Why seabirds remain the most mysterious creatures of all

The avian magicians spend months at sea, never touching land and taking only a moment’s rest now and then.

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Around now, on the low cliffs between St Andrews Castle and the town harbour, a colony of fulmars settles in for the breeding season, just two minutes’ walk from my office. It is always a lift to the spirits when these birds arrive and begin sweeping clean the precarious, narrow rock ledges where the eggs will be laid.

As the days lengthen and the wind off the firth goes from chilly to cool, I like to stand on the path above the rock face and watch as they glide back and forth, my pleasure intensified by the knowledge that, once the chicks are grown enough to leave, I will not see them again till next spring. I know this from experience, having lived through 20 years of their coming and going: gradually, the colony builds to its peak numbers, then, a little less gradually, the birds glide away, to spend the rest of the year at sea, far from this narrow peninsula.

For as long as humans have observed other animals, certain species have contrived to be creatures of mystery. Not so long ago, the “father” of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, believed that swallows wintered in the mud at the bottom of deep lakes, while ancient philosophers had no difficulty in believing that eels generated spontaneously from animal hairs shed during a water crossing.

Perhaps the most mysterious creatures of all, however, were the petrels and albatrosses, the frigate birds, the shearwaters – all those avian magicians who spent months at sea, never touching land and taking only a moment’s rest now and then in the midst of great storms.

These birds were objects of wonder. I remember, one early July, walking on a strand in north Norway, watching the terns fishing for tiny slips of animate silver that they could see in the ever-shifting tidewater only because the light was so clear and strong and (it being the season of the midnight sun) day-long. That sight was enough in itself; but I also knew that, had I found myself six months hence on a similar beach on the other side of the world, these same birds would also be there, hunting in the same silvery light. Humans now know a good deal about the movements of such birds, mainly because, as Michael Brooke’s marvellous new study, Far from Land, points out: “Modern electronics… have become smaller and more sophisticated, and opened up the watery world of seabirds to our fascinated gaze.”

This, we can only hope, will help with efforts, not only to allow these birds to thrive, but also to plan human activities in such ways that we might effectively avoid disrupting their breeding, feeding and migratory cycles. One danger is from changing methods of industrial-scale fishing; another, currently in the news, is the planned installation of offshore wind turbines at Inch Cape and Neart na Gaoithe, close to seabird breeding colonies – a scheme opposed by many bird conservation interests, including the RSPB, historically something of a pushover for the wind industry.

As a child, my image of the petrel, the various auks, or the elegant fulmar was of a brave, imperilled creature, far out in an ocean storm, battling to survive. More recently, it seems that such birds are most endangered when they come in to what should have been a safe haven. A book like Far from Land reminds us that, as our technology improves, we may learn all manner of new things; but if those discoveries are not matched with reverence and a sense of wonder, that knowledge will be worthless. 

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right