Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

For a bird enthusiast, especially one living in the centre of the country equidistant from both coasts, seabird colonies are a source of wonder and fascination.

In May this year I visited one of the most impressive I have ever seen, on the small island of Hornoya, a ten minute boat ride from the much bigger island of Vardo off the northeast coast of Norway.

On clambering from the boat, we were greeted by a strong smell of fishy guano and a deafening cacophony as thousands of calling seabirds poured in and out over our heads.

In places the sheer rocky cliffs were covered with kittiwakes’ nests while other ledges and sloping rocks below the cliffs were packed with thousands of guillemots, birds with the appearance of tiny penguins although these have so far retained the power of flight. However, as they use their wings to propel themselves beneath the water they may be on their way to losing it, as happened to their now extinct relative, the great auk.

Most of the guillemots were of the common variety seen around our coasts but here and there were Brunnich’s guillemots, the same size but with shorter bills marked with a white streak at the base, real Arctic birds. There were smaller numbers of razorbills while puffins were scattered over the lower grassy slopes.

The rocks next to the landing were covered with shags, glossy black crested birds like small cormorants.

Half a dozen enterprising pairs of nesting shags had taken over an open fronted shelter constructed for visitors (pictured), squawking to show their yellow gapes when approached too closely.

On our east coast the biggest seabird colonies are on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria, different in character to the one on Hornoya as they are spread over low-lying islands rather than sheer cliffs but equally impressive with 50,000 guillemots, 40,000 puffins, 4000 kittiwakes and about a thousand each of arctic and sandwich terns and shags.

I thought back to the shags which had taken over the shelter on Hornoya when I read that on June 13 about five inches of rain had deluged the Farne Islands, causing many deaths of seabird chicks - one of the extreme weather events becoming increasingly common due to global heating.

It was a disaster for seabirds already struggling as climate change and overfishing reduces the number of sand eels on which many of them rely for food.