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.

Photo by Maggie Adkins, SSPCA

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?