Discovering new places is awesome. Discovering new places that unexpectedly host some of your favourite seabirds is more awesome still. A couple of weekends ago we broke the long drive from Norwich to Manchester with a quick detour to Hunstanton beach. A quick online search had informed me that the famous red and white cliffs were a good place to find fossil shark teeth, ammonites and fish; and with my favourite fossil fish expert Emma in tow, it seemed a great place for a pit-stop. We raced down the ramps and trained our eyes on the scree; but with no hammer it quickly became apparent that we were going to have to go home empty handed. After the success of recent fossiling trips we were pretty disappointed – until some odd chattering from the top of the cliffs drew my gaze to the top. Lo and behold, at the junction between the white lower chalk and the Hunstanton red rock, was a pair of fulmars, chattering away to each other and looking out over the mudflats revealed by the low tide.
The name fulmar is derived from the Old Norse fúll, meaning fowl, and már, meaning gull, in honour of their ability to fire a foul smelling regurgitated oil at predators (including humans that get too close). I much prefer the Orcadian word mallimack, which isn’t far removed from mollymawk, a common name for albatross. Relatively few people in the UK realise that several relatives of the albatross call this island home (fulmars are members of the Procelariiformes which include albatrosses, shearwaters and storm petrels). But if you look at a fulmar up close, you’ll be able to see the characteristic tubenose, and after seeing their masterful soaring in the wind it’s easy to see the connection. I think they’re a gorgeous looking bird- I love their snowy white bellies, which stood out against the extraordinary red cliffs- and their smoky eyes, which remind me of the ridiculously sleek-looking black-browed albatross.
I was totally engrossed as I watched them swirl in and out of the cliffs- some clearly landed next to their partners and were warmly welcomed, whereas others seemed to be big fans of the third-wheel, and would boldly perch on the cliff face while being lambasted by the resident couple. It was a great evening- and all the sweeter because it was so totally unexpected.