The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet's Great Ocean Voyagers

The Seabird's Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet's Great Ocean Voyagers

by Adam Nicolson


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Enter ancient lands of wind and waves where the planet’s greatest flyers battle for survival.

As the only creatures at home on land, at sea, and in the air, seabirds have evolved to thrive in the most demanding environment on Earth.

In The Seabird’s Cry, Adam Nicolson travels ocean paths, fusing traditional knowledge with astonishing facts science has recently learned about these creatures: the way their bodies actually work, their dazzling navigational skills, their ability to smell their way to fish or home and to understand the discipline of the winds upon which they depend.

This book is a paean to the beauty of life on the wing, but, even as we are coming to understand the seabirds, a global tragedy is unfolding. Their numbers are in freefall, dropping by nearly 70 percent in the last sixty years, a billion fewer now than in 1950. Extinction stalks the ocean, and there is a danger that the hundred-million-year-old cries of a seabird colony, rolling around in the bays and headlands of high latitudes, will this century become but a memory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250181596
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 778,971
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

A New York Times bestselling author, Adam Nicolson has won many major awards including the Somerset Maugham Award, the W. H. Heinemann Award, and the Ondaatje Prize. His books include Why Homer Matters and The Seabird's Cry. Mr. Nicolson lives in England with his wife and grown children.

Read an Excerpt



I remember as a boy lying down on the very edge of one of the highest cliffs in the Shiants, shuffling up to it on my belly until my nose was out in clean air, the grey cliff, fuzzy with lichen, dropping straight to the surf below, my feet still well back on the grass. There I could watch the fulmars on their own terms, nothing between me and them but the air on which they lived. I followed them for hours with the binoculars as they played in loop after loop in the billowing gusts around us. This was wind-dancing, untroubled and seamless. They slipped in and out of the sunlight, sometimes lit against the dark, then into shadow, a stroboscope of life on the wing. They would come past at head height, a few feet away, the dark observant eye buried in the white of head and neck, a straight and vertiginous look into the consciousness of another animal. Across the northern hemisphere, fulmars can be found in every tone from nearly black to nearly white, but the Shiant birds have always been a wonderful, mottled fusion of white and pale grey, mysteriously dove-like, the first bird that ever made me wonder what its life consisted of.

Do fulmars play? Parts of their brain are full of the neurotransmitters that are essential for a feeling of reward, and can be flooded with natural opiates, the enkephalins, without which no animal can feel pleasure. Swans have been seen repeatedly surfing on waves off a beach and crows have tobogganed again and again down a snowy Russian rooftop, using a jam-jar lid as their sledge. It is not stupid to think that birds might play, and here from the clifftop it has always looked as if that is what the fulmars were doing: the endless, repeated turns, first on one great circle and then another, skaters outlining discs on the ice, stiff-winged, patient, waiting for the long rotation to take its form, a series of geometries, as if the birds were cutting shapes through the paper of the air.

The air doesn't always comply. Now and then a strange lack of certainty runs through a fulmar, even as it makes these Euclidean diagrams beneath you, a whole-body hesitation, coughing in mid-flight, when it shudders and disassembles, all sleekness gone and all purpose paused, as if waiting for the data stream to resume, which it then does, and the long effortless gestures, milking energy from the wind, continue from one end of the ballroom to the other.

No one knows what that fulmar-fluster is, the sudden gust of stage-fright in the middle of the performance, but it is at least this: a reminder that these creatures are not feathered machines but individuals with idiosyncrasies and incompletenesses, immature or senescent, not perfect but animals that are at least perfect enough.

You could spend hours staring at them – I have – and know nothing more at the end than at the beginning, except for an overwhelming sense of the mastery of the birds, the privilege of seeing them like this, not in crisis or ecstasy but in the midst of life, the wonderful ordinariness with which they scarcely distinguish rock from air, life settled on the nest from life on the sustaining wind, as if one were only the other in another form.

James Fisher, the great lover and student of the fulmar, who devoted much of his life to understanding them and their twentieth-century spread across the North Atlantic, consulted Walter Newmark, a glider and sailplane pilot, on the skills of the bird. Newmark was clear: compared with a fulmar, the gulls – the herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and kittiwakes – were frank incompetents. Fulmars, he wrote in Sailplane and Glider,

usually hold their wings stiffer than a gull without the rake forward and sweep back of the wings, relying for fore-and-aft stability on a very well developed tail. The tail muscles are extraordinarily strong, capable of warping the tail up on one side and down on the other, and at the same time twisting the whole assembly and thus putting on bank without using aileron control.

Watch carefully and you will see, as Newmark says, that for all the apparent suavity and continuity of their flight, the bird makes constant tiny adjustments of its wing, raising the inner 'arm' half so that the leading edge is higher than the trailing edge, and lowering the outer 'hand' half the other way, with the leading edge down, or then vice versa, in constant dialogue with the ripples and instability in the wind, soaring on updraughts, diving into the downcurrents, flicking themselves up, splaying that astonishing tail rudder or suddenly on arrival at the nest lowering its legs for full-flap braking. Nothing in three dimensions is beyond this bird.

