As I approached work at the Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve this morning, I noticed a fulmar by the side of the road. I assumed it was a recently fledged chick from one of the old quarries. They find it difficult to take off from ground, particularly when there is no wind, long grass, and dry-stone walls to contend with. I knew I ought to help the bird by putting it in the sea, but in the knowledge that fulmars can spew their guts up with gusto and the smell of the oily musty fishy stomach contents is pretty much unwashableoutable of any fabric. I think the word "fulmar" means "foul gull." I think that's a bit unfare as, apart from the spewing bit, they are rather attractive funky seabirds.
So, my dilemma this morning was whether to attempt to catch the wee fella, risking the clothes I was wearing and the company of my colleagues. Or pop home get appropriate tools for the job and prepare properly. I opted for the former. For one reason or another, I ended up with my trousers and sleeves rolled up and barefoot, almost performing an elaborate dance as I tried to catch the bird as it flapped away from me, ready to dodge the vomit. The fulmar made the appropriate gestures and sounds, but failed to produce any projectile vomit. Once I realised it's stomach was already empty I simply caught the bird and strolled down towards Grutness pier.
As I walked with the bird I had a moment to reflect on the species. Look up the RSPB website to find out more about them - http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/f/fulmar/index.asp.
Until the late 1800s, there were only a few pairs breeding in Shetland. Now there are around a quarter of a million individuals! This is for a variety of reasons, such as availability of food and breeding habitat, their impressive defense strategy and that they are long-lived. It truly vexes me to know that most fulmars in and around the North Sea will have an amount of plastic in their stomachs. We know this thanks to the results of Beach Bird Surveys (locally, these are organised by Martin Heubeck of SOTEAG/Aberdeen University) and subsequent analysis of corpses found on the monthly surveys. Plastic breaks down in to small pieces which may be mistaken by seabirds as plankton or other foodstuff. It appears that many people simply do not have any respect for the sea and life dependent on it. We all should make the effort to tidy up after ourselves and others. Here in Shetland we have a massive beach tidy up every spring, with thousands of volunteers walking miles of coastline gathering rubbish. I look forwards to the day we don't have to do it as there is no longer the need.
I've always had a fondness for fulmars. They are a joy to watch as they fly around surfing the wind, have lovely expressions, and I think they have a sense of humour (but that's for another blog entry sometime). It's funny to think that the birds I see nesting near to my parents house are likely the same individuals as was there when I was a bairn, and may be there for another decade or so. I reached the pier and placed the fulmar on the water. It quickly spread its wings and ran out across the surface of the sea. Not the most graceful of starts, but it's always a good feeling to see a bird set free, particularly when not covered in spew. The sweet smell of success!
Well, it's been a while since I posted an update - so apologies for that. I thought I'd give you a quick update on how our puffins got on this year.
Puffins, known as Tammy Nories in Shetland, are many folks favourite seabird. They are bold in character and appearance, great to watch, and simply adorable. I have the great fortune of being based at Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve, where the Shetland Office is located, and have been working there on and off since 2001. Puffins are generally quite predictable. They arrive onshore in April, though we wouldn't recommend folk to come to see them specifically until May. The first birds arriving back are believed to be the breeding population. The numbers of birds increase throughout summer as non-breeding birds join the colony. For a variety of reasons, puffins may not be seen on every day of the summer, certainly not in their thousands. For all my years at SUmburgh Head though, puffins remain in good numbers on the cliffs until mid-August. I usually tell folk that to get good views of puffins at the reserve come before August the 15th. Indeed, the last handful we saw last year were seen on the cliffs on the 15th and no later. WIth that in mind, back in September I set a date for a "Puffin Party" for August 8th. This was to encourage folk to get out to see the birds before they leave the shore for a winter at sea. How wrong I was...
