Notes from The Seabird’s Cry by Adam Nicholson

p. 336

“Over the last 60 years, the world population of seabirds has dropped by over two-thirds. One-third of all seabird species is now threatened with extinction. Half of them are known or thought to be in decline. Some petrels, terms and cormorants have been reduced to less than 5% of the numbers that were alive in 1950. Albatrosses and shearwaters, frigate birds, pelicans and penguins have all suffered deep body-blows. Some bird families – the gannets and boobies, some gulls and storm petrels – have managed to keep their numbers up or even increase them slightly, but overall the picture is a decline of seabird numbers of about 70% in six decades. … Those seabirds whose numbers are even roughly known have dropped from about 300 million in 1950 to about 100 million in 2010… The graph trends to zero by about 2060. … we have brought this disaster on ourselves: through overfishing; by the massive accidental catching of birds in fishing hear; by their deliberate destruction; by introducing rats, cats, dogs, pigeons, goats, rabbits and cattle to the breeding paces of birds which were defenceless against them…; through pollution by oil, metals, plastics and other toxins; by the destruction of nesting sites by human development; and through the multiple effects of climate change and the acidification of the sea.”

p/ 10 Only 350 out of the 11,000-odd species of birds have taken to the sea. For all their difference, a certain way of life unites them, different from most birds, not living a year or two but, in the very oldest albatrosses, up to 80 or 90 years; not raising chicks the season after they are born but slow to mature, waiting many years before laying an eff; not hoping against hope with 8 or 9 eggs in each clutch, but often raising a single chick, long incubated in the egg, long fed in the nest; rarely moving on from one partner to the next but often faithful for many years, each parent relying on the other to raise the next generation. These life-histories are shared, significantly, only by the vultures, which must also look for rare concentrations of prey in the wide and hostile sterilities of the world, not at sea but in the desert. These are the edge-choosers, creatures whose lives have stepped beyond the ordinary into environments of such difficulty that they can respond only with a slow cumulative mastery which amounts in the end to genius.”

p. 28-34 “Until recently, people have only been able to guess what the fulmars did when they were not to be seen… The revelatory fulmar was a big male, number 1568, and was well known to the scientists. He had bred on Eynhallow with the same partner for the previous 11 years and just after midday on 23 May 2012 the Aberdeen scientists grabbed him.. His partner was away fishing. .. Three days later she came back and at 10.30 that evening 1568 headed out to sea… for two days he waited for the wind, afloat on the ocean just to the north-west of Orkney. But then the weather changed … strong south-easterlies began to blow… he set off to the north-west, a sustained 11-hour flight to the channel between Shetland and the Faroes, a rich picking ground for the plankton drifting up in the North Atlantic Current. He stayed there almost a day, hungry from his time on the egg in Eynhallow… early the in the morning of the fourth day, 1568 set off in the wing … and flew fast and hard out into the depths of the North Atlantic for 2.5 days, a thousand miles in 55 hours. He slowed at night, but during the day sometimes covered more than 40 straight-line miles in an hour. If you take the zigzag path of his dynamic soaring into account, he may have been travelling half as fast again… he arrived at the destination he had undoubtedly been seeking, the rich waters around a mountainous and broken section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge called the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone. .. he feast for three days, not travelling far, but feeding on the plankton, squid and fish that gather at that meeting of the warm North Atlantic Current and the cold fertile waters coming down from the Arctic … After three days, 1,500 miles from Eynhallow, he turned for home, but intriguingly did not make a beeline for Orkney, instead flying, now into strong headwinds, to Galway Bay in southwest Ireland. It may be that he was choosing the headwinds that were nearer the centre of the depression and so slightly weaker … Arriving in Ireland he was many hundreds of miles outh of Orkney, but the Vikings used to navigate like this: leave the coast of Norway, aim as best you could for the mainland of Britain, hit it somewhere you would recognize and then follow the coast to your original destination. That looks like 1568’s method, aiming for the great unmissable wall of Europe … All the same, his geographical understanding was precise. He knew he was to the south of where he needed to be. He could expect that there would be homeward-heading southerlies on the eastern edge of a low, and having fed on the sea for eight hours off the rich sea life in Galway Bay, 1568 turned definitively north along the Atlantic coastline, hugging the shore until he reached the big headland of Erris Head … there cut north-east for Tory Island and then the Hebrides… He made his Scottish landfall at the great lighthouse of Skerryvore off the southwest point of Tiree. There again, in the surging tidal overfalls, he paused and few for a few hours … he arrived at nine in the evening on 9 June 2012, having travelled a straight-line distance of nearly 3,900 miles in just over two weeks. After a moment or two together, his mate left for her own (unknown) voyaging and 1568 settled on to the egg.. tucked his head under the wing, sitting on the sorrel and the thrift, and slept…. His ocean journeys were an act of memory. Here is a bird so attuned to the ways of planet and ocean, not only physically and instinctively but psychologically and even analytically, that it is possible to see in its whole being an intelligence different from but scarcely less than ours. The GPS tracks are a map of that mind, allowing a glimpse into a fulmar’s consciousness.”