The crews of old whalers in the Arctic thought fulmars were the spirits of Greenland skippers, somehow released from the burden of their ships and now afloat over the ocean they had previously raided. More than any other northern bird, that sense of boundary-crossing freedom is what they embody on the wing. They come and go without warning, and in the Hebrides, along with other migrants, they were called in Gaelic eoin shianta, the eerie or uncanny ones, perhaps because constancy is what one expects of a creature, a material reliability, present if present. But fulmars refuse to belong consistently to the world of which we are a part. The centre of their life is oceanic, beyond any horizon we might know.

Until recently, people have only been able to guess what the fulmars did when they were not to be seen. They were observed at their colonies and by whalers and trawlermen at sea, but the bulk of their ocean life, and more importantly the connection between ocean life and nest life, was effectively invisible. In the last twenty years the modern revolution in remote sensing has changed all that, and no experiment has better demonstrated the miracle and beauty of the fulmar than one conducted on the small uninhabited Orkney island of Eynhallow in 2012.

Eynhallow is the Mecca and Ayers Rock of fulmar studies, as successive generations of the bird have since 1950 been experimented with and prodded there by scientists from the University of Aberdeen, making them one of the most consistently examined populations of wild animals in the world. In May 2012, twenty-two of the Eynhallow fulmars, nesting in the ruins of the abandoned buildings and old field walls, were fitted with GPS loggers, stuck with waterproof tape to the back, on the mantle between the wings. Each bird was also given a geolocator held on to its leg with a cable tie around a ring.

The revelatory fulmar was a big male, number 1568, and was well known to the scientists. He had bred on Eynhallow with the same partner for the previous eleven years and just after midday on 23 May 2012 the Aberdeen scientists grabbed him where he was sitting on his nest at the southern end of Eynhallow, with a view towards Evie on the Orkney mainland. His partner was away fishing. 1568 had already been taking part in the Aberdeen experiments and Ewan Edwards and Paul Thompson removed a geolocator that had been attached to his leg two years previously. With the new GPS and the new geolocator both fitted, 1568 was settled back on his egg, waiting for his partner to return from fishing.

Three days later she came back and at 10.30 that evening 1568 headed out to sea. Until recently, that is where the information would have stopped. Nowadays, with satellites and miniaturization, it is where it begins. Fourteen days later, on their usual morning round of the nests to see which birds had returned, Paul, Ewan and Sian Tarrant, their volunteer field assistant, found 1568 back on his nest. To their excitement, he was still carrying both his tracking devices, which they removed, before putting him back on the nest and then anxiously downloading the data.

That is often the moment when it becomes apparent that the GPS had stopped working as soon as the bird left the nest. Not this time: the weather had been calm in late May, with a large and stable summer high hanging over the British Isles. 'When the wind blows they go on their travels,' James Fisher had written. 'Rough weather is as necessary to the fulmar as the Trade Winds were to the human conquest of the New World. Rough weather is the fulmar's passport, its transport to mid-ocean.' 1568 was true to his genes and for two days he waited for the wind, afloat on the ocean just to the north-west of Orkney. But then the weather changed. A deep depression began to build in the central North Atlantic, well to the south of the waiting bird, and, as it deepened, strong south-easterlies began to blow. In that wind, he set off to the north-west, a sustained eleven-hour flight to the channel between Shetland and the Faeroes, a rich picking ground for the plankton drifting up in the North Atlantic Current. He stayed there almost a day, hungry from his time on the egg in Eynhallow, now grazing happily on the meadows of the ocean.

Then the surprise: early in the morning of the fourth day of his journey, 1568 set off in the wind on a heading of about 250° west-south-west, and flew fast and hard out into the depths of the North Atlantic for two and half days, a thousand miles in fifty-five hours. He slowed at night but during the day sometimes covered more than 40 straight-line miles in an hour. If you take the zigzag path of his dynamic soaring into account, he may have been travelling half as fast again. In good time, with his mate still sitting on their egg in Eynhallow, he arrived at the destination he had undoubtedly been seeking, the rich waters around a mountainous and broken section of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge called the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone.

There, on a part of the ocean named after the American Coastguard Weather Station Charlie and the survey ship Josiah Willard Gibbs, two-thirds of the way to Canada, he feasted for three days, not travelling far, but feeding on the plankton, squid and fish that gather at that meeting of the warm North Atlantic Current and the cold fertile waters coming down from the Arctic. The Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone may be unknown to anyone who is not a marine scientist, but it is one of the most important places for life in the Atlantic, where storm petrels and great shearwaters, Cory's shearwaters coming up from the Azores, even sooty shearwaters from the Falklands, long-tailed skuas and Arctic terns, along with turtles, whales, dolphins and vast shoals of migratory fish, all gather to feed on the density of planktonic life generated in the nutrient-rich waters churned up from the ocean floor.

