I was out for a walk recently when the weather changed rapidly in a very British way. More specifically in a very coastal way: You turn your back for a minute and when you look again, gone are any patches of brightness or blue sky and suddenly everything is shrouded in damp, slaty grey. This time, it somehow managed to sneak up on me from the landward side. Then the rain came. It’s not too heavy, I think, but actually it’s that fine kind that slyly soaks you so you become sodden without quite noticing how wet you are getting while it’s happening.
Happily, I don’t care because I am watching fulmars. To the untrained eye they might look like they are ‘just gulls’ but they are a different species altogether. Petrels – tubenosed birds with (as the name tells you) a tube atop their bills for getting rid of saltwater when at sea. They spend most of their lives out at sea, only visiting the land to breed and, sometimes, to make winter visits to their breeding sites. That’s how I come to be watching them now. In the sudden, sneaky rain.
The fulmars don’t care about the rain either. They make wheeling flights above Whiteness Gap, popping up above the chalk cliffs and momentarily flying level with where I stand and only a few feet from my face. They don’t always fly so close, but it’s a joy when they do. A further joy is to hear them calling. It sounds like a raspy cackling laugh as if they must be telling each other jokes.
The year I moved to Kent, I went for a Christmas Eve walk on the beach with my husband and at certain points this raspy cackling laughter carolled up the cliffs. Perhaps in celebration the nights drawing out again. It’s not solely a winter phenomenon though and Whiteness Gap is a great place to listen out for it as it seems to amplify the sound.
Eventually I have to admit I’m getting pretty wet so I turn back for home. On my way I spot a wren on one of the bare twiggy bushes on the edge of the cliff, behind the fence. Truthfully I see what might be a leaf; a tiny, brown thing clinging to a bare branch even though we are well into winter. My binoculars are beaded with raindrops by now but I stop a little distance way so I can check – hopefully without disturbing it if it turns out to be an actual bird, as opposed to a leaf bird.
It is a wren and it looks as though it does care about the rain. It shakes the water off itself, with two purposeful whole body flicks, and flies down on to the fence. I know wrens are tiny – one of the UK’s smallest birds – but this one really brings the point home. Even though it has shaken off some of the rain, it still looks annoyed. It bobs up and down on the fence, rapidly, repeatedly. Then it turns, 360 degrees, taking a brief look at where it came from before setting its sights on where it’s going next. A few more bobs and then it’s off – in a low, fast and deliberate flight across the green and – I think – into someone’s front garden. The light is low and dingy now and what with that and my rain flecked binoculars I can’t quite tell. I can tell though that I’d be much better off indoors taking advantage of a dry pair of trousers, swiftly followed by a cup of tea. I quicken my pace, but feel getting wet is a price worth paying for a fulmar fly past and an interesting encounter with an angry wren.
Although I’ll probably forget all about that next time I don’t go for a walk because it’s chucking it down.
- You can hear fulmars cackling on this short RSPB video of them.
Pic credit: Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) by naturalengland, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Clifftop view pic, copyright Sophie Atherton.