Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Seabird sounds

Seabirds are really quite special. Birds in general are special, but there's something about seabirds which appeals to the romantic in one's soul (should such a thing exist). Quite apart from their supremely tough lives and amazing duarbility, you generally see them as little specks far out on the waves, bobbing in and out of view; or as purposeful figures flying past some coastal watchpoint.

Every so often, however, there is the chance to get to their breeding grounds. There they transform from silent and fairly solitary beings into a swelling mass of noise and activity. The sea is speckled with groups of auks preening, bathing, sorting out who's who, whilst the white shapes of gulls and Fulmars drift overhead.

Spot the Puffin...

On the cliffs the Guillemots huddle in dense masses like football fans on the terraces, shoulder to shoulder with one another. Despite being crammed onto the sheerest of cliff faces, with seemigly minimal toe-holds, every so often you see a bird with an egg, a relatively huge egg, which may be cream or white or blue, blotched and bespattered with a Pollock-esque marbling of black - each one apparently uniquely marked. There is a constant coming and going from the ledges, accompanied by a growling yarring which rises in waves up the cliffs with the updraught- and the fishy smell of seabird guano.

Guillemots loafing below the busy nesting cliffs

More precarious even than the Guillemots are the Kittiwake nests: lovingly constructed bowls of seaweed and guano, cemented to the thinnest of ledges on the sheerest of cliffs. Each nest is attended by both partners, who tend to sit bill to bill, alternately nuzzling one another and reaching out to scream abuse at passing birds.

Around the fringes, where the cliff face breaks into boulder-strewn chaos, Razorbills sit calmly, often in pairs and often with a studied distance between each pair. They seem more placid than the Guillemots, merely stretching a neck out and opening their bills to reveal a startling yellow palate whenever another bird encroaches on their patch. You have to be close indeed to hear the rattle of their call, like a stick over a washboard.


A little further away from the boulders, the cliff edge breaks into deep terraces of rabbit-tunneled thrift, deep green at the base and crowned with a wash of pastel pink. Here, the Puffins trot busily in and out of holes on bright orange feet, multicoloured bills to the fore. Where they are abundant enough, you can hear them singing to one another with gentle groan, sounding somewhat like a creaking cupboard door. Every so often one hurls itself off the cliff on absurdly whirring wings to drop down to the sea below, where it bobs buoyantly amongst the other auks. If you are lucky, you might see a pair clattering their bills together: the sound of clifftop castanets.

Fulmar glide past constantly on stiff unbending wings - they are the masters of the updraught, adroitly riding the air currents up the cliffs until they appear about to crash into the rocks, when they suddenly twirl on a sixpence to drop back to the base, or in the right spot just hang, legs splayed and tail twisting, peerlessly riding the wind. Their mates sit in the deeper hollows towards the top of the cliffs, calmly waiting until their partner joins them, when they can greet each other with swaying necks, cackling and wheezing all the while.


Stay a little later - or come back at dusk - and as the light fades and the noise of the gulls subsides as they settle to sleep, the best bit of the day begins. Once the light is all but gone and the sea is just visible below as a wash of white surf around the outlying rocks, a weird and slightly hair-raising cry echoes around the cliffs. After a while another bird calls, and as the darkness becomes complete, the slopes begin to echo with the sound of Manx Shearwaters calling to their mates underground. Soon the first birds approach the cliffs: the air ripped beside your ear makes you duck instinctively, whilst you glimpse a gleam of white from the corner of your eye.

Soon, if you're lucky, you might hear a quiet thud nearby on the grass, and perhaps see a dark shape huddled quietly - waiting to be sure there is no predator around before heading for the nest burrow. Once in, there is a prolonged and noisy duet with the partner before the sitting bird heads off to sea to feed itself. It can be somewhat disconcerting to hear such a noisy concert going on below your feet!

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