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June 30, 2019

Hovering along the cliff top – Sea birds taking advantage of the wind

Filed under: Adoption,Nature — Tags: , — frederique @ 22:22

I can watch them for hours, the seabirds going about their business at their nesting sites. Though most of them are awkward on land and clumsy at landing, some are acrobats in the air and expert divers in the sea. It is great to see how they take advantage of the local features that nature and this offers them.

I have just been on holiday in Orkney, an archipelago in the north of Scotland. Not many people live there, but of hundreds of thousands of sea birds do. They nest on the cliffs, on the beaches and in the grassland on the coast. Orkney has some great habitats for them.

The cliff ledges are particularly attractive to some specifies. The guillemots lay there eggs directly on the rocky ledge and right next to their neighbours, so you see rows and rows of guillemot backs. The gannets nest on the same ledges, but they build a real nest first, making sure that they are not so close that they can peck each other while sitting on the nest. Puffins prefer old rabbit holes and crevasses near the cliff tops. Fulmars find nooks and crannies.

Guillemots standing on the ledges, interspersed with nesting gannets.

Guillemots standing on the ledges, interspersed with nesting gannets.

Usually, they seem busy foraging and yelling at trespassers – usually other birds. But the ground nesters, like the artic terns, also warned us not to get too close.

At Noup Head on the island of Westray, the wind was blowing hard. The intensity and direction must have been heavily influenced by the shape of the cliffs below our feet, because for us landlubbers at the cliff top it was quite unpredictable where the wind would be fiercest. But the sea birds seemed to love it. And they knew exactly how to take advantage of it.

Many were hovering along the cliff top, just hanging there and watching the scenery, as we were watching them. They did not look elegant, with their tails sticking up and their legs dangling. But apparently, that is the best way to hover in one place, because we saw many birds of different species do it.

Usually the gannets would glide by gracefully. On the cliff top at Noup Head, you can look them in the eye. This way, they go somewhere without hurrying.

Adult gannet gliding

Adult gannet gliding past at Noup Head, Westray

But they also hover on the spot, without going anywhere. At first, we only saw juvenile gannets doing it: immature gannets that still have a lot of black feathers on their wings and that need to grow up before they get the proper white & black wing tips look. Like a flight school? But then we noticed that in some popular spots, adults were hovering the same way.

Immature gannet hovering, sacrificing style for a nice steady hover.

Immature gannet hovering, sacrificing style for a nice steady hover.

Both adult and juvenile gannets hang out at this promontory.

Both adult and juvenile gannets hang out at this promontory.

And it’s not just the gannets. These razorbills hover as well. When they fly, razorbills tend to flap their wings like crazy – like all auks. They seemed to enjoy this steady hover without moving their wings.

Razorbills hovering off Noup Head.

Razorbills hovering off Noup Head.

Hovering razorbill

Razorbill

We haven’t seen the puffins do a full blown hover, but the wind did enable them to stay in the air without flapping their wings frantically. And their landings seemed to be more controlled to.

Puffins were flying and landing relatively safely at Noup Head

Puffins were flying and landing relatively safely at Noup Head

The artic terns on the Holm of Papay on the other hand, had only low cliffs and a relatively even grassland to work with when they were flying around. So they had to flap. Not that it bothered them. They were very agile, fluttering about in all directions, using their wings and magnificent tail.

Arctic tern on the Holm of Papay.

Arctic tern on the Holm of Papay.

Yes, I have been watching the birds for hours during my holidays. In my everyday life, I am indoors in an office, organizing Office 365 into a habitat suitable for my clients’ employees, and helping these people get comfortable in that habitat. So it was great to see the Orcadian users get the most out of their habitat, and getting some fresh air and sunshine for myself too :-)

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