Friday, September 14, 2012

Because they can .....

Back in 2005 I spent a morning in April photographing fulmars on the cliffs south of Craster on the Northumberland coast. I've long been fascinated by these birds, with their apparently effortless gliding, using the updraft created by cliffs and onshore breezes. They'll spend hours flying around in wide circles, skimming the edge of the cliff and then turning away into a wide arc out to sea, then back to repeat the performance. 

 Why do they fly so much, to no apparent purpose, when they could just perch and survey the scenery? Maybe it's just because they can, because they are as exhilarated by flight as I am by watching them.

Their flight seems almost effortless, with shallow wingbeats followed by long, stiff-winged glides. Sometimes, as they glide past, you can see the turbulence, from air flowing over their wings, lifting and ruffling the smaller wing feathers.

Sometimes they'll fly towards a cliff, lower their legs and touch the rock, they turn and glide away again ....

... or sometimes hang in the air, almost stationary for a moment, tail feathers splayed and cocked up, legs lowered, on the verge of stalling, before turning and racing away to skim the sea surface.

Those long, narrow, high aspect ratio wings are the prototype for every glider .

I've almost convinced myself that fulmars enjoy showing off. Often, if you stand on the top of a cliff, they'll circle around and repeatedly glide past you, just a few metres away, and will turn their heads to look at you as they pass. Maybe they're as curious about me as I am about them.

For all their solitary flying, during the early part of the breeding season fulmars  indulge in a lot of vocal interaction which sounds like chuckling, when they're choosing nest sites and pair-bonding.

This kind of interaction, facing one another with gaping beaks and seemingly trying to shout each other down, is common behaviour in spring.

You can see clearly here the peculiar beak with the tubular nostril which gives the fulmar family the name 'tubenoses', and also the claw-like tip to the beak which you can also see in this photograph of a skull

At this time of year there is, inevitably, a feeling of regret that summer has passed but also a remembrance of all the natural events that will begin again next spring - when fulmars return to their cliff edge nest sites.


  1. Stunning photos.

    We have just returned from Skye and Mull where I found it quite hard to spot the difference between resting Kittiwakes and Fulmars from a distance. It's easy when you have a good view of the bill!

  2. I'm a big Fulmar fan also Phil. I actually spent time watching them earlier in the year down your neck of the woods at Blast Beach. The beak fascinates me.
    A challenge for you perhaps. When is it a beak or a bill ?? Is there a difference ??

  3. Fulmars nest on a cliff near us. We can see them fly in and out and along but not their nests which are vertically below. Perhaps this is just as well for I would never be able to take photographs such as these. They are beautiful and moving.

  4. There are fulmars and kittiwakes along this stretch of coast Caroline ..... although far more of the latter.

  5. Hi John, not sure but I think maybe the bill might be the better term wrt birds .... beak is used to describe facial features of quite a few animals (dolphins, even some insects)

  6. These were nesting close to the top of the cliff Lucy ....but it would have been tantamount to suicide to try to lean over and photograph some that were on the cliff face!