Monday, 13 November 2006

Autumn storm forces Little Auks south

The start of November saw strong winds in the North Sea. Combined with the high tides, these brought flooding to parts of the east coast and a flight of little auks, pushed south from their more normal wintering haunts on the northern oceans. Reports of these tiny birds, no larger than a starling in size, came from along the north and east coasts of Norfolk. Most were seen passing close inshore but a few were found on coastal waterbodies or downed on the beach. One birdwatcher, who I met at a talk I was giving in Lowestoft, told me about one unfortunate individual taken by a great black-backed gull; the gull took several attempts before managing to swallow the auk whole.

The little auk is possibly one of the most numerous seabirds in the world, with a breeding population numbering many millions. The species breeds in the high arctic, nesting on rocky scree slopes on islands like Svalbard, Bear Island and Greenland. Individuals leave the breeding colonies in August, just as the sea ice is beginning to form. The birds then spend the entire winter at sea, where they form very large flocks which feed on small crustaceans and fish. These flocks can be found from the edge of the pack ice, south to the Gulf of Maine in the west and the northern North Sea in the east. Only when strong winds and sea conditions work against them do they get pushed further south to reach the Norfolk coast. In some years, very few little auks are seen off the coast of Norfolk – for example just seven were seen in 1994 – but in other years many thousands may be reported. The years when very large numbers are forced south are known as “wrecks” and it is during such events that individuals can be blown inland. In 1895, a huge “wreck” resulted in reports as far inland as Thetford and, across the county, some 250 were said to have been stuffed by taxidermists. Many of these storm-blown birds appear underweight and it is thought that poor feeding conditions may also drive the birds southwards.

I will never forget the first little auk that I saw, some 15 or so years ago. This wind-blown individual was swimming about in one of the channels that run at right angles to the east bank at Cley. The small, dumpy bird moved about as if it were a clockwork toy. The head and tail ends of similar shape reinforcing this image and suggesting that it might swim equally well backwards as forwards. Mind you, it is worth remembering that this tiny bird can survive a winter spent in the middle of the vast northern oceans.

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