Imagine 1568 out there, surrounded by other birds from Iceland and Canada, from Greenland and far south in the Atlantic, quartering the sea for his prey. He may well be hunting by sight, as that is the role of his large, dark eyes, but like the albatrosses and other tubenosed birds, the fulmar can also certainly smell his prey. This may be a function of distance: the hunting bird may finally see the bait which until then he has only been able to smell. After three days at the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, during which he had moved gradually westwards so that his furthest point, eight days after he had left the nest, was almost 1,500 miles from Eynhallow, he turned for home but intriguingly did not make a beeline for Orkney, instead flying, now into strong headwinds, to Galway Bay in south-west Ireland. It may be that he was choosing the headwinds that were nearer the centre of the depression and so slightly weaker. If he had gone straight back to Orkney, it would have been a battle against the easterlies on which he had ridden out into the Atlantic.

Arriving in Ireland, he was a long way from home, many hundreds of miles south of Orkney, but the Vikings used to navigate like this: leave the coast of Norway, aim as best you could for the mainland of Britain, hit it somewhere you would recognize and then follow the coast to your original destination. That looks like 1568's method, aiming for the great unmissable wall of Europe to the east and finding it wherever the headwinds had allowed him.

All the same, his geographical understanding was precise. He knew he was to the south of where he needed to be. He could expect that there would be homeward-heading southerlies on the eastern edge of a low, and having fed on the sea for eight hours off the rich sea life in Galway Bay, 1568 turned definitively north along the Atlantic coastline, hugging the shore until he reached the big headland of Erris Head, shoved out into the Atlantic from County Mayo, and from there cut north-east for Tory Island and then the Hebrides. He made his Scottish landfall at the great lighthouse of Skerryvore off the south-west point of Tiree. There again, in the surging tidal overfalls of that difficult stretch of water, he paused and fed for a few hours.

For the one final step on the road home to Eynhallow, 1568 set off from Tiree on the afternoon of his thirteenth day and, clearly reading the geography of north-west Scotland, tracked up the western, Atlantic side of the Outer Hebrides, not the shortest route but the firmest delineation of the meeting of continent and ocean, a sea- and landscape with which he was certainly familiar. From the Butt of Lewis, another of the great corners of Europe's Atlantic façade, he flew to just south of Cape Wrath and from there home to Eynhallow, to the egg and bird that had been his mate for the last ten years. He arrived at nine in the evening on 9 June 2012, having travelled a straight-line distance of nearly 3,900 miles in just over two weeks. After a moment or two together, his mate left for her own (unknown) voyaging and 1568 settled on to the egg, where, as most fulmars do when returning from a foraging trip, he tucked his head under his wing, sitting on the sorrel and the thrift, and slept.

Not every fulmar followed by Paul Thompson and Ewan Edwards lived quite the heroic life of 1568. Some went off to the Norwegian coast, and many fished far more locally, but one thing became clear from a fusion of 1568's journey in May and June, at nesting time, with the other data gathered from the logger he had worn on his leg for the previous two years. He knew what he was doing. 1568 went to the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone because he knew about it. He knew there was a predictable food source there, because he had spent the first few years of his life wandering the oceans exploring and expanding his knowledge, building up a database of where he was likely to find food. So many birds go to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to fish that he probably followed others there. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge was ingrained in his mind as a source of well-being. His ocean journeys were acts of memory.

Once you hear this story, you cannot watch a fulmar at a summer cliff and see it in the same way. Its aerial ease and swank, its imperial familiarity with the wind, are now revealed only as the outermost tips of an oceanic life. An iceberg of otherness lies hidden beneath that visible surface, and the GPS tracker has seen into those depths in a way no one has ever seen before, just as a creel pulled into a fishing boat brings unsuspected creatures to the light. Here is a bird so attuned to the ways of planet and ocean, not only physically and instinctively but psychologically and even analytically, that it is possible to see in its whole being an intelligence different from but scarcely less than ours. The GPS tracks are a map of that mind, allowing a glimpse into a fulmar's consciousness.

This bird is no aberration: the body of the fulmar has evolved to behave like this. Although they are capable of flapping, they are equipped to soar and glide and even though a puffin is less than half a fulmar's weight, a fulmar's pectoral muscles, which drive flapping flight, are actually smaller than a puffin's. That is the effect of lifestyle on body: a puffin's wings must operate under water, allowing it to propel itself to great depths in pursuit of fish. Long wings wouldn't work under water – the drag would be too much on each stroke – and so the puffin's wings have shrunk to a compromise between wing and fin. The result is that to stay airborne, the puffin can scarcely ever glide, only as it first drops from its cliffside burrow towards the sea. When down there it must beat its wings up to ten times a second, 600 times a minute. To do that, it has developed its large pectoral muscles, that big, puffed-out swelling of the chest which gives the bird its familiar outline and maybe its name.


Excerpted from "The Seabird's Cry"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Adam Nicolson.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1. Fulmar

2. Puffin

3. Kittiwake

4. Gull

5. Guillemot

6. Cormorant and Shag

7. Shearwater

8. Gannet

9. Great Auk and its Cousin Razorbill

10. Albatross

11. The Seabird's Cry



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