p. 148 Traditional societies have a long history of empathy with the wild animals that surround them. Stillborn children were buried on the wings of whooper swans in Mesolithic Denmark. At Isbister in Orkney, more than 600 sea eagle bones were missed in with the human remains laid in a Bronze Age tomb. In Shetland and Foula, shepherds used to feed titbits to the great skuas, the bonxies, that protected their lambs from the sea eagles and ravens.”

p. 164 guillemots are “’socially monogamous;, meaning that like human beings they are essentially monogamous but don’t always manage to keep to it in practice … guillemot wives call the shots … Great Island off the coast of Newfoundland … every summer for five years, darn to dusk, they watched 60 individually marked birds, an extraordinarily vivid psycho-theatre of seabird life … Some of them were undoubtedly badly behaved: one didn’t feed his chick and it starved, another knocked his chick off the cliff while fighting with a neighbour’ one didn’t know how to incubate the egg and another simply stood next to it rather than over it, so it cooled and died. This bird was attacked by her partner when he returned to the ledge. Another guillemot decided to drive her partner off the egg, which was then eaten by a gull. Every one of these offenders was kicked out by their husband or wife during the following winter, unseen by the biologists, but evidence enough the next year shown the marriage was clearly over. .. the female would have sex only with a male that had already shown some excellent paternal skills. Male birds from neighbouring nests which in previous seasons had carefully sheltered and few their chick and which, after two weeks or so, had called the chick down from the edge to the seas where they would look after them and feed them for many weeks: those were the birds the females would set their eyes on.”

p. 252 “Only by observing gannets from the same colony, particularly those gannets which are doing well in raising good strong chicks, watching where they are going and watching where they are returning from, will lead the young, inexperienced gannets to that part of the sea where they are likely to find fish not already fished out by the neighbouring gannetry … the effect is for each colony to develop a set of habits, a fishing pattern, a way of doing things which is unique to that colony, passed down across the generations, creating what is in effect a culture, a pattern of understanding and a way of life, tied to its own geography, unique to that gathering of gannets. Memes, or cultural clusters of knowledge and skills, are inherited across the generations.”

p. 274 “The great auk remains the King of the Lost. It was the first ‘penguin’, maybe a Breton or Welsh name, which the French still use for the razorbill… The last of the great auks were found and killed in the far north, in Newfoundland, Scotland and Iceland, but those were only the safest, most distant and residual refuges. They had once stomped and hunted across as much of the Atlantic as the penguins now cover in the Southern Ocean. Fossils have been found in Calabria in southern Italy, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, in Gibraltar and in the Canaries. A whole landscape at least 500,000 years old has been uncovered in a quarry at Boxgrove in Sussex, and here, alongside eagle owls, ancient swans, geese, gannets, cormorants and razorbills, were great auks with the bones and stone axes of the men who had butchered them… The body of a man in one prehistoric grave in Newfoundland has been found covered in more than 150 great auk bills, perhaps the remains of the most astonishing seabird cloak ever made, clacking and rustling around the body of the ancient chieftain like great auk chain mail, a sheath of Atlantic bird life.”

p. 278 But of all the great auk finds, the most endearing and unlikely was in the late Roman layers underneath the Laza del Marques in Gijon in northern Spain. The bones of the bird, which must have come in from the Bay of Biscay, just to the north, were surrounded by the remains of a lock of chickens. Were they simply different parts of a menu. Or did a great auk live for a while in an elegant, columned Roman coop, leading his gaggle of hens around him, clacking away at them with his giant ridged bill, king of the northern birds, treasured as a noble oddity by a provincial Roman, reading his Horace, sipping his vinho verde?”

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