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Trollopes Bird Notes

February 2020

Click for Trollope's November 2019 notes

Fascinating Fulmars facing uncertain future

One of the most pleasurable activities I would miss if I lived in a landlocked country would be a coastal walk. We are very fortunate in having some of the most spectacular coastlines anywhere in the world - even in the Southeast we have the Seven Sisters white cliffs amongst others. Not only are the scenes stunning but the wildlife can be spectacular, particularly our seabirds.

One that immediately catches my eye is the Fulmar, which appears to be another gull with a white head and mottled grey upper parts but it belongs to another family altogether. It is the flight mode that is immediately obvious and which distinguishes it from all other gulls; soaring with stiff wings that never seem to flap, it glides effortlessly over the waves like a mini albatross using the power of the wind to travel. I have watched Fulmars through binoculars for many hours and it is impossible to detect any movement of the wing or tail for their change in direction. They nest on cliffs and this is where it is best to see them, where they can use the updraft of the cliffs to access their nest sites.

The Fulmar belongs to the Procellariiformes - a family of largely ‘pelagic’ birds including shearwaters and petrels, which spend most of their lives at sea. They are sometimes referred to as tube-nosed seabirds, as they have a tube-shaped structure which covers their nostrils on the top of their upper bill. This enables them to excrete salt from their salt-laden diet, which is derived entirely from the sea and includes a wide variety of fish offal, crustaceans, small squid, sandeels etc.

They land only in order to nest and have a reduced walking ability similar to shearwaters and petrels. The name Fulmar comes from The Norse language, where full means foul, in reference to its foul stenching stomach oil, which is used as a spray to deter predators. The oil is mainly used as a food source for hungry chicks as well as a fuel for long-distance flights.

In the 19th century the Fulmar was restricted to Iceland and St Kilda, where there was a huge colony and the inhabitants at that time relied on the birds for oil for lamps, meat for food and feathers for rent. The harvest took place in August when the chicks were bloated with stomachs full of oil. As Fulmars nest on steep inaccessible cliffs this was a highly dangerous practice and I expect quite a few lives were lost, but if one did not risk life and limb then starvation was the alternative.

Some 12,000 birds were taken every year, yielding 600 gallons of oil, and each family had to pay the landlord about 1,200 pounds of feathers. As the Fulmar has only one chick, the size of the colony must have been huge to withstand this sort of harvest over many years, especially as although Fulmars, like albatrosses, live a long time, circa 30 years, they do not breed until they are seven to nine years old.

It was during this time that the whaling industry was at its height and it is thought that the Fulmar derived huge benefits from whale oil and blubber, as well as discards and guts from the growing and powerful industrialised fishing trawlers. As a result of this bounty the Fulmar’s range expanded to the Scottish coast and down the British Isles, reaching as far as Kent, where in the 1970s there where small colonies of about 100 pairs off St Margaret’s and Foreness Point. Today there are still a few breeding pairs left but, like many other seabirds, their numbers are now declining in Kent, as well as nationally, as climate change takes effect, reducing their prey and also drying up discards.

Until recently we could only guess where Fulmars went on their fishing trips to feed their offspring. Then a group of scientists from Aberdeen University fitted GPS loggers to some breeding birds on an uninhabited island in the Orkneys. One male bird in his 11th breeding season left his nest after his partner returned from her fishing trip to do her turn on the eggs. It was late May and the weather was good and calm and initially he sat on the sea for three days waiting for the wind to pick up to help him reach his chosen feeding grounds. The wind picked up and to the utter amazement of the trackers he flew 1,000 miles in two and a half days into the depths of the northern Atlantic, reaching an area where the mid-Atlantic Ridge is broken and the cold fertile waters from the Arctic meet the warm Atlantic.

These waters are full of plankton, squid and fish, on which he feasted, joined by birds from all over the Atlantic, including Sooty Shearwaters from the Falklands. Over three days he moved slowly westwards feeding, so that he was 1500 miles from the nest site.

His return journey was just as interesting; rather than make a beeline for his nest site he flew in a south-easterly direction towards south-west Ireland, ending up in Galway Bay, where he fed for eight hours. He then turned north up the Irish coast and around the Outer Hebrides, stopping off for another feed at Tiree before arriving back at the nest to relieve his mate of ten years.

He had travelled a straight line distance of 3,900 miles in just over two weeks, yet this was the only tracked Fulmar who went this distance. Others chose much closer feeding opportunities, but I suspect that he found these feeding grounds when exploring the seas during the eight or so years between fledging and breeding and made a mental note of their position.

The future for Fulmars and other Procellariformes is one of great uncertainty. There have recently been some rather alarming breeding failures around our coasts, mainly due to sandeel shortage, which is either due to ocean warming or over-fishing by factory ships hoovering up the small fry for fertiliser production. Fulmars being mainly surface feeders are now ingesting micro plastics along with plankton and krill, a problem which is going to get worse in the short term.

Charles Trollope


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