Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Fairies Of The Sea

Fulmars are my favourite seabird! I guess it's because they were the first real seabird I saw in my life. I was 20 years old and going over to the island of Helgoland by ferry.

When you grow up in Britain you can't imagine not going to the coast or not seeing seabirds as a child. But I grew up in southern Germany - far away from any sea, so I had never seen an auk, tube-nose or any other real seabird before I went on that trip to Helgoland.

We were approaching the island when suddenly these brilliant white birds came sailing past. I didn't know what they were but for me they looked like the most beautiful creatures, like fairies of the sea.

Photo: D Boyle

They flew past the boat and then shot out into the boiling sea - they sped up as they descended towards the waves only to pull themselves up at the very last minute, skim the frothy wave tops and glide elegantly past the ferry once more. Some of them were just hanging there in the wind, not moving at all, dangling their legs and kicking from time to time - turning their beautiful heads to look at us.

Photo: D Milborrow

My friend told me that they were "Eissturmvögel" which translates to Ice-Storm-Birds and I thought to myself: "What an appropriate name, they really are the colour of milky glacier ice."

Nowadays I see Fulmars every day; they live right next to my house. They are our most faithful seabird, they will be on the cliffs "waiting" for us in March, when we come back after a winter on the mainland and they are still here now, in September.

Photo: D Boyle
The chicks started to fledge two weeks ago. They launched themselves undaunted by death into the air, flapped their wings frantically, glided a bit and then crashed onto the beach below with a thud. They did some somersaults and then came to rest - their tails sticking up, their wings stretched to their sides, looking astonished but unhurt.

Fulmar chick crashed on Wick beach - he needs to practise a bit more :-) Photo: A Dodds

Have a look at this video I took on the 4th of September. It is a young Fulmar on the cliff at North Haven, stretching its wings. Is it getting ready for its virgin flight?

Most Fulmar chicks have mastered the skill of flight by now and I was able to watch them fooling around and enjoying the stiff northerly breeze. Here is another little clip from the 4th of September:

Fulmars are found throughout the north Atlantic and North Sea, north of 45°N. Its boreal distribution has increased over the last 250 years to Iceland, the Faroes, Spitsbergen and suitable areas of coastline in Britain.

The estimated British population is 539,000 breeding pairs. This year we had 584 pairs breeding on Skomer, which is an increase of +5% to 2014. We are very happy that the Fulmars are doing fine on Skomer as their population in Europe is decreasing. They are now classed as endangered of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), see  here for more info.
Breeding population size and long-term trends across Europe
Fulmars spend large amounts of time in waters over continental shelf; ranging from the Arctic pack-ice through to subarctic and temperate waters in the North East Atlantic. The species typically breeds on cliffs and rock faces, occasionally in sand dunes or on flatter ground. Its diet is variable, but includes fish, squid and zooplankton, especially amphipods and jellyfish also fish offal and carrion. In the North Sea its diet includes mainly lesser sandeels.

Major threats to Fulmars are predation from invasive mammals, such as foxes, rats, mice. Luckily we don’t have any of these on Skomer. Fulmars also suffer from oil spills and they end up as bycatch in fisheries with large numbers getting caught in longline, trawl and gillnet fisheries. The Fulmar is also susceptible to collision and displacement from offshore wind farms and by shipping lanes.

There might not be a lot we can easily do about oil spills and wind farm collisions but everyone can help the Fulmars by keeping our seas clean. Fulmars are highly susceptible to ingesting marine litter and plastics. So please hold on to your litter on windy cliff tops and don’t flush any plastic down the toilet.

Plastic from a stomach of a Fulmar

Don't forget to look out for the Fulmars when you are visiting Skomer! Photo: C Taylor
(Skomer Warden)

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