Tuesday 12th January comments: Today we continue our series on the breeding seabirds of the Isle of May and we take a close look at a real specialist; the Fulmar.
Fulmars are part of the Shearwater and Petrel group, which also includes albatrosses. The group can sometimes be referred to as ‘tube noses’ because they have a tubular nostril on top of the bill. The word Fulmar comes from the old English word meaning ‘foul gull’.
Fulmars are a common nesting seabird in northern Europe with large populations in the Northern Atlantic from Canada to Russia which includes two varieties; the darker variety is the majority breeder in the high arctic, while the lighter variety is the predominant breeder further south. The species also breeds in the Northern Pacific. Fulmars started colonising the east coast of the UK in the 19th century and the first written account of the species on the Isle of May was in May 1914 with the first breeding pair noted in 1930.
Fulmars are very specialist seabirds as they have a salt gland above the nasal passage which helps them excrete salt due to the high amount of ocean water that they take in. They also have a very good defensive mechanise even from a young age which allows chicks to be left unattended without coming to any harm. If anything or anyone gets too close to Fulmars, they excrete a stomach oil which is sprayed out of their mouths which will mat the plumage of avian predators , which can lead to the predators death.
Fulmars remain around the island for the majority of the year, only ever being really absent for a longer period between the end of the breeding season (late August) to mid-November when birds move far out into the North Sea. During the winter months they’ll occupy the cliff ledges and by early spring, the new breeding season will have started.
Fulmars don’t start breeding until they are 6-7 years of age (which is old for any bird species) and will lay a single white egg on bare rock ledges or shallow depressions lined with plant material (usually the first eggs are found in mid-May on the island). However just before egg laying, the entire population disappear (this has been referred to as the honeymoon period) for 4-5 days and it is thought that birds do this to build up fat reserves. Once the egg is laid, they’ll then incubate for 49-53 days after which the young will hatch, usually in early July. The growing cycle is slow as can take 50+ days to fledgling with the first youngsters leaving the Isle of May in mid-August.
The diet of the Fulmar ranges from fish offal, whale meat, crustaceans and even jelly fish (hence why plastic bags can be a problem for Fulmars). They are also long living birds with records of individuals well beyond the age of 50.
Tomorrow we’ll bring you the latest on the populations of Fulmars on the Isle of May as will they follow the trend of the Guillemot and Razorbill and show signs of increasing? Tune in tomorrow for the answers….