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1 Feb 2020

Creature feature: northern fulmar

Written by Ceris Aston, Volunteer, St Abb’s Head NNR
A fulmar sits on a cliff ledge, beside a clump of pink thrift.
Don’t be fooled by the benign look of a fulmar at rest – they’re not birds to be messed with!
With strong winds blowing and dramatic seas, February is the perfect time to showcase a bird that’s hard to match in wild weather: the northern fulmar.

From the cliff top, almost at eye height, you may spot a pale shape gliding by, stiff-winged and silent. Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) fly seemingly without effort, shifting position to glide with – and yet much faster than – the wind, a technique known as ‘dynamic soaring’.

Fulmars are a medium-sized seabird, superficially gull-like, with a pale grey upper and white underparts. On water, they’re buoyant and sit very upright, while on land they cannot stand or walk, managing at best an ungainly shuffle.

On cliff faces, fulmars make noisy neighbours. Their throaty chuckling and cackling rises and diminishes in volume, sounding alarmed and companionable in turns. They nest mostly on grassy ledges near the tops of cliffs, though sometimes on the ground, particularly on islands.

They often live up to 50 years old, remaining largely loyal both to partners and nesting sites. Their single white egg is laid by the start of June, but this is just the beginning – 50 days of incubation follow, and then 50 more until the chick fledges. It’s an exercise in patience.

A fluffy fulmar chick sits on a nest, sheltered by some vegetation.
A fulmar chick

Fulmar chicks are endearing pale grey bundles of fluff. Nothing could appear so innocent or defenceless – nor, to a predatory eye, such an easy meal. However, these dark-eyed, downy babies come equipped with a startling defence mechanism: the high-pressure expulsion of a foul-smelling oil. This clogs up the wings of aerial predators … safer by far to leave well alone. Both chicks and adults produce this pungent oil – useful not only for defence, but also as energy-rich nourishment for long journeys or to feed young.

In the 1800s, fulmars were only occasional visitors to the British mainland, with St Kilda being their main breeding station. Since then the birds have spread, with their population in the northeast Atlantic increasing dramatically until the 1970s and the increase in commercial fishing. They’re great eaters of offal, and frequent companions of fishing vessels.

The subsequent decline in the North Sea whitefish industry is thought to have affected the fulmar population, which is now in decline across Europe. The species is also particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution. A 2011 study found that 95% of beached fulmars in the North Sea contained plastic.

Two fulmars call, standing on a grassy cliff ledge.
Cackling fulmars

As with albatrosses, sailors’ tales suppose fulmars to be the souls of drowned seamen and afford them respect tinged with awe. Gazing into its impenetrable dark eye, one might easily imagine the fulmar as the incarnation of a soul, keeping a watchful eye on fellow sailors. That is, of course, until it regurgitates its stinking liquid onto you, and breaks into bawdy chuckling with its comrades. If these are reincarnated souls, they’ve retained their sense of humour.