Reviewed by Peter Reason
It is easy for those of us who live inland to read the ‘seabirds’ in the title as ‘seagulls’ and think of those creatures that poo on our heads, steal our sandwiches and tear open rubbish bags to scatter their contents over the pavement. We meet them more closely than we might like because gulls are coastal creatures, inhabiting the edge of the seabird world and so overlapping with ours: ‘thriving in the same way, failing in the same way, behaving badly in the same way’ as we do. They are only one among the fascinating—and threatened— species of Atlantic seabirds that Adam Nicolson celebrates in this book.
On my own sailing pilgrimages I have watched in amazement as gannets dived into a shoal of fish all around my boat. I have seen them up close, nesting on Little Skellig off the coast of Kerry, settled on every possible ledge of rock. Anchored off MacDara’s Island in Connemara I have been surrounded by Arctic Terns, delicate creatures, fluttering on long, pointed wings, darting this way then that, gliding down to the water as if to get a better view, then rising sharply to almost stall in the air. They don’t dive deep like gannets, but half dive, half flop into the water to make a catch. And when I sailed into the anchorage at the Shiant Islands the water surface seemed littered with specks of white as if some giant had cast handfuls of torn up paper across the surface: thousands of puffins with razorbills and guillemots amongst them. The air was full of puffins too, so full it reminded me more of a cloud of mosquitoes than a flock of birds.
It was on Shiant that Nicolson was introduced to seabirds by his father Nigel. Nigel had bought the Shiants from the author and politician Compton MacKenzie and went there often, mainly alone. He took Adam with him when the boy was eight: ‘I had never seen this scale of things before: tall, cliffed, remote, fierce, beautiful, harsh and difficult but, for all that, dazzlingly and almost overwhelmingly thick with a swirl of existence… the air and the sea around was filled with 300,000 birds, a pumping, raucous polymorphous multiversity…’ Adam was hooked, on the Shiants and on seabirds; for him the seabird colony ‘became a baseline and touchstone for me of what the world might be’.
Nicolson tells of his relationship with the Shiants, which his father gifted to him when he was twenty-one, in his earlier book Sea Room. Although Seabirds starts with memories of those years, the main chapters of this book are detailed studies of the life and loves of the birds themselves, drawing on his own travels and on the wealth of information that is available now that modern technology can track birds on their extraordinary travels. We learn of the flight of one male fulmar, who leaves his mate on the nest on Eynhallow in the Orkney Islands and flies a thousand miles in fifty-five hours to the rich feeding grounds on the North Atlantic Ridge, returning three days later. Nicolson points out that this was not a random flight, that ‘his geographical understanding was precise’ not only in knowing where to fly to feed but how to follow the winds and coastline on his return.
In the following chapter, Nicolson explains how puffins, after the rigours of a winter feeding in the North Atlantic, respond to the increased light of springtime to ready themselves sexually and socially for breeding. Their sex organs swell, their plumage changes to the spectacular colours we are familiar with (at least from photographs), they return in thousands to their old nesting places to mate and nest. They pursue the classic seabird strategy: a long life, close relationship with one partner, and a massive investment in just one egg per year; this in contrast to most land birds who lay a clutch of eggs, maybe twice in a season.
Later we learn about the intelligence and judicious choices made by all kinds of seabirds. Nicolson explains how kittiwakes develop flexible feeding patterns, carefully dividing time between different kinds of fish to maximise their catch. We learn of the importance of the colony for gannets, how an individual bird’s decisions as to where to fish are based on information gathered and shared within the colony: ‘They know their world by familiar waymarks’ that underlies the ‘innumerable daily decisions… of what is possible and what has worked before’. Recent research suggests that some albatrosses are bold and others shy, but that the birds that seem shy are the ones that take the trouble to seek out the best fishing spots. It may also be that albatrosses are learning to avoid getting hooked and drowned on the longline fishing boats that have caused populations to plummet.
The book is full of such information, but we are not just learning bald facts, for Nicolson engages us both clearly and passionately. He explores how seabirds exert hold on human imagination, how each species finds a different answer to the challenge of living in three elements—in sea, air and on land; how each species lives in its own umwelt, or ‘self-centred subjective world’, one among many possibilities, to which it is marvellously adapted.
In his final chapter, Nicolson reminds us of the persistence of seabird species: birds were doing their thing well before humans emerged from Africa to colonize the whole world. Today, seven of the ten birds whose lives are told in this book are in decline. In one telling example, Nicolson writes of his visit to a puffin colony in Iceland: in a place where from time immemorial thousands of birds have raised their chicks, on the evening of his visit there were none. Why? Because puffins, unlike fulmars and others, have evolved as excellent divers but poor fliers. They must nest close to their food source, otherwise they use up too much energy flying to and fro and have none left to feed their chicks. Warming seas, overfishing, shifting populations of plankton have combined to make the sandeels on which puffins rely disappear. For similar reasons, some great gatherings of fulmars have failed to fledge a single one in some recent summers. On the other hand, great backed gulls are holding their own and gannets are thriving.
‘The great extinction is going on everyday’, Nicolson tells us; Michael McCarthy called this ‘the great thinning’ of other beings; it is happening at sea as well as on land. Few of us seem to notice. Nicolson tells us how he himself, a lifelong observer of seabirds, was for a long time unaware of the crash of populations even on his own beloved Shiant Islands. “What is to be done? Only all that can be done”: there are practical challenges like protecting breeding places and controlling fishing boats; and more intractable ones such as preventing the changes to climate and ocean acidity.
Nicolson ends his book where he started: on the Shiants. In recent years the RSPB has undertaken a thorough eradication of rats, which came off ancient wrecks and were eating puffin eggs. It was hoped that this would contribute one defence against the forces of destruction. It is too soon to learn if it has helped the puffins, but Nicolson recounts how the islands have already been repopulated by landbirds—the songs of wrens and wheatears now filling the air, ‘a miniature rivulet of song, trickling our into the air above the surf… little dancing apostles of the future…’
Nicolson, Adam. Sea Room: An Island Life. London: HarperCollins, 2001.
McCarthy, Michael. The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. London: John Murray, 2015.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage is published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu, on Twitter @peterreason .
Adam Nicolson, illus. Kate Boxer, The Seabird’s Cry (William Collins, 2017). 978-0008165697, 228pp., hardback.
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