The hero of the story which I have to tell... appears to observers in different guise; to some it is a ghost, to some the conqueror of the sea, to others foul, or a fool, or food... Its name is fulmar.
(James Fisher, 1952)
The ghost appears out of nowhere, returning from its secret winter residence on the open ocean to the coast where it swiftly and elegantly glides past me, an inquisitive eye checking me out, before a minute movement of its wing and tail feathers sends the traveller into a dive and out of my sight.
This is the fulmar or to be precise the northern fulmar, scientifically known as Fulmarus glacialis. This bird is one of the great ocean travellers and related to the petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses. Because of its plumage, a white head and a white body with grey upperparts, the fulmar is often being mistaken for a gull. A closer look however reveals a stockier built and a curious looking beak. Unlike gulls a fulmar’s beak consists of several horny plates with tube shaped nostrils, known as naricorns, sitting on top. These nostrils are used to excrete excess salt from the body and also give the bird an acute sense of smell, a very helpful ability to locate food on the vast expanse of the open ocean.
On land the fulmar appears like the clumsy character out of an old slapstick movie. It drags its body along, apparently not quite sure how to use its legs, always close to toppling over and resting after every other step. Once the legs have parted with solid ground however the fulmar’s demeanour changes completely. Confidence returns to its eyes and its body transforms into a sophisticated flying machine. The fulmar is built for living its life on the wing, it is the master of the wind and the stronger it blows the more the fulmar is in its element.
Up until the early years of the 20th century the northern fulmar was a relatively rare bird and its distribution was limited to a few colonies in remote parts of the north Atlantic including the islands of St. Kilda and Iceland. For the islanders the fulmar was an important part of their livelihood, providing not only meat but also feathers for bedding and oil for lamps and as a general ailment. On St. Kilda fulmar’s oil was used to cure anything from rheumatism to toothache. It was on these islands the fulmar got its name, fúll már, the old Norse for foul gull. This name refers to the rather unappetizing defence tactic of spraying stomach oil onto potential predators. This smelly and sticky oil is being stored in a special section of the fulmar’s stomach called proventriculus which sits between the oesophagus (the food pipe) and the gizzard (the stomach proper). During long flights the fulmar also uses the oil as an emergency ration and if food gets scarce to feed its offspring.
In the first decades of the 20th century the fulmar begun to spread quickly across the north Atlantic. The reasons for this population explosion was never fully explained but it seems likely that a change of the islanders’ diet and therefore a reduction in the number of harvested birds, increased fishery and subsequent discards and effects of climate change which brought better prey availability all favoured the fulmar.
Ireland welcomed its first breeding pair into County Mayo in 1911, followed by another pair which settled in County Donegal a year later and from there the fulmar extended its range all around the Irish coast. The following decades saw fulmar numbers across the north Atlantic soar to over 4 million pairs. In the latter half of the 20th century these numbers started to decline again and some estimates suggest that up to 40% of the north Atlantic population has been lost. In Ireland however the fulmar numbers are somewhat stable. The latest breeding bird count in the year 2000 found close to 33.000 pairs which confirmed a stable and even slightly growing population compared to previous counts in 1970 and the late 1980s.
The main reason for the overall decline is thought to be plastic pollution. Studies in the North Sea have shown that over 95% of all dead fulmars had plastic particles in their stomach. On average the birds had ingested 44 pieces of plastic, one bird was found with a total of 1603 pieces and another one with a staggering 20.6g of plastic in its stomach which would be equivalent to around 2kg in a human-sized stomach. The most likely manner in which the bird would pick up plastic is by skimming the water surface for plankton or mistake floating plastic pieces for fish. Fulmars can live up to 40 years but with their crop and stomach filled with plastic they can neither feed their offspring nor themselves and will starve to death well before their time.
The fulmar’s diet is rather varied and includes plankton, fish, squid, crustaceans as well as carrion and on their foraging journeys fulmars can cover vast distances. Birds have been recorded travelling some 2500 kilometres away from their breeding colonies, one individual managed to fly 1600 kilometres in only 55 hours to visit particularly rich feeding grounds along the mid-Atlantic ridge. During the winter months fulmars travel even further. Birds belonging to breeding colonies in Ireland and Britain have been recorded on the coasts of Greenland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Iceland and the Faroes. Intensive studies of the fulmars’ travel pattern have also revealed that the birds have very individual and different strategies. Some birds stay relatively close to their breeding sites all year round while others travel far and wide in search for the richest feeding grounds and most birds stay true to their personal routes year after year.
No matter their travel habits all fulmars return to the coast to breed. I am lucky to have a small colony of these birds on my doorstep and “my” fulmars return from their winter travels every year in late January to get reacquainted with their mates and nesting sites. It’s a first sign of spring, fulmars soaring along the cliff edge and resting in pairs on the narrow ledges while exchanging gentle caresses and performing their cackling dance. Unlike the cheeky herring gull, the flustered guillemot or the nonchalant puffin, the fulmar always brings an understated curiosity to a chance meeting. Its dark eyes stay fixed on me while the bird soars past at eye level and turns to do another flyby, then turns again for another look. No other seabird I have ever met does this. In March and April the fulmars usually disappear again for a while. First the female goes on an extended foraging trip, building up reserves for the breeding season. The male subsequently does the same but usually stays closer to the coast, most likely to keep an eye on and if necessary defend the breeding site.
The breeding season starts properly in mid to late May when the female lays a single egg. After a short incubation by the female, the male takes over and in the following weeks the parents alternate their parental duties in shifts of around 9 days during incubation and 5 days after the chick has hatched. The chick exits its shell around late June or early July as a ball of greyish fluff. The young fulmar grows quickly on the rich diet the parents provide and turns into a big lump which doesn’t resemble the sleek adults in the slightest. This overfeeding is deliberate, giving the young bird the necessary reserves for starting its own life in a rough environment. After a few weeks the young fulmar starts to lose its downy gown and at this stage both parents leave the nesting site to bring back food, leaving their always hungry offspring unattended. By then the youngster is well able to defend itself against any predator and some even take their first wobbly steps away from the nest. The breeding season ends in late August when first the parents and a few days later the fledgeling leave the cliffs they have spent the summer on.
Carsten Krieger, February 2021
P.S. At the time of writing a new study on Irish fulmars is underway. Birds from the Little Saltee and Insihkea Island have been equipped with satellite tags and scientists from UCC are currently waiting for them to return so later in the year we will (hopefully) learn where "our" fulmars go over the winter.