Fulmar

Bird of the Month April 2024: Fulmar

With their soft grey wings and striking eye shadow, fulmars are one of our most beautiful seabirds. But although superficially similar to gulls, as members of the tubenose order, they are actually more closely related to albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels. April is a wonderful month to watch fulmar pairs on UK cliffs as activity begins to ramp up ahead the breeding season. Pair-bonding and arguments with the neighbours both start to intensify as the month progresses. Read on to find out more about this fascinating coastal inhabitant.

Petrelhead

Fulmars are gull-like birds found exclusively on our coasts or out at sea. Like herring gulls, they are largely white with a soft grey central back area and wings. A darker morph is more common further north in its range. These birds, known as ‘blue’ fulmars, are grey all over instead of white and grey. Fulmars have a very different flight style from gulls, which is one handy way of telling them apart. Like their relatives the albatrosses, fulmars are masters at using changes in air pressure above the waves to minimise their flying effort. As a result, they intersperse a few small, stiff wing beats with longer periods of gliding, both over the sea or along their breeding cliffs. Although gulls do soar if conditions are right, their wing beats are much more active and less stiff winged. Fulmars are unable to move on land as well as gulls as their legs are positioned much further back on the body.

Fulmar in flight
A typical view of the fulmar’s stiff-winged flight style

Another difference is the pair of enlarged nasal passages visible on top of the fulmar’s bill. These ‘nostrils’ give fulmars, and their albatross, shearwater and petrel relatives, an excellent sense of smell, unlike most other birds. This sense of smell helps them to find food far out at sea. They also provide the ‘tubenose’ name for the taxonomic order these species reside in. Because they ingest a lot of sea water when feeding, fulmars have a special gland above the nose enabling them to excrete excess salt easily through the nose.

Fulmar bill
The external tube-like ‘nostrils’ show clearly on this sadly deceased bird

Perhaps their most famous characteristic is the habit of regurgitating a foul-smelling oily substance over any predators that come too close. The oil is so foul, its smell can last for months. It also clogs up any unwary attacker’s feathers or fur and is impossible to wash out. Many a bird-ringer has had to discard oil-covered clothing that was impossible to clean. Fittingly, the ‘ful’ part of the bird’s name comes from the Old Norse word for foul.

Slow and Steady

Although cliff ledges house the vast majority of fulmar colonies, where sites are already busy, birds will also nest in coastal quarries, on buildings and even on top of stone walls. Like many seabirds, fulmars are long-lived. The oldest recorded in the British Isles was over 50 years old. The average lifespan is about 40 years. As a result, fulmars don’t reach sexual maturity until they are between seven and ten years old, sometimes older. In addition, they only produce one egg per year. Although birds may live to reproduce young for many years, the time it takes to reach maturity, combined with the small number of young produced each year, means that fulmars are extremely vulnerable to any changes to their environment. This is because they can’t replace any individuals lost to threats such as disease or food shortages, more of which later, quickly enough to maintain population levels.

Fulmar on building
Fulmars will nest on buildings as well as cliff ledges
Fulmar egg
Fulmars lay a single egg during the breeding season.

Like their lives as a whole, the breeding season itself is also quite drawn out compared to many other seabirds. In the UK at least, adult birds often stay on the cliffs all year. Those that do leave are often back by January or February. Females won’t usually lay eggs until early June, though. Incubation then takes a whopping 50 days on average. This compares to around 30 days for herring gulls and guillemots and 40 for puffins. Fulmar chicks then take another 50 days or so to fledge. Consequently, you will likely see fluffy, grey fulmar babies on the cliffs long after puffin and guillemot colonies have largely emptied.

Fulmar chick
A fluffy chick

This lengthy period of vulnerability makes that smelly, oily defence mechanism even more important. Fortunately, chicks can produce the substance from an early age. Once able to fly, youngsters head out to sea. They will often stay far offshore for the first four or five years of their lives. After this time at sea, they usually return to the cliffs they were born on.

Southwards Spread

As their scientific name, Fulmarus glacialis, meaning glacial foul-gull, suggests, fulmars are predominantly northern breeders. In fact, they are one of only three species of bird recorded at the North Pole, along with snow bunting and kittiwake. Fulmars now breed in Alaska, eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, northern Scandinavia, Siberia and around the UK. This, however, wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, they bred only in Iceland and on St Kilda in Scotland’s Western Isles. Here, dried fulmar meat was a valuable source of food for islanders during the winter. Only in 1878 did they begin breeding in Shetland, having previously reached the Faeroes. For the next century or so, they carried out a rapid colonisation of Britain, Ireland and beyond. Now, they breed as far south as the Channel Islands and Brittany in France. 96% of the UK population is in Scotland, however. Across the Atlantic, they first bred in Arctic Canada in the 1970s.

An adult bird regurgitating food for its chick

This rapid range expansion was probably largely a result of the increase in discards from industrial fishing during the 20th century. The fulmar’s excellent sense of smell means that they can easily locate anything thrown over by fishing fleets, even from some distance away. There is some evidence that this trend is reversing, however. Since 2019, the EU has restricted the amount and types of whole fish discarded by fleets within the bloc. They ultimately aim to end the practice, seen as wasteful and harmful to healthy fish population levels, by making fleets fish more selectively and catch less of those fish they would need to throw back. A reduction in this easy food source could be playing a part in fulmar declines in some parts of their range over the last 15 years.

Adult and chick
An adult and chick

From Plastics to Pestilence

Fulmars face a number of serious threats from a range of sources. Climate change is affecting the distributions and populations of food sources such as sand eels and plankton. As our seas warm, these prey species are moving and declining. This makes it harder for many seabirds, including fulmars, to find food. When they do find food, they are then increasingly ingesting a worrying accompaniment in the form of plastics. These include microplastics as well as larger items mistaken for prey. One study of beached fulmars between 2002 and 2018 found that 92% had ingested plastic from an average of 21 items. Researchers have also found plastics in fulmar eggs. Although scientists aren’t yet entirely sure how microplastics affect all those species ingesting them (including humans), there is an increasing amount of evidence showing that accumulations of plastic in seabirds’ guts can cause scarring, disease and death.

Fulmars
Pairs often argue noisily with the neighbours

Another ongoing threat is avian influenza, or bird flu. Various strains and outbreaks of avian influenza have been recorded since at least the late 1800s. A new devastating outbreak began affecting great skuas in Scotland, however, in 2021. Since then, the disease has impacted other seabird species, including fulmars, causing thousands of deaths worldwide. It has also now reached the Antarctic region. As previously mentioned, the fact that fulmars are long-lived and slow to reproduce, make it difficult for populations to recover following events such as flu outbreaks. Scientists are hoping that wild bird populations will develop some level of resistance to bird flu as time passes. But whether that will happen and, if it does, how long it will take, is so far unknown.

Adult fulmar
The rearwards position of the legs, making fulmars clumsy on land, is clear in this picture

Fantastic Fulmars

Time spent watching fulmars at the breeding cliffs is time well spent. Between the incredible aerial acrobatics and the entertaining nest site squabbles, there is much to enjoy about these incredible birds. And with fulmars having spread so dramatically around the UK’s coasts over the last 150 years, they are easier to find than ever. Hopefully the many threats they face won’t reverse this situation. Just remember not to get too close if you want to avoid that remarkable vomit defence mechanism!

Fulmar and thrift
Fulmars and thrift are common clifftop companions

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