All the bodies were lying in the same way: necks drooped submissively, eyes closed, black wings folded into the white belly, the claws gripped together and stretched out behind. I was sad when I saw the first one, but I accepted it. Birds do die at sea, do wash up on the shore. But there were more. A dog was ripping the wings off one, chased by its owner. Then another, tangled in among the seaweed. Once I became aware, my eye picked out the white breasts lying all along the shore; all the same bird, all guillemots. I started to count. Ten, eleven….on and on. Sadness turned into shock. What had happened? What had gone wrong? I remembered the puffin wreck* of a few years ago. It was caused by persistent easterly storms in April coinciding with the arrival of the puffins, so that they were unable to feed for weeks. Thousands of puffins died. But there had been no weather event like that this time. All through September we had had light winds and calm weather. An occasional swell, sure enough, but nothing to trouble a guillemot.
Guillemot are members of the Auk family, close relatives of the Razorbill and Little Auk. They breed in large numbers on the rocky cliffs and pinnacles of the neighbouring Farne Islands, feeding mainly on sand-eels. Their black wings and white bodies give them a dapper dinner-suited appearance, made slightly ridiculous when out of the water by their wide webbed feet and ungainly gait. Their conservation status is Amber.
The next day there were more bodies, and the next. They were there on the neighbouring beach to the north, and I heard reports of similar sightings to the south at Spittal and Cocklawburn. If there were so many on a single beach, how many hundreds or thousands must have died?
I reported the sightings to the RSPB and the local Wildlife Trust. Neither responded. I posted it on Facebook. Not a single viewing. Maybe if they had been covered in oil there would have been more interest.
I went looking on the internet. I found one newspaper report: a big shout-out to the Aberdeen Press and Journal for covering it. They reported from the New Arc Wildlife Sanctuary, where the warden, Keith Marley, had been trying to save starving guillemots. He found almost fifty dead birds on one beach, Cruden Bay, in a single day.
All the birds he took in, but was unable to save, were found to have nothing in their stomachs. They had starved to death. Here’s his conclusion
“Water temperature shifts caused by climate change can cause sand eels and other prey for young seabirds to dive deeper underwater, out of the reach of the fluffy youngsters who remain more buoyant than their parents until they get old enough.
Mr Marley said: “I have no doubt this is related to climate change driving their food down to deeper water as all of the birds we have examined post-mortem have shown their stomachs to be completely empty.”
What was happening further up the coast mirrored what was happening on our beach. Next time I saw a dead bird I picked it up. It lay light in my hand; light and small. A juvenile, starving.
The next thing I noticed were numbers of guillemot bobbing around in the sea close to shore. This is not where guillemot belong. Their colonies are three miles out to sea on the Farne Islands, where they congregate in huge numbers. They should be fishing there, not along the coast. Mr Marley’s words returned to me; the young are too fluffy and buoyant to dive deep for prey. As the sand eels sink deeper or move further north, these young birds have been forced to come closer to shore, desperately seeking food.
Instead of the usual pleasure of watching seabirds close at hand, all I could feel now was fear. Would they survive? Were the birds I was watching also slowly starving? I watched an adult bird with its young swimming beside it. The young bird kept up a piercing plaintive cry for food but the parent was motionless, bobbing up and down in the water, seeming unable to respond. The youngster’s cry felt unbearable. I saw another, still just alive, being washed up onto the shore, wings flailing, still attempting to dive for food that was not there.
I started to keep away from the beaches, to stop swimming in case I should swim into a corpse. I felt a kind of deep constriction and dread, a sense that the great beneficent force of nature had been halted, that the opposite forces of destruction had come into play. If they had been human corpses, for sure we would have taken notice. But this small tragedy, these small starving bodies, attracted no attention at all. They were ignored in plain sight.
These dead birds are a consequence of climate change. They are a symptom. It is not apocalyptic flooding or burning, but it is the same thing. It is on our doorstep, but we don’t notice. I am reading Richard Flanagan’s eco-novel, ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ where he talks of it as ‘vanishing’. Birds, animals, plants, trees, are vanishing silently and we take no notice, lost in the dream of our virtual realities and our blinkered preoccupations. In his novel, people’s limbs start to vanish too – a finger, a knee, even a breast. They disappear painlessly, silently, and rather than confront reality, people vaguely adapt to their diminished bodies. It is a powerful, haunting metaphor.
The guillemots are a foretaste to me, of the anguish that lies ahead of us as the consequences of climate change reach into every subtle network of existence. We have to wake up, to take notice, to act in whatever way we can. We are nature and nature is us; every loss diminishes us.
*When large numbers of dead, injured or exhausted seabirds wash up on coastlines it is referred to in birding circles as a ‘wreck’.
The RSPB did finally take notice. This article appeared in the October edition of their online news.
A TRAGIC MARINE MYSTERY
The Northumberland and Scottish coasts have been experiencing a mysterious event over recent weeks. Hundreds of guillemots and razorbills, and a number of puffins and kittiwakes, have been found starving or washed up dead along beaches in what is known as a seabird wreck. Alongside this, live birds have been found in unusual places – up rivers or feeding amongst swimmers.
What is unusual about this event is that there has been no storm activity which is the normal cause of a wreck. Toxins, climate change and a lack of food have been suggested as causes, but the exact reasons remain unclear – this wreck appears to be something quite unusual. Researchers from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are recording the number and location of dead birds and will monitor breeding colonies next spring to see if this event impacts colony numbers.