Around the 25th July we noticed that there were only a few puffins to be seen. It's not uncommon for the majority of the birds to be away for a couple of days. However, six days on I was feeling concern - Have the birds failed to breed or has it actually been a good year? For these seabirds to depart the cliffs a full two weeks early is unheard of. As it happens, this was our first year of a new puffin productivity monitoring programme. Assistant Warden Rob has spent over 100hours observing and recording puffins at a new study plot. It is difficult and time consuming to get a good idea of how well puffins are doing when it comes to fledging chicks on account of them nesting in burrows on inaccessible cliffs. However, we believe that the productivty of our puffins was 0.456. That means that almost half the birds in the study plot succeeded in fledging their chick. I contacted Derick Shaw at Fair Isle Bird Observatory (FIBO). FIBO have a long-term monitoring programme of puffins. The number we came to is similar to the average that Fair Isle has had for the past ten years. Although it is important to note that 2007 and 2008 were dreadfully poor seasons for puffins on Fair Isle (about one in ten fledging), and the previous ten years, back through to the 1990s, around 6-7 out of ten birds fledged a chick. So, there is something going on within the seas around us meaning the birds are not finding enough food to raise their chicks. The FIBO long-term monitoring plot was checked on the 20th July, and many of the young had fledged. This is earlier than usual.
With our Sumburgh Head puffins seemingly departed, I sent out a press release about them and said that the party would still go ahead, but perhaps with no puffins. Well, imagine my surprise in the day that the newspaper went to print 2000 puffins appeared on the cliffs!! Where they remained for three days. Then, only half a dozen were seen for a couple of days, then a couple of hundred. The day before the party (7th August), I saw a total of seven. Seven is more tha none, so I had to be content with that but busied myself making puffin related activities such as painting puffin pebbles. August the 8th arrived. The event had been well advertised throughout the isles and the weather was surprisingly calm. At 9am, I checked over the walls and managed to find a dozen or so puffins - some showing off remarkably close to the dry-stone walls. I could also see a few dozen flying around, and the fulmar chicks were looking gorgeous in their grey fluffy down. As the day progressed, more and more puffins arrived and some almost looked to be showing off for the cameras and the children. I think my sigh of gleeful relief could be heard from miles away! ALmost 370 people came to the reserve between 11am and 4pm, and I am pretty sure each one of them felt better for having had close contact with puffins and having taken part in our activities and games. STV and BBC filmed and recorded the puffin story, and I heard I was even quoted in the Daily Mail.
Puffins are indeed a special bird. You find puffin images throughout the islands, be it on holiday brochures, cartoons, shop fronts. They are no doubt responsible for attracting many people to SHeltand each year, and play a role in the islands economy. The many school children we take around the reserve as a part of our field teaching service get great joy from puffin experiences. However, it is important to note that from FIBO's long-term monitoring of puffins, they have discovered that the puffin population has almost halved in less than ten years. This is not down to chicks not fledging, this is due to adult puffins (the breeding population) dying. I look forwards to Martin Heubecks' forthcoming publication about winter survival of puffins. Without the long-term monitoring programmes of not only puffins, but many different kinds of seabirds by organisations such as SOTEAG/Aberdeen University, FIBO, SNH, RSPB and many others we simply would not have evidence of what is happening within the sea. It is not just important but essential that we each do what we can to tackle the issues which affect our wonderful sea life. Look through the RSPB website to find out more about what you can do.
I believe also that is of great importance folk make that wee bit of an effort to go experience a seabird colony - take your family and friends even if they don't seem interested. They'll never forget it. We're fortuante in Shetland, I have great skuas flying over my garden and indeed had a young puffin at my door a couple of weeks ago! But words can't rightly express the feeling you get from seeing, hearing and smelling a busy seabird colony. To quote one of the schoolchildren who visited "It was the best school trip ever! Everything was good!"
The cliffs are eerily quiet now, but I am already looking forwards to next spring.
We thought all of the auks (puffins, guillemots and razorbills) had left the colony at Rathlin, but then someone spotted a guillemot carrying a fish back to the cliffs. When we trained the telescope onto it, we discovered that it was still feeding a chick! One guillemot pair left out of thousands, with only the kittiwakes and fulmars for company. The fulmar chicks are starting to change from grey, amorphous, fluffy, fat blobs into fine-feathered flying machines. There are now lots of young kittiwakes, with their distinctive black 'W' wing patterns, flying to and from their nests. Some kittiwakes have already fledged and have been seen in Ballycastle Harbour, only a few miles away on the mainland. It is heartening to see so many young, healthy birds leaving the nest after many disastrous breeding seasons.
This year seems to have been a good year for seabird breeding success all over Britain and Ireland and Rathlin Island has been no exception. Bye for now.Lorraine