The bird held its wings stiff and flat as it glided along the Krysuvikurbjarg. The wind whipped along these cliffs, making me cinch down my hat, and this guy was using the gale to drift smoothly right in front of me, almost floating. The crashing of the North Atlantic filled the air, and other birds’ cries added to the chorus. I felt like I could reach out and touch this Northern Fulmar, but I was staying a good twenty feet back from the sheer drop. He seemed to be hanging there, like a kite, just playing in the blow.
This was a bird I’d hoped to see on this trip to Iceland. A friend had called a few weeks earlier to say he had an opening on a photography trip; he’d asked, “Do you want to photograph puffins and skuas?” I did, but I also thought about these guys and would I finally have a close look at this marvelous family. They have a unique tube on the top of their bill that gives the order their name, Procellariforms, the tubenose. Albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels are all in this group.
I’d seen this species in 2005 when I came to Iceland with my wife, daughter, and her future husband, but on that trip, they flew along a cliff more than half a mile away. So, I couldn’t study them in detail; see that bill. Also, my wife was sick with cancer, and that trip wasn’t about birds. But as we drove north toward Snæfellsnes Peninsula, a place she wanted to see because a volcanic crater, there, had been the inspiration for Jules Vern’s book, Journey to the Center of the World, I spotted fulmars flying, and she insisted I stop to look. I’d seen other members of this order a few times but also not well, not where one could have a feel for them. So, according to eBird, they were on my life list, but yet something still seemed missing. Mostly, I knew these birds from books.
Krysuvikurbjarg are a well-known breeding site for thousands of seabirds. The volcanic bluffs drop almost two hundred feet straight to the water’s edge, and birds nest on outcrops and in crevices. Siggi, my Icelandic guide, pointed out other great birds, including kittiwakes, murres, puffins, and gulls. He warned me not to get close because slabs of tuft or basalt sometimes crack, falling into the surf. He didn’t want to lose a customer. But right then, my concentration was focused on this Fulmar and its incredible ability to fly.
I used to dream of flying myself, especially when watching Red-tailed Hawks soar over our farm in Pennsylvania. They would catch the thermals that rose from the sun’s heating of the ground. On fixed wings, they’d make marvelous loops, never once twitching those wings, going in circles, often climbing higher and higher. They weren’t hunting, just playing in the afternoon, enjoying life. I’d be out helping with the hay or doing some other chore, stop, and watch in envy.
Although fulmars look somewhat like gulls, they are more closely related to albatrosses. This entire group is true pelagic birds, generally spending all their time at sea and only coming to land during the nesting season. This guy’s body was thicker than a gull’s, about the size of a Mew or Ringed-billed gull, with a heavier head and thinner wings. On the top of its bill was that closed-over tube, like someone had glued an inch-long straw to its dorsal surface. The bill was also thick and had a distinct hooked beak. Apparently, they have an excellent sense of smell and use it to find food — eating fish, invertebrates, and offal from the fishing industry. Their numbers have grown in the North Atlantic over the last two centuries, presumably due to the increased food the fishing industry has provided.
The word fulmar is derived from Old Norse and means “foul gull.” Adults and chicks produce a nasty smelling sticky oil from the lining of their stomachs and will regurgitate it onto something threatening the nest. Siggi told a funny story of climbing a steep hill to get a better perch for a photograph. Unknown to him, a pair of fulmars were nesting just over a little bump. As his head came over the grass-covered rise, they vomited right on him, covering him in this smelling goo. He said the smell didn’t wash off, and his wife was not particularly pleased to let him back in the house.
My attention, though, was focused on how this bird flew. This species and its close relatives, the shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses, are best known for their flying abilities. Many of them travel huge distances on foraging trips, and Fulmars sometimes make many hundred-mile loops gathering food for their young. They can cover enormous distances across the oceans outside of the breeding season. His wings were longer and thinner than I expected, and that made sense as I thought about their ecology. The long-thin wings allow this bird to use any wind or slight updraft from waves to glide. When they do flap, their wingbeats are short and choppy and can take them readily where they need to go, but it was their use of the wind that I’d come to marvel.
My sister and I used to fly kites, especially in March and April when it was windy on our Pennsylvania farm. We take them up the hill, west of the house. Attached to a long string, with the appropriate tail, they’d climb above the hayfield, gliding back and forth with the constant breeze. Giddiness would fill our hearts. A gust might make them dip or crash if we didn’t react correctly, and a drop in the wind would cause them to fall. We had to turn and run to keep them up until the breeze picked up. Here, this bird was using the updrafts from the cliff. The brisk wind came in from the ocean, turned vertical, shooting up past us, and the Fulmar just drifted on that boisterous current.
Incredibly, this bird was molting flight feathers, yet it seemed to hang on this gale. Several inner primaries were growing. It also was replacing some of its coverts and maybe a few secondaries. All birds must replace their feathers each year to maintain their aerodynamics and insulation. The feathers wear with time and life’s actions, like our clothes. They are made of keratin, the same as our fingernails, and the complete plumage can weigh as much as a fifth or sixth of the bird’s weight. So, energetically, it is an expensive process, and they must keep their ability to fly throughout. Yet, it seemed to fly perfectly even with those new feathers growing.
Siggi called, “We need to move along now.” The others had walked a quarter-mile across the tundra toward the vehicle. Siggi stood not thirty feet from me, still watching the birds over the ocean. He was a big man, a good head and shoulders taller than me, with a build that looked more like a professional wrestler or defensive lineman in American football. When I’d seen him walk into the hotel lobby on that first morning, I’d dismissed him as someone not possibly interested in nature. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He walked through this natural landscape with reverence and freely shared his love of nature. He joked about being a Viking, and we all teased him about it too. But I’d follow this man into the wilds anytime.
Right then, the Fulmar banked right, dropping below the edge of the cliff, and disappeared. Maybe I already had this species on my life list, but this sighting I’d never forget. My kites in Pennsylvania never quite flew like this bird. A master of flight had passed, having fun with the blow, not once flapping its wings.
A version of this essay first appeared in the Washington Ornithological Society Newsletter 193: 7-9.