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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

The Fulmar Colony from Ovingdean to Saltdean, 2021. An Article for the SDOS Spring Newsletter 2022.

At the end of last year (2011) I wrote an article for the Shoreham and District Ornithological Society on my Fulmar observations during lockdown earlier in 2011. This article was published in the SDOS Spring Newsletter 2022. The text of my article is reproduced below

Sim Elliott

The Fulmars from Ovingdean to Saltdean; 2021

In January 2021, our world changed in response to the Covid regulations which required us to stay within our local authority area. I had to visit Rottingdean three times a week to see my mother. I cycled to avoid infection on public transport, as I don’t drive. This journey gave me the opportunity to regularly observe the bird life of the chalk cliffs. I saw Herring Gulls, Black-headed Gulls, Great Black-Backed Gulls, Jackdaws, and Feral Pigeons in flight along the cliffs. Once I saw a Peregrine Falcon perched atop the cliff. Birds foraging on the beach at low tide included Gulls, Oystercatchers, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, and occasionally Turnstones, Little Egrets, Grey Herons, and once a Curlew. Rock Pipits foraged widely across a range of habitats. The cliffs provided nesting sites for Starlings, Jackdaws, Rock Pipits, Feral Pigeons and Fulmars.

The Fulmars captured my attention through their squawking and fascinating flight behaviour. I decided that on my regular trips along the coast I would focus on the Fulmars and I observed them for the rest of the year. They occurred mostly as singletons and in pairs, but sometimes in threes and fours, often showing pair-bonding behaviour (cackling and waggling their bills around each other’s heads rhythmically). They were frequently seen in flight.

Northern Fulmars, Fulmarus glacialis, are part of Petrel and Shearwater family; and are related to albatrosses. The alternative name of the family, ‘tubenoses’, reflects the fact that they have tubes on the bills for the excretion of salt from seawater. Fulmars vomit up a sticky, bad-smelling oil to fend off predators; which accounts for their name (ful = foul; mar = gull in old Norse). They nest on open ledges and crevices on cliffs and cannot easily walk on land. Fulmars are pelagic except when breeding. They are found in the UK at seabird colonies, most abundantly in Scotland and the Northern Isles, and less commonly on the coasts of England. They are rare on the south coast.

The last Fulmar I observed was on the 13th of August, after which they presumably returned to sea. They reappeared at the end of December. Fulmars mostly live along the cliffs between Ovingdean and Saltdean, but I observed outlier pairs between the Marina and Ovingdean at times. From January to August 2021 I made 21 observations between Ovingdean and Rottingdean. The maximum count on a single observation was 15 birds, the minimum 0 and the median was 5. I made 9 observations between Rottingdean-Saltdean with a maximum of 40 birds. I made 7 observations of the entire colony (from Ovingdean- to Saltdean) with a maximum 40 birds, a minimum of 2, with the median being 6 birds.

I saw the birds either on nest sites, or in flight. Birds flew off the cliffs frequently making short circular flights, not landing on most returns; I wondered if they made repeated attempts at landing because landing is difficult and is only successful sporadically. In the literature, Fulmars are reported as making long flights to forage during their breeding period, sometimes making journeys of 100s or low 1000s of miles to forage in the Atlantic. This may explain why the number of Fulmars that I saw varied widely and, perhaps, why on some occasions, there were none. When I saw them flying the Fulmars seemed only to go a short distance, and I saw no Fulmar forage for food in the nearby sea.

Fulmars start breeding at 6-7 years of age and will lay a single white egg on bare rock lined with plant material. In some colonies, before laying, the entire population disappears for 4-5 days probably to build up fat reserves. Eggs are incubated for 49-53 days after which the young hatch, usually in early July. They take 50+ days to fledge. They are long lived birds with records of individuals beyond the age of 50. During incubation foraging trips of 16 -18 days have been recorded for Fulmars.

Peter James observed in 1996 in The Birds of Sussex that Fulmars are “well-established on the chalk cliffs between Brighton and Beachy Head … Birds were seen on the chalk cliffs as early as 1946 (C M. James pers. comm.) but despite a considerable increase in numbers since five pairs were first located at Beachy Head in 1965, breeding was not proved until 1976. Neither type of cliff formation provides ledges of any size or permanence and it is significant, perhaps, that breeding was first proved at Newhaven where some pairs occupy holes in the cliff-face, rather than ledges”. My observations were that the Ovingdean to Fulmar nesting sites were in fairly deep crevices in the cliffs, not the ledges that are used in other nesting sites in the UK.

Whilst I observed pairs of birds mating in early May, I was unable to establish definitively whether the Fulmars produced young, as they mostly occupied quite deep crevices which significantly reduced the possibility of observing eggs or chicks. I noted, however, birds flying that may have been juveniles (smaller with fresh plumage) on the 13th August. This would be a typical time for juvenile birds. On the 29th June I saw a bird that may have been feeding or tending to a chick at the back of the crevice. On 19th July I again saw a single adult bird in a nest cavity, possibly rearing a chick, although I could only see the adult bird.

Having had my interest piqued by the initial necessity to stay local, and my need to travel to Rottingdean regularly by bike, I intend to continue my observations of the Fulmars, but perhaps not with the intensity I managed from January to August 2021.



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