Fulmars hog nest sites

Sunday morning provided the right conditions to take part in the RSPB Garden Birdwatch.

Living at the Shore Station at Burrafirth, it’s always a bit of a dilemma as to what to call “the garden” so I decided it would be within the walled part of the surrounding land. That supplies several different habitats including lawn, one or two flowerbeds, a bit of cover with some willows and a small area of moorland.

After the first half hour of the stipulated one hour, I had only managed to clock up a couple of rock pipits, but the second part was a little more productive, with three starlings, single blackbird, robin and wren (which interestingly is not in the top 15 nationally most seen birds) and finally a couple of snipe, which were a bit unexpected.

Of course, it was very tempting to include the fulmars sitting on their ledges just over the garden wall, but I decided that wasn’t quite in the spirit of the exercise.

At this time of year, fulmars tend to have “home” days and “away” days. At the beginning of the year they are mostly absent out at sea, but just lately there have been some quite large rafts of them in the firth on days when the water has been reasonably calm. But many are also sitting on future potential nest sites, although they won’t start to breed for at least three months.

I have a particular affinity with fulmars. When I was a small child being looked after by my godmother in north Wales, she insisted that by the age of five I should know the difference between fulmars (a “tubenose” belonging to the petrel family) and gulls. I was helped by visits we made to the lighthouse keepers on the Great Orme’s Head at Llandudno.

Fulmars are amazing birds. One of the first records in Shetland is from the winter of 1805-06 when many were seen offshore in Uyea Sound, Unst. But the first Shetland breeding record was not until 1878 on Foula. Amazing fliers, they are not so mobile on their legs and therefore choose to breed on cliffs that are easy of access from the surrounding air currents.

Long-lived birds, they do not normally begin breeding until about nine years old, laying only a single egg per year. Young fledge around the second half of August, with those from inland sites running the gauntlet of traffic as they cross roads en route to the sea.

Several folk noticed a second-winter plumaged glaucous gull around north Unst last week – a very distinctive white-looking bird. Last Saturday it was on the beach at Norwick, having a bit of a spat with a first-winter great black-backed gull.

This latter bird suddenly appeared with quite a large flat-fish which, probably being inexperienced, it tried to swallow whole. At one point, the marginally smaller glaucous gull made a lunge at the black-back in the hope of stealing the fish, but got firmly sent on its way.

Eventually both flew off leaving the headless fish on the beach, which I went to have a look at. It appeared to be a dab, and although I didn’t see where it came from, since dab spawn close inshore from about January onwards, maybe this was one whose concentration had momentarily lapsed and was caught by the gull.

Wendy Dickson


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