Guillemots. Life on the Edge.

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Posted on May 7, 2015

guillemot colony on the pembrokeshire coastWe walk against the wild westerly wind, heads down, eyes closed. Land bound, we try our best not to be lifted off our feet, and keep what we feel is a safe distance from the edge of the cliff. The sea is one hundred feet below, playing a vigorous rhythm on coarse rocks.

Ahead of us, the birds both use and fight the wind’s gusts. They land, improbably, within a mass of other birds. There are hundreds of guillemots on the flat top of a high stone stack, and groups of three, four, five or ten on ledges further down. They rise, with apparent struggle, squat flippers of feet beneath a plump belly, and plummet to the sea’s ruffled surface to join hundreds of others. Theirs is a cycle of feeding, flying, resting. They are preparing to nest, chattering with a dac-a-dac, dac-a-dac, dac-a-dac that sounds like a squabble, and may well be.

guillemots on the water pembrokeshire

It’s seems a marvel to me that each mating pair will find a patch of rocky ground in which to make a scrape, lay an egg, raise a chick. Overhead, black-backed gulls glide and swerve. In one elegant swoop, with the right trajectory and timing, they could rob a meal from the mouths of the returning birds. Each time a guillemot heads off to go fishing, and flaps upwards to guard its patch of home, it runs this risk. The dac-a-dac racket from the colony sounds more and more like an angry rant at the gulls hovering a few feet above them: guillemots, dark wings folded over white breast, stand as if in dinner jackets, beaks raised, eyes cast to the predators above. The gulls would be mobbed if they got too close.

gull above guillemots on a coastal stackBlack-backed gulls are not the only larger birds joining the scene. Herring gulls glide, a cormorant adds black to the blue, and a single fulmar floats on the wind, light as air. A pair of jackdaws have found a small cavern half way up the crumbling cliff and shelter there from the wind. Inches above the waves, gannets speed towards their next destination.

The guillemots perch on the stack. Theirs is a precarious life where land is less easy to navigate than wind and sea, and death hovers. How their young will fare will be apparent in a few weeks – first the eggs that are laid must be guarded from ambush, then the chicks themselves, then comes the peril of a first flight, a first swim, and the openness of ocean and sky.

Stack Rocks Pembrokeshire

Witnessing the birds rise, fall, call out, dive, land and preen their feathers is a treat. Rob has seen them plenty of times before, having grown up within easy reach of these cliffs. But it’s the first time I have seen them, and I am spellbound. I could stay for hours.

Back home, I check out their story on line. Uria Aalge. Beautiful eyes, expert swimmers, hardy souls. I also find news stories and Facebook posts revealing the harm that plastic rubbish is doing to seabirds and others whose world is the ocean. My heart aches. An unthinkingly thrown beer-can holder can be death to a turtle, a plastic bag suffocation to a seal, oil will ruin a bird’s exquisitely evolved feathers, albatrosses hundreds of miles from human habitation kill their own young with morsels of plastic pecked from the sea, perceived, perhaps, as a colourful feast.

The knowledge of the harm that we humans inflict on defenceless animals is sobering, and we need to know what we have done and will continue to do if we do not change the way we live. But we must also know the vitality and beauty of birds like these guillemots in their natural environment. Watching them, while withstanding the buffeting wind flinging rain and the fishy scent of bird scat into our faces, was a sure way to do this. Far more powerful than the secondary experience of an image on screen that I’ve had before, and I now appreciate the birds so much more.

It’s simple, but it’s true, as David Attenborough has said:

“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”


A bit more information here:

Guillemots    /    Pembrokeshire Coast Path    /    Plastic in the oceans

Video: Plasti

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