I had signed up for a trip my husband and I had always wanted to do called “Wild and Ancient Britain.” We were to circumnavigate the west coast of England, parts of Ireland, and end up at the Scottish islands of Orkney, Shetland, and Fair Isle.
At the time, I never gave seabirds a thought. I wanted to go exploring from a zodiac, those rubberized rafts that motor you from the anchored ship to a landing place onshore. I imagined amazing scenery, Stone Age ruins, a walk on a lonely beach.
Our boat the Ocean Adventurer
Two things happened that turned a sightseeing trip into a top notch birding adventure.
First, I read a book that knocked me over. It was about seabirds, recommended to me by my friend, Hugh Ranson, a Welshman and excellent Santa Barbara birder. The book “A Seabird’s Cry” is a beautifully written, evocative description of the common seabirds to be found in the North Atlantic. The author, Adam Nicolson, is a writer, a sailor, and owner of the tiny Shiant Islands in the Inner Hebrides.
The second piece of good luck was that our boat, operated by Zegrahm tours, had a bird tour group on board. Every day the birders were off-loaded to a place we could explore and bird. We had two expert guides, and they worked tirelessly to help us.
Before this trip, seabirds were simply specks I saw from the deck of a boat while on a pelagic trip out beyond the Santa Barbara Channel: the boat bobbed up and down, my binoculars got speckled with sea spray, and I felt queasy most of the time. Seabirds were a mystery, and likely to remain so. I was a landbird person. But that was then………..
An isolated rock stack from the Flannan Isles, typical seabird nesting habitat
A gannet colony from afar — thousands of birds packed close together
Little Skellig, near Skellig Michael, off the Irish coast
After this voyage, which began May 11, 2018, seabirds captured my imagination. I loved hearing about their wandering lifestyles and observing their packed colonies. Sandwiched onto rock stacks in the misty rain, diving for fish wherever they can, these species are difficult to approach. They come to land once a year: only to lay a single egg,
Nearly all seabirds lay a big egg, raise that one chick, look after it with immense care, and some even go on attending it when it’s out of the nest at sea.
Common Guillemot (Common Murre) guarding a single egg
A seabird’s job is to find a good place to raise the chick, stick with the same partner, and wait to start a family when its old enough to be a good fish-hunter.
The remainder of a seabird’s life is spent searching for food, wherever that may take them. And now, with geolocators so tiny they can be attached without harming the bird, scientists know where and when seabirds leave their breeding grounds. We’ve learned how far each species must go to gather food for its chick, and where–when the breeding season is over–these species spend the winter.
Information has been hard to come by. For example, Atlantic Puffins have short, fat wings. Where do they go in winter, after the chicks they’ve raised have departed? Nobody knew, until a researcher on the island of Skomer, off the Pembrokeshire coast, tracked 27 puffins with geolocators . The revelation is that each puffin has its own pattern of movement, which is repeated year after year.
One puffin leaves Skomer in August after nesting, then heads straight off to Greenland, stays there awhile, then moves east towards Iceland. A month later it’s heading south off the west coast of Ireland, where it stays until it returns to it’s breeding grounds in April. Another puffin from the same colony does something completely different: it heads out into the Atlantic south of Iceland, then spends Christmas and the New Year in the central Mediterranean Sea (!), then returns home via the Straits of Gibraltar.
Each individual puffin apparently figures out a strategy of its own. And this isn’t something that’s programmed genetically. These birds are learning as they go, and once they find a successful foraging route, they apparently repeat it year after year. As Nicolson says: “They learn the land- and sea-marks that guide them between their various winter resorts.”
Atlantic Puffin standing in front of burrow. Note bright orange bill and orange feet indicating a good record for breeding.
On this voyage, we saw puffins at their nesting burrows. On deserted islands with enough turf to hide their burrows, a mated pair of puffins will arrive in May to use the same burrow year after year
Notice the bright breeding plumage of the puffin, which features a lot of orange on their beak, legs, and feet. The color orange is attractive to members of the puffin family. Why? Because its an indicator of large amounts of pigments called carotenoids, which are widespread in fish. Puffins with lots of carotenoids in them are healthier and better breeders than those without this bright concentration of color.
Razorbill at nest site
Related to the puffins, which are in the Auk or Alcid Family, are the Common Guillemot (the same as our Common Murre) and the Razorbill. Like the puffins, the guillemots and razorbills fish by diving from a sitting position on the surface. They use their wings to propel them downwards underwater.
Unlike puffins, guillemots nest in massive colonies on steep ledges. They begin breeding at the age of five, and can live up to forty-three years old. That’s a long time to be returning to the same tiny patch of cliff – about 7 inches square – where it lays its egg. The egg has a point at the tip, so that it won’t roll off, and the adults can recognize the egg by its pattern, and the chick by its cry.
Common Guillemot (Common Murre) colony
As Nicolson describes it: “The packed-in birds don’t usually mind touching their neighbors. But a constant tension and torsion ripples through them….A fight breaks out every twenty minutes or so. It is usually more symbolic than actual. There’s little contact with flesh, but a billow of noise, the rasp of a high-pitched growl-shriek rolling and roaring across the colony.”
Guillemots perch with their back to the sea, facing inward to protect the egg. And they’ve been coming to these same cliffs for breeding for literally thousands of years.
Razorbill surrounded by blooming Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima)
To be truthful, I was more interested in the Razorbills, because I’d never seen one before. Razorbills are the closest cousin of the flightless Great Auk, the largest seabird ever to have lived in the northern hemisphere, and now extinct.
