The fulmar is a grey-white pelagic seabird, or nomad of the ocean, only coming ashore to rocky islands or desolate cliffs during the breeding season. Although it could possibly be mistaken for a compact herring gull, the fulmar is a virtuoso in maximising the use of draughts and troughs in wind currents, giving it a very distinctive flight action. Short bursts of stiff wing strokes alternate with accomplished gliding when the wings are held straight out like planks as it wheels over the sea or along the breeding precipice.
The fulmar’s head is relatively large with a short, thick neck. The bill is short, but deep, lead-grey and yellowish in colour. If seen at close range, the characteristic nasal passages can be observed attached to the upper bill. These are called naricorns and are a characteristic of a group of birds often called ‘tubenose seabirds’ which includes petrels and shearwaters.
During the daylight hours of the breeding season, fulmars reside on cliff ledges, where the adults share the tasks of incubating and attending to their single offspring. Once the chick is 10-15 days old, the production of stomach oil becomes well developed. This oil is characteristic of this group of seabirds and is used not only as a defensive mechanism when ejected from the bird’s mouth, but also as an energy reserve that can be used to provide food for hungry chicks. If used in defense, the oil can solidify to mat wing feathers or to repulse predators by its extremely offensive smell. The smell of the oil cannot be removed with water and can persist (on items of clothing) for months or even years.
Foraging is generally undertaken at night when they feed at sea on a variety of food ranging from zooplankton and small fish to offal and discards from commercial fishing vessels. When both adults are busy feeding, the cliff colonies reverberate with a noisy cacophony of highly variable cackles and grunts.
- Length 43-52 cm
- Wingspan 102-117 cm
- Weight 760-1000 g (male); 610-855 g (female)
Classified in the UK as an Amber List species under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (2015 update).
At breeding sites, the main threats to fulmars are from mammalian predators such as brown rats and American mink. Since the 1970s, there has been a decline in the North Sea whitefish industry and a corresponding decline in the amount of offal discharged from its fleets. This environmental change has impacted fulmar’s feeding habits. Climate change is likely to have contributed to a decline in the abundance of sand-eels in the North Sea and of certain species of zooplankton in the North Atlantic, factors that have also had detrimental effects on fulmar populations.
Northern fulmars are one of the commonest seabirds in northern Britain and are present year-round. They are a familiar species around Scotland’s coasts in both summer and winter. Scotland is home to around 97% of the UK population of Northern fulmars. However, since the mid to late 1990’s records indicate a decline in numbers (especially on the Shetlands and Orkneys) after a large increase in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The cause of these fluctuations is the subject of debate, but many believe increased populations could be attributed to a stable food supply.
When to see
April–early September on breeding cliff sites
- The fulmar first breeds when it is between 6-12 years old; it frequently returns to the nesting site where it first hatched.
- Fulmarus glacialis originates from the Old Norse word full meaning “foul” and mar meaning “gull”. “Foul-gull” refers to its stomach oil and also its similarity to seagulls. Glacialis is Latin for “glacial” because of its extreme northern range (North Atlantic).
- Fulmars have a salt gland that is situated above the nasal passage that helps desalinate their bodies due to the high amount of ocean water that they ingest when diving to depths of over 4 metres. This gland excretes a high saline solution from their nose.