Peadar O'Connell, our Marine Policy Officer, recalls an evening’s kayak paddle by Marwick Head in Orkney and the seabirds that make a home there.
Echos of Kitticks
We launch from the shell strewn sands, slipping over the recently submerged seaweed on a subsiding tide, whilst oystercatchers alarm indignantly, their peace temporarily shattered. As we skirt around the cliffs the gentle swell rebounds off the monolithic structures resulting in a two pronged attack, steady! It’s pretty calm but the Atlantic is never silent, never truly still, waves crash over nearby reefs and rocky outcrops creating unpredictable explosions of fuming white water. Best to avoid those I think...
Beneath are 30 odd meters of marine ‘stuff’, too dark to see but it’s there, in dusky gloom a resplendent multitude of the strange, the beautiful and the outer worldly. As I float there I’m always expecting the unexpected… In my mind leviathans and sea monsters abound. The sea glistens, not a whitecap to be seen but a blazing diamond on each ripple, we are rich beyond words.
The sea echoes in deep dark caves in the near distance, huge hollows carved out of soft red rocks by the ceaseless onslaught over a plethora of millennia. These amplified sounds of thunder, a constant reminder of wildness in the serenity of a calm sea. And above, against a backdrop of fading blues and burning pinks, the sky dances!
The performers? Mallimacks, kitticks, baukies, aaks, skarts, tysties, tammie norries, whitemaas, baackies, sulas, bonxies and graceful scootie-allans - local Northern Isle names for fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, shags, black guillemots, puffins, herring gulls, great back-backed gulls, gannets, great skuas and Arctic skuas. Names that evoke images of the fantastical, that originate from a romanticised past. Humans like to name things, but names are artificial, I wonder does it make us feel more in control of the irrepressible, or maybe it helps us feel separate, superior? Sitting in this boat with the vast Atlantic behind me, and the skies alive around me I feel totally insignificant.
To my left I can see the tall dark outline of the tower. A memorial to those who lost their lives on a British navy ship that steamed into a mine on a savage night in 1916. I’ve been to that memorial numerous times, it is right in the midldle of an RSPB Scotland reserve where I used to work. Many sailors ended up dying not from the blast but in the tumultuous seas. But now it’s calm.
There is life on the cliffs here, but they used to throng. As recently as the start of the millennium, when the last seabird census of Britain and Ireland was carried out there were thousands more seabirds clinging to the precipitous ledges. Life at sea is hard and pressures are mounting, many seabird “cities” are now no more than fractured villages, motorways reduced to B-roads. The cliffs are such an incredible sight but they are incomplete, damaged.
We often form a picture in our heads informed by our youth of how it should be, in ecology this is called ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ and often limits our ambitions for recovery, being less and less ambitious with our targets with every generation. It saddens me to think an 18 year old Orcadian seeing these cliff today will have formed a picture in their heads of how it should be… 90% less than what it was when they were born!
We know many of the reasons for the decline in seabirds and we know what some of the solutions are. There are lots of pressures, all of which can be linked to human activities. Human induced climate change is already reshaping the seas around the UK, this could lead to catastrophic changes if ‘tipping points’ are reached like the slowing of the Gulf Stream. To reverse declines in seabirds our government needs to fulfil our legal obligations but, as a society, we also need to see the importance of prioritising the recovery of wild animals and plants. There are moral reasons but ultimately we know that our life on this planet depends entirely on the existence of other living things.
Crashing waves and seabird calls fill the air, a cooling salty breeze snaps me out of my imaginings. As we head for home a mallimack glides past, the albatross of Scotland, I’ll call it Alba, it doesn’t care!
I was asked recently what my best seabird experience was. I thought about it, I thought of the time I kayaked around Marwick Head on Orkney, the seabirds were mesmerising, but the cliffs, the sea, the sounds, smells and, even though I was in a group, the feeling of solitude, have all stayed with me, my little boat and I were a very small part of a glorious ecosystem that I still feel privileged to have been part of.
The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) are looking for volunteers to carry out a breeding seabird census this year and next. If you think you can help please get in touch at SeabirdsCountCoordinator@jncc.gov.uk or check out their website.
Knowing how many seabirds are in Britain and Ireland is critical to identifying where we need to prioritise conservation, particularly as pressures increase but resources decrease, and this is only possible with your help. There are indications that there have been massive declines; since the last census that ran from 1998 to 2002, a 90% decline of kittiwakes in Marwick is just one example.