19th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Bird club’s Atlantic Odyssey evening features stunning series of seabird shots

, by , in

Although most records of Iceland gulls are of first winter birds, there have been a few recent records of adults.

An adult Iceland resembles a herring gull in size but is slightly smaller, shorter-legged and has long, tapered primary feathers. The bill is shorter than the length by which the primary feathers project beyond the tail tip, and the primary feathers are white. The bill is yellow with a red spot on the lower mandible, like that of a herring gull. Contrary to the common name, Iceland gulls do not breed in Iceland but in Northern Canada and Greenland.

On the 17th there was a huge flock of roosting herring gulls on Noss, forming a series of visible, white-grey lines against the dark moorland. The highest numbers, driven inshore by winter storms, are usually recorded in November and December when flocks of up to 6,000 herring gulls are considered fairly common. It was difficult to count the numbers of gulls at a distance, but an estimated count produced around 8,000 birds.

Meanwhile, an amazing sea voyage, “An Atlantic Odyssey”, featuring stunning seabird shots, was the subject of the Shetland Bird Club illustrated talk by Martin Heubeck on Saturday.

Last year Martin travelled from the Antarctic to the tropics on a small cruise ship. Departing from Argentina, they sailed through the Drake Passage to the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula and into the Weddell Sea, as far as the pack ice allowed. The ship then travelled north to Ascension Island, calling along remote Atlantic islands en route, weather permit­ting.

A CD of photographs, taken on the voyage, was produced on board but there were also additional shots from Dutch and British bird photographers on the trip, along with Martin’s own scenic photos.

Seabirds included prions, petrels, shearwaters and, most spectacular of all, albatrosses. These huge, gliding birds roam the vastness of the world’s oceans, completely at home among the white-streaked, heaving, perpendicular waves.

Famous for their ability to glide endlessly low over the sea, they can lock their shoulders into position thus resting the wing muscles. Their stiffly outstretched wings are designed to use the different wind speeds which occur at different heights over the sea.

One species was familiar – the black-browed albatross – recalling the years when a solitary black-browed, nicknamed Albert Ross, returned year after year, from the early 1970s until 1995, to spend the summer among the gannets at Saito Point on the Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Wandering albatrosses, with their massive three-metre wingspan, followed the ship, and other species photographed on the voyage included grey-headed, sooty, Tristan and yellow-nosed albatrosses.

Nineteen species of these magnificent seabirds are under threat, the main causes being drowning as a result of entanglement in long-line fishing hooks, collisions with trawl warps on deep sea trawlers and the predation of albatross chicks by rodents on Gough Island.

A hundred thousand albatrosses are killed every year on long-line fishing hooks. The albatrosses are attracted by the bait, swallow the hook and are dragged under.

Gough Island is the most important seabird island in the Atlantic with 10 million breeding seabirds. Although it is a World Heritage Site and uninhabited, it is over-run by house mice, the result of a 19th century shipwreck. These mice have evolved into large specimens the size of rats and attack the defenceless albatross chicks, alone on their nests.

Albatrosses are particularly vulnerable to all these threats as they are long-lived birds, only breeding when mature (which can be up to 12 years), and only producing one chick at a time, with some species only breeding every second year. Urgent long-term planning and action is needed to protect the remaining albatrosses and all the proceeds of the evening, £260, were donated to Birdlife International’s Save the Albatross Campaign.

In addition to seabird photos, there were awesome shots of icebergs, moody sky and sea, stunning island scenery and stomach-churning stormy seas. Large expanses of ocean also hold large mammals, and the group saw a variety of species including southern right, sei, fin, pilot, Cuvier’s beaked and sperm whales.

Exuberant dolphin photos in­cluded hour glass, bottle-nosed, rough-toothed and spotted dolphins. Near Tristan da Cunha they also encountered the world’s largest fish – a whale shark.

Joyce JM Garden