The Fulmar is a bird that seems to have increased in numbers along our coast in recent years. Although they are superficially similar to gulls they are unrelated, and are in fact members of the petrel family. The bird that we see on our coast is the Northern Fulmar although there is a larger and darker variant known as the Southern Fulmar found in the southern oceans.
The Fulmar is a strong flier and has a very swift and stiff wing action coupled with an ability to glide and swoop through the air, particularly as it approaches cliff top ledges or nest sites. All gracefulness goes out of the window as soon as they land and they are a very clumsy bird when they have to shimmy, shift and stumble along a ledge to get to their ultimate destination.
As kids we likened their flying and swooping ability to that of the British warplane – the Spitfire, so we immediately shortened that to “Spittie” and that’s what we started calling them. Little did we know then this nickname would become very apt for another entirely different reason.
Fulmars breed on the cliffs and usually on inaccessible ledges. They lay a single white egg which rests in a small hollow or depression on the bare rock without the protection of any proper nesting material. Unlike the nests of a Herring Gull a good deal of climbing ability is required to reach a Fulmar’s nest.
When required, nesting Fulmars can spew out a foul-smelling stomach oil up to six feet, which they use to repel unwanted visitors. This will matt the plumage of avian predators and in some circumstances can even lead to their death.
Even today I can still recall my brother scaling a series of ledges during a cliff climb, and on reaching a particular ridge, he popped his head “above the parapet” at exactly the same time as a previously unseen Fulmar. They eyeballed each other for all of a second before the Fulmar threw back its head, did a bit of regurgitating, and then shot out a stream of putrid bile which scored a direct hit on my brother’s face. Ron let out a roar of disgust and, cursing and swearing, scrambled down the side of the cliffs at breakneck speed reaching the edge of the water in no time at all where he spent the next 15 minutes ducking his head beneath the sea water and splashing his face. Although he managed to remove all visible traces of this attack, the aroma and taste stayed with him for some time to come.
That was the other reason that “Spittie” was a very apt name for a Fulmar!