Which seabird was named after the old Viking word for “foul”?
For 15 years, from about 1950, my family spent a week on holiday in a rented bungalow on the cliff top at Reighton Gap, near Filey, Yorkshire. We always expected the accommodation to have been washed away by the sea by the following year because of its constant erosion of the soft boulder clay on which the community stood. Nearby, to the south-east of Reighton Sands, the chalk from the Yorkshire Wolds broke through to create impressive coastal cliffs that rose almost perpendicular over 330 feet (100m). Back then, they were called the Bempton Rocks but today are known as the Bempton Cliffs.
This habitat is home to over a quarter-of-a-million various seabirds that during the spring and summer breed here. The cliffs are adorned with alluvial ledges utilized as nesting sites. They are home to the largest mainland gannet colony in Britain, and seven other species of seabird nest here – kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, herring gulls, shags and fulmars. It was here that during one of my visits I was given a guillemot egg to add to my egg collection.
When I was a teenager, I was trusted to walk along the cliff top on my own and inspect more closely the mixture of seabirds. I wrote in my Nature Note Book in 1960 that I had counted 750 kittiwakes, 150 guillemots and 45 puffins. My favorite bird, however, was the fulmar, as I watched it majestically glide away from the cliffs, with it rarely flapping its powerful gray wings and displaying its tubenose bill. Several hundred pairs nested on the cliff ledges, usually preferring the higher elevations where the grass meets the chalk. They, along with the puffins, disappeared as soon as their breeding was over. They are known as pelagic birds, spending the majority of their time at sea, feeding in the open ocean, maybe hundreds or thousands of miles offshore, and have special salt glands that help extract excess salt from their bodies. It allows them to drink seawater. Dozens of species fall into this pelagic category, such as albatrosses, frigatebirds, petrels, shearwaters and tropicbirds. Fulmars, although they look like gulls, are members of the petrel family.
During breeding, fulmars are their most visible to birdwatchers. They usually lay one egg on a ledge of bare rock or grassy cliff and defend the nest by spitting foul-smelling stomach oil at whatever predator threatens them, and it is this trait that has given them their name. The food they catch is regurgitated to feed their young, and is usually a diet of fish, sand eels, jellyfish, squid, plankton and shrimp, but sometimes fish offal when the fulmar follows behind a fishing vessel.
Here in California, where I have been since 1979, I am able to see new species of seabirds such as pelicans, murrulets, auks and western gulls, and many of those that I was familiar with in Britain. However, the chance of seeing a fulmar is low, although not impossible. In North America the species breeds only in Arctic Canada and on some of the islands of the Bering Sea. It does however migrate south to its winter feeding grounds off both the north Pacific and north Atlantic coasts. Most of the time it stays far away from land, feeding on jelly fish and crustaceans, although in bad weather or because of illness, individual birds can turn up close to the land such as at Point Reyes, the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands. Unfortunately, a few wash up dead on the California beaches due to swallowing plastic that they mistook for prey or because of health conditions. Maybe I have seen 2 or 3 during my years here in California, but on occasional visits back home I try and find time to call at the Bempton Cliffs and Flamborough Head to reunite with the birds that I have loved.
I have not returned to Reighton Gap since I expect the old holiday bungalow has long since disappeared. Either the sea will have swallowed it up or possibly it was demolished along with the others in the community because of safety concerns. But as a bird watcher, remember there are some species of bird that will never disappear but you will need to see them during their breeding season. At other times of the year, the requirement will be to take an ocean cruise.