Razorbills resemble miniature penguins. Their crisp black-and-white plumage and distinctive thick bill identify them as they sit on the fringes of colonies of other seabirds. Razorbills choose to nest on wider, sheltered ledges, or in boulder crevices often closer to the sea, but not together in chuck-a-block masses like the guillemots.
Razorbill chicks leave the nest before they are fully grown. When the chick is about three weeks old, the father – and its always the father who performs this duty, calls to the sequestered chick to come down to the sea. Taking the chick out to sea when it’s small is a unique strategy, but it reduces the costs of bringing fish back to the chick and the youngster is safer from predation by other colonial species nearby.
Often at night, but sometimes during the day, the father calls and calls to the waiting chick, which is still not able to fly well. The cry of the father “rraaaar rrrrrarrr” has an urgency and an echoing quality that the chick must obey. The future of the Razorbills’ survival depends upon it.
Northern Fulmar on nest. Fulmars do not choose to nest in colonies like the guillemots and gannets.
Found in nests nearby, but completely different from the Alcids, Northern Fulmars are the champion long distance flyers of the seabirds. They hold their wings stiffer than a gull, and the tail muscles are extraordinarily capable of steering the fulmar from one glide into another.
Like other “tubenoses”, the fulmar tracks its prey partly by smell; it can fly miles and miles to feed on the fish it needs to nourish the single chick. One particular Northern Fulmar became famous: #1568. This bird was tracked from its nesting cliff on the Orkney Islands on a foray totaling 3900 miles over two weeks. It flew from the Orkneys – northeast of the Scottish mainland—clear over to the central Northern Atlantic. In a place south of Greenland and east of Newfoundland, this fulmar found the rich patches of plankton that attracted schools of fish. Here, he fed for several days, finally making his way back to the Orkneys and his mate, via the west coast of Ireland and Scotland.
Like the albatross, petrel, and shearwater, the fulmar has evolved a way of travelling far to gather food for the chick. These birds aren’t nearshore fishers; they can’t bring back whole fish in their bills the way puffins or guillemots do. So they save a rich, foul-smelling oil in their gut, in the folds of their stomach. When the adult returns to the nest, the chick puts its bill inside the parent’s mouth and absorbs the oil that is regurgitated for it.
Northern Fulmars arguing on one of the islands of the St. Kilda group.
When we visited the remote islands of the St. Kilda group, which lie far to the west of the Hebrides, I understood why the islanders had been able to subsist by killing the fulmars for food, oil, and feathers. Since the late 1930s, however, when the St. Kildans asked to be evacuated due to the hardship of living on this wind-torn speck of land, no humans live here full time. The place is like a ghost town.
The St. Kilda islands have been reclaimed by the fulmars. They are the dominant inhabitants now– nesting in the walls and on top of the cleits, stone huts where the St. Kildans once stored their food. And when we departed that rainy, wild place, I was happy that the fulmars were restored to their rightful kingdom.
Isle of Noss, Shetlands, 6 a.m. on a rainy morning, with gannets flyiing around it
Of all the seabirds, the Northern Gannet was the most numerous. The whiteness of the colonies, strung like lace on the cliff faces, smashed like white frosting against the dark rocks; I never expected the thousands upon thousands of gannets all squeezed together. Perfectly good spaces of vacant rock were free and clear; it was the proximity of gannet bodies that the birds wanted, so they crammed together. Over eons, the close colony had proved itself the best tool for survival.
Gannets embrace the tenets of seabird colonial breeding: they ferociously defend their 2 foot square nest area, the most desirable nests are near the center of the colony (which is where the most successful, usually the most senior individuals nest), and they use the colony as a place of information exchange.
Northern Gannet, showing it’s dagger-like bill and strong body equipped for plunge-diving for fish
A gannet colony up close is a noisy, active place
Up-to-date information on where the fishing is most productive is essential. Within the colony, birds constantly come and go, visiting the fishing territory that’s been established for that particular colony. Competition for survival is intense. This is not a cuddly, cozy situation. The colony is full of noise, beak-stabbing, and keen observation of which birds have returned with fish from their hunting forays.
The beauty of the gannets makes you forget the fierce competition within the colony
That monstrous, powerful beak, and, as Nicolson calls it “the pitiless eye” of pale ice-blue: together these are the fishing tackle of the gannet. The adaptable eye changes shape from above water where the bird spots the fish, through the plunge dive, to the underwater chase.
Great Saltee Island off Ireland
My favorite day of the whole voyage was an afternoon spent on a privately owned island off the east coast of Ireland called Great Saltee. It’s owned by a family, but if you put ashore between 11 and 4, you are allowed to wander the island on your own.
Here, literally at my feet, were Atlantic Puffins standing at their burrow entrances, Northern Fulmars nesting nearby, colonies of guillemots and gannets sprawled over the cliffs, and Razorbills and Great Cormorants scattered throughout.
Gannets on Great Saltee
Great Black-backed Gull on nest on Great Saltee. I saw this gull sweep down and snatch an egg from one of the guillemots in the colony nearby.
On Fair Isle, you can see a big bird observatory. This tiny island is a famous vagrant trap, where off course species land to take shelter. A banding operation helps scientists record these visitors. I was astonished to see Parasitic Jaegers and Great Skuas nesting in the open meadows adjacent to the cliffs. These are predators of seabird colonies, but to observe them on their nesting grounds was a treat.
Bird Observatory on Fair Isle
Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua) at nest site on Fair Isle
At the end of my journey, I came away with the message that seabird colonies need to be protected from humans, and from predators that we’ve introduced, like rats. Fishing regulations could be tightened so that birds aren’t part of the by-catch. And, most importantly, the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the acidity of the ocean needs to be brought under control.