The Seabird’s Cry

the seabird cryI’ve always enjoyed time spent by the sea, and particularly Britain’s cliffs and the plethora of seabirds to be seen there. Beeston Cliffs, St Abbs Head, South Stack, Duncansby Head, Summer Isles, cliffs of the South West of England and Wales, and more… So many places. Until recently I never questioned if these great massings of seabirds would ever not be there. Yet they are in perilous decline and danger, as are seabird colonies the world over. Industrial fishing, pollution and climate breakdown are presenting insuperable problems to many species. The spectre of multiple extinctions looms.

In his magnificent and illustrated book The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson takes us through the glory of common species of seabirds, the threats they face and the effects on populations, mostly declining. It is a story at the same time beautifully told, yet almost impossible to bear.

A few of my notes will give a flavour, or skip to the summary below.

  • Fulmar, the most streamlined of birds. Able to fly without effort in a gale, which would ground most birds. Fulmars once supported the population of the remote island of St Kilda, at times the only source of food.
  • Puffin, specialised for deep diving in search of fish and not good flyers. Live in colonies of burrows, and rear but a single egg at a time. Many populations have been decimated or lost, such as the Westman Islands off Iceland.
  • Kittiwake lives on high cliffs and the open sea, good flyers but shallow divers. Call sounds like their name: kittiwaaak. Persecution in 19c led to the 1869 Seabird Preservation Act. Populations in steep decline.
  • Gulls, opportunists, shore birds. White camouflage for taking prey. Prolific breeders, cannibals, expanding on land where they can find food. 34 species.
  • Guillemot, deep diver, long beak. Very close nesting on cliff in families.
  • Cormorant /Shag, bird of greed. Dark one. Shallow diver. Need to dry feathers to restore insulating properties, hence the characteristic ‘wings out’ stance. Many die young. Expanding inland.
  • Shearwater, dip wingtips in water hence name. Related to Fulmar. Sleep in burrows, wait for night cover before entering. Many migrate to southern hemisphere. Strong sense of smell.
  • Gannet, plunge divers. Dense colonies, eg currently on Bass Rock. Ferociously competitive. Currently booming in North Atlantic.
  • Razorbill, chicks fledge with father at sea. Declining. Relative of the extinct great auk. Retells the story of the great auk.
  • Albatross, among the largest birds with 11ft wingspan. Live by the wind, travelling many thousands of miles. Follow ships and have inspired many sailors. Live for many years and whiten as get older. Declining, spectre of extinction.

Summary

In his last chapter Nicolson summarises The Seabird’s Cry.

Populations of seabirds across the globe have fallen by 2/3 in 60 years. Just cormorants and gannets buck the trend. The culprits are fishing practices, pollution and climate change. His words express this so much better than I can:

“There are no grounds for complacency… The great extinction is going on every day and the rate of change in the nature of the oceans is almost certainly too rapid for many of the inbuilt resilience mechanisms to cope.”

“The grand cry of a seabird colony, rolling in its clamour around the bays and headland of high latitudes, will become a memory, its absence unnoticed because people will not miss what is not there. ”

“What is to be done? Only all that can be done… the rate at which we are changing the atmosphere and the ocean, both its temperature and its acidity, needs to be brought under control. “

At stake is humanity’s whole relationship with nature. Are we to destroy the paradise we were born into, because we got too many, too unthinking and too greedy?

“The seabirds and their colonies were and are a last bastion of wholeness…”

A necessary, poetic and disturbing book.

Featured image of northern royal albatross by Benchill [Public domain]

The Last Seabird Summer?

I awoke thinking about birds again. The BBC makes some excellent programmes on the natural world and the 2-episode BBC4 series The Last Seabird Summer? , finished last night, was no exception.

Presenter Adam Nicolson has spent much of his life on the Shiant Islands in the Minch between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland, one of the most important bird places of Europe. First, Adam traced our long history of dependence on seabirds –¬†puffins, guillemots and razorbills – thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers. More recently the emphasis has moved to conservation.

puffins
Puffins

But now there’s a crisis – in the last fifteen years, 40 per cent of Scotland’s sea birds have gone, graphically illustrated by relatively recent photographs of cliffs full of birds, but now empty. The Shiants are currently an exception, and the birds appear to have plenty of food. The excellent RSPB is helping for the future by exterminating rats from the islands (they arrived from shipwrecks) – rats eat eggs and young birds.

Adam travels to Iceland, home to over half the world’s puffins, to try and gain insight into what is going on. This is a story of two halves – to the north of Iceland, sea birds still prosper, puffins are still hunted and eaten – to the south, in the Westman islands, formerly prolific seabird colonies appear to be in terminal decline with no young birds. Crazily, some are still hunted and eaten for a few days a year, in the name of tradition.

After talking to ornithologists and marine scientists, Adam suggests that the root of the problem lies in the lack of suitable food for the birds. Kittiwakes are particularly vulnerable because they are essentially surface feeders. Puffins rely on sand eels, and where these are not present populations cannot survive.

Cyclic changes in the gulf stream and related water circulations in the atlantic appears to cause warmer then cooler water to appear around southern Iceland. With the warmer waters come huge populations of mackerel – good for fishermen, but these fish out-compete the birds for their food, so bird populations decline and then recover on a timescale of decades. This has happened since records began. However, global warming is increasing the baseline sea temperature. The result appears to be more severe decline in bird populations. The worry is that they may be driven beyond the point of no return. The Icelandic hunters are not helping.

It seems that, as global warming progresses, we must live with the spectre raised by these programmes of The Last Seabird Summer, in southern Iceland and a lot of Scotland at least – and notably for the iconic puffin.

But, as ever, there will be winners as well as losers. As Adam points out, some seabird populations, such as the gannet, which is very flexible in its food needs, are thriving – for example the huge colony on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth – and may well continue to do so.

Do watch these programmes, available for another three weeks if you have access to BBC catchup. But you’ll have to not be squeamish about watching puffins caught, cooked and eaten.

Puffin picture courtesy of Hanno and Wikimedia Commons