Seabirds during lockdown
By Simon Hayhow, Director of Development
It seems like everyone has become more aware of nature during these times of Covid-19 and lockdown measures with less traffic, less pollution and confined to our local area. I feel lucky to be in Anstruther with the ability to walk the Fife Coastal Path to Pittenweem as part of my regular exercise walk. As part of this, the highlight is looking out onto those two seabird cities of the Bass Rock and The Isle of May. April is the time when they transform from silent lumps of volcanic rock with just the lapping of waves to vast buzzing seabird cities, where ‘social distancing’ is just being out of pecking distance from your aggressive nesting neighbour. The coastline comes back to life as the seabirds return from a winter out on the bleak North Sea or even the wild North Atlantic.
Even in Anglo-Saxon chronicles (pre-A.D. 685) it was recognised that ”between what we would call 20 and 27 April by our calendar. Birds change their distribution but not so much their season.” In the Firth of Forth the Gannets, the Fulmar, the auk species, the terns and others return to feed and to nest. My walks have brought almost guaranteed lines of Gannets heading out to fishing grounds from day one of lockdown, some spearing headlong into shoals of fish providing quite a spectacle. Others I have had to wait for. As a keen birder we are obsessed by lists – for the year, for the county, for our local patch and also firsts for the year. My first Sandwich Terns were 4 logged during my exercise walk on 10th April, all the way back from winter in West Africa. That is nothing to the 20,000 miles travelled by the slightly later arriving Arctic Terns, all the way back to breeding grounds on the Isle of May where 468 pairs nest. Anyone who has visited the May in summer will have experienced the dive-bombing of protective adults, prepared to draw blood from a peck to your head if you don’t take the precaution of a hat or something above your head to deter them.
Birders have their own language and habits but, like many pastimes, much has been transformed by modern technology, including the use of social media. I am showing my age when I can recall having to telephone Nancy’s Café in Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk where people would phone in the latest rare sightings so you would ask what was in the logbook. These days there are apps, pagers, phone networks and every county will have its Twitter page (e.g. @FifeBirdNews). A check can reveal what else is around but in days of lockdown this can be frustrating as we are not allowed to dash away for some windblown migrant. A check cannot be resisted though – were my Sandwich Terns the first for Fife in 2020? Then I find I have missed 2 Snow Buntings in the field along my daily route and an Osprey on passage to Speyside so still end up frustrated!
Some birders are never satisfied with the commonplace. The spectacle of fishing Gannets or terns is not enough and we wish for the rarer seabirds, like the diminutive Storm Petrel, known colloquially as ‘Mother Carey’s Chicken’. I have only seen these twice in the Forth, once from the ferry to the Isle of May and once with several off Fife Ness. They breed up in the Orkneys and other more remote islands and are largely nocturnal but, if wind conditions are right, you might pick one up in your binoculars with diligent scanning of the sea. That other strange breed of birders – the ringers – are obsessed with putting metal rings on birds’ legs in to trace migration patterns, if the birds are reported dead. In the case of the petrels this means going to a remote headland at night, playing tapes of their strange calls and being ready to catch them in nets for ringing before release again. A museum link to this species is provided by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which has a Storm Petrel candle in its collection. The birds are so rich in oil that the Faroese fishermen would decapitate the young, dry them and thread a woollen wick through their bodies and burn them as night lights.
However, I must admit that the lure of rarities has dwindled somewhat and I can spend time on my walks admiring the magnificent Gannet and to look at the white coating to the Bass Rock and appreciating that this comprises 150,000 nesting Gannets, the world’s largest colony, giving us a constant stream along the Forth and back. Again, they have been harvested for food by humans and in the Hebrides are known as a ‘Guga’. The Guga Hunters had a short window to take a licenced quota of young, which were then killed, plucked, salted and preserved. It might seem controversial but the tradition dates back to the sixteenth century.
We cannot finish without mention of the largest UK colony of Puffins which is on the May. This peaked at 80,000 but has recently declined. This is important as these seabirds can act as a barometer of the state of our seabirds. Industrial fishing of sand eels has impacts on our Puffin population, but it is never a simple story. Where do the effects of climate change and the impact on our fish stocks play a part? It is worth remembering that a team of seabird ecologists are on the May monitoring seabird numbers each year and we now have comprehensive date on the rise and fall of our seabird populations. In addition to the Puffins, there are 32,000 Guillemots, 8,000 Razorbills and 6,000 Kittiwakes but these are also in decline. They are inextricably linked to the state and ecology of the sea. It would be a sad day if I could not observe these amazing birds from my local patch and it is a privilege to still observe them during times of lockdown.