. Eagles seem to have ceased to breed within the last century, but the noble peregrine falcon, whose presentation on a coronation day was the token of homage by the Lord of Man to England, still inhabits a number of immemorial’ eyries on our coast. More abundant on coast and inland is the pretty kestrel. The handsome long-eared owl inhabits many of our plantations. The barn owl seems to be scarce, and the tawny owl, as in Ireland, absent.

Four species of crow may be looked upon largely as cliff-birds, the jackdaw (common also in our towns), the hooded or grey crow, which, as in Ireland, replaces the black crow of England, the raven, and the chough. One of the most interesting and celebrated of birds, the raven, extinct in most English localities, still holds its own here. The bulky nest, lasting from year to year, may be seen on our wildest coast precipices, or sometimes on the artificial cliff of a disused slate quarry.

The chough possesses the greatest interest, perhaps, of all Manx birds. Of all the homes of this very beautiful and graceful species, the Caaig of Manx-speaking people, the Isle of Man is, perhaps, the most accessible. A bird which seems to be dying out of the world, the ‘chough still inhabits a number of isolated localities, some-times on remote coast lands, but oftener on high mountain ranges like the Alps and Himalayas in Europe, Asia, and North Africa. At a distance not unlike a jackdaw, the red feet and slender curved red beak easily distinguish it at a nearer view. The nest, in the dark crevice high up a cliff, or sometimes in the hole of a ruinous building, is one of the most inaccessible that can-be imagined.

Of the large group of long-legged wading birds which haunt our lower coasts, four are specially conspicuous. The grey, wailing curlew nests, indeed, here and there, especially on the hills and curraghs of the North, but far more numerous are its winter throngs on the sand and mud. The handsome and noisy oyster-catcher, "Garey-vreck," "Sea-pie," "Bridgeen," shows its black and white plumage, its red legs and beak, all round the Island, and lays its speckled eggs in hollows on the shingle of Andreas and Jurby, and the turf of Langness or the Calf. The redshank, somewhat more local, is common among the low rocks and tide-pools of many localities

A smaller type than that of these three is best represented by the ringed plover, with its pretty black and white collars, a companion of the oyster-catcher at its breeding-places on the Northern gravel banks.

Of Manx sea-birds proper, the best known are the gulls, with which we meet on every coast, high or low, rocky or sandy, and also in most inland situations, for they have learned to eat, almost everything and to find their subsistence almost everywhere. Six kinds are regular on the Manx coast, but of these two, which may be distinguished as a large and a small species, far out-number the rest. The large gull is the herring gull, a handsome bird in the pure grey and white plumage char-acteristic of most gulls ; we all know its untidy nests, with their three great spotted eggs, and the prettily mottled young which so early learn to hide among the boulders. The small gull, with red feet and bill, is the so-called black-headed gull, whose dark hood (brown, not black) is worn only in the spring and early summer, when all the birds leave the Island to breed elsewhere . ‘ ‘ Black ‘ ‘ -headed gulls nest as near us as in Cumberland and Galloway ; their nesting home is not among rocks, but in marshy wastes and amid sand-hills, where they sometimes form immense settlements.

Less common gulls are the greater and lesser black-backs, whose name express their characteristic plumage. The ‘ ‘ greater, ‘ ‘ the largest of British gulls, is a fine, rapacious creature, with a hoarse cry and a great sweep of wing ; of late it has been discovered nesting in single pairs on a number of sites on the Manx cliffs. The ‘ C lesser ‘ ‘ breeds in a considerable colony on the Calf.

Most beautiful of all gulls is the dove-like kittiwake, which derives its name from its oft-repeated cry. There is a fine colony of this precipice-loving bird on the sheer crags of Spanish Head, where the nests are placed on narrow ledges of the overhanging rock.

Terns, resembling small and slender gulls, with forked tails, are more local summer visitors to our shores, where they hover over the shallows in quest of the small fish from which they have received the popular name of " Gibbyn Gant."

The snow-white plumage and splendid flight and plunge of the true gannet may be observed to perfection especially on our Northern and Western coasts. Our birds are daily visitors from the great settlement of Ailsa Craig, some hundred miles distant.

Near relatives of the white gannet are the black cormorants, common inhabitants of our harbours and tide rocks. The smaller cormorant, or shag, which gets a curious horn-like crest in spring, places its clumsy nests in the dark caves and fissures of the West and South-west, and there its black reptile-like young are hatched in their season.

The Calf and its adjacent headlands swarm v~ ith birds of two species which rarely visit the land except for ‘egg-laying : the razorbill and the guillemot. These birds are much alike, dark above and white beneath, with plump bodies and little tail, but the guillemot’s beak is sharp and spit-like, while the razorbill has the curious laterally flattened bill which has given it its name. Each lays a single egg of great size on the bare rock ; that of ‘the guillemot being of a pear-like form and of extra-ordinary variation in colour. The nesting cliff often rises sheer from deep water, and the hoarse swelling murmurs of a colony is one of the memories of a day’s boat excursion from Port St. Mary or Port Erin.

Smaller and prettier than the common guillemot is the black guillemot, " Sea Pigeon " of fishermen. It is also rarer, a few small colonies being scattered over the Manx cliffs. The black guillemot, whose dark dress. shews a white patch on the wing, has red feet, and its two eggs are laid in rock crevices.

The most numerous of all the rock-inhabiting birds of the southern end of the Isle of Man is the comical little puffin or sea parrot, whose swarms are roused from the’ turfy edges of the crags for the amusement of the visitors by every passing boat. Similar to the guillemot and razorbill in its habits as a deep water fisher, the puffin tunnels the turf to a considerable distance for the reception of its single egg, often difficult or impossible to reach among earth-fast boulders.

In my limits it has, of course, been impossible to do more than describe a few species selected from the nearly 200 which are to be found (sometimes, however, on the-strength of one or two examples only) on the Manx list. No mention has been made, for instance, of the wagtails, of the very abundant skylark—probably the sweetest of Manx song birds, of the common linnet and greenfinch, of the wood pigeon, so familiar in our rather scanty woodland ; of the wild geese and swans, stately but little observed winter visitors ; of the many smaller shore’ migrants, like the dunlin and sanderling.

But something has been indicated of the manifold beauty and interest of our bird life. A representative collection is being got together at our Museum at Douglas, but the best exhibition of our birds is that whose roof is the sky and whose bounds are co-extensive with the waters which wash our shores.


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see Manx Birds, 1905

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