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Bird of the Month: The Fulmar - John McEwen

Pursuits | By John McEwen

Long-lived fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) have bred at Northumberland's Bamburgh Castle since 1934, says John McEwen

I watch the fulmar hurl its breast

To the wind’s unseen geometry;

Spread wings on nothing, reckless of gravity,

And ride that risk

And rest

On sheer uncertainty

Choosing no choice.

I must learn to be like him,

To follow the reach and search of air –

Swoop, sink, stand, balance, soar on

the invisible spiral stair –

And not resist

But trust,

And be carried there.

Katrina Porteous, The Fulmar

Katrina Porteous is from Northumbria, where the relentless, 150-year-long southern and eastern expansion of the fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) means they have bred at Bamburgh Castle since 1934 and, as elsewhere in Britain, even inland.

The fulmar is an ocean-wanderer, but some use their native cliffs as a base all year round. May to July is the breeding season. They nest typically on slopes above cliffs; also on the cliffs themselves and elsewhere. The usual single chick is left, suitably fattened, by its parents, for up to ten days before it flies off to sea.

In his 1746 The History of St Kilda, the Rev Kenneth Macaulay wrote, ‘So exquisitely nice are his feelings and so strong his resentment, that he conceives an unconquerable aversion for his nest if one breathes over it and will never pay it any more visits.’ Adults and chicks protect themselves by projectile-vomiting a disgusting oil, impossible to cleanse from clothes and potentially fatal to predators, fouling their feathers – hence ‘fulmar’ from Old Norse fúll már (foul gull).

Until 1878, St Kilda, 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, was the only fulmar colony in the British Isles. From the 17th century, the bird replaced the gannet as the islanders’ mainstay, providing more palatable meat, feathers for bedding and oil for lamps and healing wounds. The monopoly ensured a mainland income.

Charles Maclean, in Island on the Edge of the World: The Story of St Kilda, quotes an 18th-century islander – ‘Deprive us of the Fulmer, and St Kilda is no more’ – and from an old St Kildan love song:

She: Thou art my handsome joy, thou art my sweetheart,

Thou gavest me the first honeyed fulmar!

By 28th August 1930, the human population had declined from a 1697 high of 180 to an unsustainable 36 and St Kilda was abandoned. In 1929, the islanders had caught 4,000 fulmars.

Fulmars are not gulls but petrels (Tuberidae – ‘tubenoses’) – the bird family least tied to land. The tubes protect their nostrils from seawater and allow them to eject excess salt. Fulmars save energy by barely moving their wings in flight. This mastery distinguishes them from more flapping-inclined gulls. Their diet, chiefly krill (planktonic crustaceans), is the same as whales’. The birds acted as guides to the old whalers and would gorge themselves on the offal from a kill.

They can survive many years – 40 is the record. The British population is estimated at 680,000.

This story was from May 2021 issue. Subscribe Now