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  • A Far North Naturalist

Heightened senses

14 April 2023.

Walking out to for the sea cliff across the peaceful moor with a gentle, warm breeze behind me, unless i knew otherwise I wouldn't guess that in just a few more paces I was about to be hit very suddenly by four things: cool, damp sea air; the stench of guano; otherworldly screeching, chattering and caterwauling; and last but by no means least, the sight of thousands of seabirds, in the air, on the cliffs and on the sea. It's true, without an onshore wind, I really don’t experience any of those sensations until I’m just a few tens of metres from the cliff top and when I do I find it awe-inspiring every time!

As far as seeing birds was concerned, today was a step up from my previous visit, because the auks were now back in number, Razorbills in particular. Many were ashore, with more still on the sea, most of these in pairs and being rather lovey-dovey, with lots of billing and mutual preening going on. 

I saw a dozen or so Guillemots ashore too, on ledges already completely white with fresh guano, with a few more on the sea, but I’ve yet to see masses of this bird - they'll return soon! To think they’ll be laying eggs on that bare, or should I say guano-covered, rock!  Guillemot eggs are distinctly pear-shaped, perhaps to cause it to roll in a tight circle should it be dislodged, or PERHAPS because much of the incubating is done half-standing (those ledges can be VERY narrow and VERY crowded!) and so the single egg being significantly larger at one end means more contact with the brood patch. Of course, an egg rolling on a narrow ledge might not have a small enough turning circle... Another striking difference today was the number of Puffins - just forty or so, but a significant increase over last week. I can't wait to see them venture ashore, when they'll be reclaiming burrows (fights!) , followed by frantic 'spring-cleaning'!

Kittiwakes and Fulmars were everywhere, as previously, but another stark change was the increase in the number of Shags on the cliffs. A few had well-built nests and looked like they were incubating, but most were on bare rock with a few pieces of seaweed having been offered as a gift to the female in a rather token-like fashion, with the females seemingly disinterested, perhaps not so keen on the task that lies ahead.  The winter storms wash away all traces of the previous year’s nests, that is to say those weedy constructions of the Kittiwakes and Shags… the auks might gather a few tiny fragments of rock together, but generally the single egg is laid on the rock.

Plant-wise, the brilliant glossy-green foliage of Scurvy-grass on the cliff slopes is now dotted with white. Not only specks of guano, but with flowers! The sickly-sweet scent of the flowers, and the heady, fishy stench of the guano, makes for a rather weird combination. Last week there was a small flock of Twite foraging on those slopes, in search of seed, but I didn’t see them today and I certainly couldn’t have heard them over the cacophony ringing through my head.

What will next week bring? Visit this page again to find out!  Better still, why not join me on an adventure there? I’m next leading a guided walk on Tuesday 25 April, at 1300, but if you’d like me to take you there on a different date, please contact me!

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