The Isle of Man

The Isle of Man is a small island situated in the middle of the Irish Sea roughly midway between Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. Despite our central location within the British Isles we are an independent nation, with its own Government, laws, tax system and economy. We also enjoy a climate that is much milder than that of our near neighbours, due partly to the influence of the Gulf Stream which moves through the Irish Sea. This is one of the factors that make our habitats and hence birdlife distinctly different from that found in adjacent Isles.

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An introduction to birdwatching on the Isle Of Man

For the birdwatcher the Isle of Man offers a rich assortment of species, several of which are rarities in other parts of the British Isles, in a variety of habitats of exceptional beauty.

The Island is about 31 miles / 50 km in length and 12 miles / 20 km at its broadest point and occupies a central position in the northern part of the Irish Sea. It is dominated by two ranges of hills, clad in heather or grass moorland which rise to 2034 ft/621 m. at Snaefell in the north and to 1585 ft/483 m. at South Barrule. There are flat, but ornithologically valuable lowlands in the north (which include the Ayres and Ballaugh Curragh) and the southeast with the Langness peninsula. The coastline is mostly composed of slate cliffs, interrupted here and there by sandy bays and tiny shingle coves. In the north there are sand dunes which separate the lowland heath of the Ayres from the sea, while across the narrow Sound off the south-west point of the main is a hilly islet, the Calf of Man, site of an important Bird Observatory administered by Manx National Heritage (MNH).

Photo of typical Manx coastal heath

Rocks and heather - typical Manx coastal heath

Well-marked long distance footpaths explore almost the entire coast, providing frequent opportunities of seeing such Manx specialities as Peregrine, Chough and Raven. Fulmar and Shag are widely distributed but there are only four Cormorant colonies. A few of the more spectacular cliffs have Kittiwake and Guillemot colonies, while there is a good scatter of places where Black Guillemots nest. Stonechats are common on the gorse and bramble scrub, which is such a typical feature of the steep coastal brooghs – a Gaelic word for the grassy slopes, which lead down to the sea. Except for the height of the summer, parties of Purple Sandpiper can be found at several well-established sites on the rocky coast. Little Tern, with as many as seventy pairs in some years, are the most important breeding birds of the Ayres shore.

The Millennium Way takes the walker from Sky Hill near Ramsey 27 miles/42 km. over the hills and through farmland to Castletown. This is Raven country, with the possible chance of Merlin; but the bird of the Manx hills is now the Hen Harrier, which first nested in 1977 in the failed plantation of Glen Rushen. There has since been a rapid expansion throughout all appropriate habitats. By 1990 more than forty pairs were nesting and the largest roost in Western Europe had become established in the Ballaugh Curraghs, with smaller numbers at Stoney Mountain.

Along the fast flowing streams Grey Wagtails are common, but surprisingly the Dipper is rare and while Common Sandpipers are seen regularly on passage, they have rarely bred. Many of these streams pass through wooded glens where Chiffchaff, the increasingly successful Blackcap and Treecreeper are the typical birds – Silverdale, Port Soderick and Laxey Glens are best for birds while Ballaglass, Tholt-y-Will, Glen Helen and Glen Maye have the finest scenery. The steep wooded slopes overlooking the northern plain have breeding Sparrowhawks and Woodcock and here there is always the chance of a Wood Warbler in May.

Much of the moorland has been turned over to conifer plantations. Some have been established for more than 100 years and have ornithologically attractive clearings and areas of failed plantation. During the last decade Siskin, and more recently Crossbill, have begun to colonise the coniferous plantations, while the smaller plantations and shelter belts frequently support a pair of Long-eared Owls (as in Ireland, the commonest owl) and the very young plantations may attract Short-eared Owls.

Of the several reservoirs, Kerrowdhoo holds a variety of wildfowl in winter, as do the two smaller Foxdale dams – Eairy and Kionslieu. In the north, the tiny Glascoe Dub and nearby Ballacorey are always worth a look.

Curragh or willow carr is one of the most important habitats, the prime example being Ballaugh Curragh, a considerable expanse of marshland supporting a rich growth of willow and birch, together with Bog Myrtle. Renowned for its great Hen Harrier roost, it has a fine variety of birdlife at all seasons. The less extensive Greeba Curragh, stretching eastward from St. John’s, is easily reached by the old railway track from which roding Woodcock can invariably be seen on spring evenings.

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