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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Fulmars - Observation 1 (12/01/2021)

Updated: May 16, 2021

Fulmar from the Old Norse word “foul bird”.

Fulmarus glacialis

Bird family: Petrels and shearwaters

UK conservation status: Amber

Today as I was cycling along the undercliff I heard a bird call that I didn't recognize, on the cliffs, above me, between Ovingdean and Rottingdean. I looked up and saw Fulmars; well I initially saw "strange looking seabirds that aren't Herring Gulls, Blacked-headed Gulls, or Great Blacked-Back Gulls, which are the birds I normally see around the cliffs here". I remembered that another birder had told me there are sometimes Fulmars along the undercliff. I posted a photo and asked some birder friends if they were Fulmars; and they confirmed that they were.

Fulmars are the second new-to-me first sightings that I have had in 4 days; I saw a Goldcrest for the first time on Saturday.

As I cycle 3-4 times a week along the undercliff, to visit my mother, I intend to record the life of this Fulmars colony; hopefully capturing the raising of the chicks, and some of the chicks' first flights.

Future observations will be more sustained and data focussed.

Here are the photographs I took of the first day of my adventure with this Fulmar colony.

After the photos there is some background information on Fulmars.

Some background information on Fulmars.

"Fulmarus glacialis. Family Petrels and shearwaters. related to albatrosses and sharing peculiar arrangement of nostrils, giving the alternative name, ‘tubenoses’. They are strictly marine, many coming ashore to breed in burrows, then only under the cover of darkness, although one of the most widespread, the fulmar, nests on open ledges. None are properly able to walk on land.

The fulmar is always offshore, except when breeding. Found near all suitable cliffs. Best looked for at seabird colonies - most abundant along Scottish coastline, especially on the Northern Isles. Least common along the east, south and north-west coasts of England."

Fulmars started colonising the east coast of the UK in the 19th century and the first written account of the species on the Isle of May was in May 1914 with the first breeding pair noted in 1930.

Fulmars are very specialist seabirds as they have a salt gland above the nasal passage which helps them excrete salt due to the high amount of ocean water that they take in. They also have a very good defensive mechanise even from a young age which allows chicks to be left unattended without coming to any harm. If anything or anyone gets too close to Fulmars, they excrete a stomach oil which is sprayed out of their mouths which will mat the plumage of avian predators , which can lead to the predators death.

During the winter months they’ll occupy the cliff ledges and by early spring, the new breeding season will have started.

Fulmars don’t start breeding until they are 6-7 years of age (which is old for any bird species) and will lay a single white egg on bare rock ledges or shallow depressions lined with plant material/ However just before egg laying, the entire population disappear (this has been referred to as the honeymoon period) for 4-5 days and it is thought that birds do this to build up fat reserves. Once the egg is laid, they’ll then incubate for 49-53 days after which the young will hatch, usually in early July. The growing cycle is slow as can take 50+ days to fledgling with the first youngsters leaving the Isle of May in mid-August.

The diet of the Fulmar ranges from fish offal, whale meat, crustaceans and even jelly fish (hence why plastic bags can be a problem for Fulmars). They are also long living birds with records of individuals well beyond the age of 50.

There's so much more to fulmars than meets the eye. RSPB Scotland's Shona Morrison gives us an insight into the fascinating sea birds and why they have made it on to her favourites list.

Fulmar, or “an stuffan” as they are affectionately known locally, are one of my favourite sea birds. When I go to the coastline, it is always the first bird to acknowledge my presence with a close, eye level, stiff-winged, silent fly-by, on repeat! They may be clumsy on land but they are masters of the air. Their beautiful eyes seem to look at you with a quiet sense of humour, implying that they know something you do not.

Sometimes it is presumed that the fulmar is from the gull family, when in fact it is a member of the petrel family, which includes the larger albatross and the tiny storm petrel. They are basically small albatrosses. Easily distinguishable from the gull family with their stiff wings and their tube noses: they have a salt gland that is situated above their nasal passage to help de-salinate their bodies. This is due to the high amount of sea water they intake, the salt gland extracts this salt and excretes it as a strong saline solution via their tube nose.

