There are few more graceful fliers than the Fulmar Petrel, which patrols the cliffs around the Pembrokeshire National Park Coastal Footpath.
These sleek seabirds, which glide the cliff thermals, nest on cliff ledges which they defend from intruders by spitting a foul-smelling oil at them. It is not just offensive but is positively harmful to avian aggressors as it mats on the plumage, ruining its water-proofing qualities. This oil is not only useful against intruders, but is an energy-rich food source for chicks and also for adults on long flights. Fulmars resemble gulls but on closer inspection are distinguished by the shape of their beak which has a tube-shaped proturberance on the top, for the fulmar is a tube-nose and a first cousin of the albatross. These birds have a salt gland situated above the nasal tube which helps desalinate their bodies due to the high volume of ocean saltwater they imbibe when feeding in the oceans of the world. Their name is derived from the Old Norse word ‘full’ meaning foul and ‘mar’ meaning seabird or gull.
Their long, slim wings with grey tops and what sometimes looks like an aircraft roundel on the upper surface, give them the ability to glide long distances, adjusting their height with effortless shallow wingbeats, and wheeling and banking with great ease and grace.
Some seventy or so years ago fulmars were virtually confined to St Kilda and the Scottish coasts and islands. On St Kilda they were an important part of the local economy as they were harvested for meat, eggs, feathers for the islanders’ down bedding and ointmentss and medicines extracted from their oily excretions. In the last century or so they have gradually spread south and now are commonplace all round the coast. Currently, there are an estimated 504,756 breeding in the UK and possibly more than three times that number wintering here. They lay a single white egg on a ledge or in a shallow depression lined with plant material on the rock. They are long-lived birds and it is not unusual for them to achieve a lifespan of about 40 years. At the nesting site they can be quite vociferous and many a yachtsman, anchored for the night under a Pembrokeshire cliff has been awakened at crack of dawn by the din of a harsh and throaty machine-gun cackle coming from a nearby fulmar colony. Although gull-like in their pale grey and white plumage, they can not be confused with gulls because of their stiffly held, long wings and their effortless flight.
There are two distinctive, closely related kinds of fulmar which occupy the same niche in the northern and southern oceans of the world: the Northern fulmar which populates the North Atlantic and North Pacific, and is slightly smaller than the Southern fulmar which roams the Southern oceans. The northern bird is grey and white with a yellow bill and the southern rather paler with dark wingtips.