Another characteristic trait is one that gives it the name fulmar, or Fulmaras, which derives from the Old Norse word “foul bird”. The reason they were called this is that both the adults and chicks have a startling defence mechanism – they spit out foul smelling oil at intruders. The oil is very sticky and is impossible to preen out. Oiled feathers then stick together: the unfortunate bird is no longer waterproof and can, unfortunately, die. What a way to defend yourself! The fulmars dark-eyed, grey, downy babies are left quite vulnerable when their parents go out to sea, so need all the help they can get.

Fulmars are long lived and the oldest recorded fulmar is in Orkney, she is over fifty years old! Slow to mature they don't start breeding until they are 8-10 years old. Like albatrosses, they mate for life and stay faithful to their nest site throughout their lives. They have a strong bond with their partner which is sweet to watch when they return to the nest and they start “bill-fencing”. Unlike many of the other members of this family, they are active around their nesting colonies during the day. The nest is located on the ledge of a cliff or in a hollow on a bank or slope. When nesting on a rock ledge, the fulmars do not build a nest, but when they nest on a bank or slope, they make a shallow scrape, occasionally lined with small stones. The female lays one egg, and both parents incubate for about 7 weeks. Once the egg hatches, both parents feed the chick by regurgitation. The chick takes flight for the first time at the age of about seven weeks.

The chicks fledge at the end of August, beginning of September and this is a dangerous time for the chicks. Fulmars have great difficulty in taking flight from flat land and if young birds misjudge their first take off they can crash land and become stranded. Unless they reach water or a cliff face, they may fall prey to larger birds, ground predators or simply starve to death. Our local SSPCA Auxiliary Inspector Maggie Adkins, patiently hand fed three young fulmars that were found on Traigh Mhor Tolsta beach on the Isle of Lewis after a kind member of the public alerted the SSPCA to them. When found, they weren’t even spitting oil, which lets you know just how hungry they were. Sadly, one of the birds didn't make it, but the other two were strong enough for Maggie to set free to see out their long lives.

Historically, in Britain, fulmars lived on St Kilda where they were harvested for their oil, feathers and meat. Indeed, they were central to the islands’ economy. Thomas Bewick, the natural history author, wrote in 1804 that “No bird is of so much use to the islanders as this: the fulmar supplies them with oil for their lamps, down for their beds, a delicacy for their tables, a balm for their wounds and a medicine for their distemper”’.

The fulmars then spread into Northern Scotland in the 19th century, and to the rest of the United Kingdom by 1930. An increase in food discarded by commercial fishing has been suggested as a contributing factor to the spectacular growth in numbers of northern fulmars in Britain, Ireland and the North Atlantic. However, during the last 15 years, the rise in northern fulmars ceased, with declines recorded in some areas. The environmental change which is most likely to have affected northern fulmars since the 1970’s has come from a decline in the North Sea whitefish industry. Also, declines in the abundance of natural prey such as sand eels are likely to have had a detrimental effect on the populations, as well as climate change.

Depressingly, another major factor in the reduction of sea birds is marine litter. Ingesting plastic has been known to cause blockages in the digestive system but scientists have recently wondered whether these human-made substances could also release harmful chemicals. Recent research in the Netherlands found some stomach oil samples from fulmar chicks already had some of the plastic-derived chemicals in it, possibly due to the young being fed plastic by parents. What a sad thought.

While the long-term health implications for the birds remain unclear, researchers say studies show leached chemicals from plastic can disrupt hormone release and reproduction. We are familiar with distressing images of birds caught in plastic packaging or fishing line, but we now know that discarded plastic could also have long-term toxic effects on seabirds.

When I think of summer and heading to the local beaches, my day just wouldn’t be the same without the cackling and quacking of the fulmars sitting pretty on their nests on the cliffs amongst the beautiful pink sea thrift. It is a sight and sound I associate with hot summer days. Here at Ness on Lewis, we have northern fulmar colonies at both our local beaches. The birds seem quite undisturbed by our human company, no matter how busy the beaches get on nice days. Maybe it’s because they are safe in the knowledge that they have a great defence mechanism, spitting out pungent oil at intruders? They know that they are safer to be left well alone. I wonder if that’s what gives them that endearing twinkle in their eyes?"

History of sightings at Ovingdean (to 2004) From The Birds of Sussex



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