Saturday evening was beautiful – calm, with blue skies after heavy rain earlier in the day. We were driving from home to Stromness on the main road, looking forward to a concert of young musicians.
Roughly halfway there, my eye was caught by a white bird, huddled on the opposite verge, just inches away from the tarmac. Something clicked in my head as we passed it, and I said to Graham: “It’s a fulmar!”
Fulmars are seabirds, a type of petrel. Petrels are described as ‘tube noses’ because of the peculiar appendage above their beak which helps them smell prey and filter sea water from their food. Fulmars are known by Orcadians as mallimacks. As with all petrels, their legs are set far back on their body so that they are essentially useless on land, which they only visit to nest and rear chicks.
Sometimes the birds mistake puddles or glistening roads for deeper water. They land, then find they can’t get airborne again, as they need a good run across the buoyant surface of the water to lift off. They can’t fly or walk and are stuck.
This one needed to be moved to water, and quickly, as it was so close to the road it only needed to flop forward a few inches and it would get run over.
Graham stopped the car, reversed, and parked along the verge. We rummaged in the boot and found an old shower-proof jacket of mine. Petrels have a defence mechanism that involves spewing out a foul, oily, fishy liquid when threatened, and I hoped desperately this one wouldn’t do so in the car. I could always throw away the jacket but not the car.
As we closed the boot, a car following behind us swung wide to give us a clear berth, skimming the edge of the opposite verge and coming terrifyingly close to the bird. I saw it flinch as the breeze from the car’s passing nearly knocked it over.
Quickly but carefully I approached it so that if it tried to move away it would go further into the grass. It gave one half-hearted attempt to push itself away with its nearly useless legs, then gave up and looked hopelessly up at me.
Talking softly, I gently dropped the jacket over it, then picked it up around the body, noticing that it felt heavy and fat, which was a relief. It seemed to be a healthy bird, just in the wrong place. I wrapped the jacket carefully around its body and lay part of the jacket over its face, holding it loosely around its neck, just as I would have done with an aggressive parrot years ago.
It struggled a bit, but I was able to hold it, and I gingerly crossed the road with the bird clutched in my arms. I got in the car and we headed for the nearest beach, which happened to be the one near our house.
We drove for five minutes, with the bird occasionally kicking me in the stomach with its feet, and biting furiously on the jacket, which was fine by me. It wasn’t chewing on me, at least, and it meant that it still had some fight left!
It was a very well-behaved bird and didn’t spew anything nasty at me, though I suspect it tried once and maybe didn’t have anything left after its earlier fright.
We finally arrived at the beach. I picked my way through the piles of lovely rounded stones until we got to the sand, then walked down to the water. The bird had become quite still and I panicked thinking it had succumbed to the stress, but then it started chewing on the jacket again and gave me a kick.
I eased back the top flap of jacket covering the bird’s face so it could get its bearings, and we got our first good look at it since I picked it up. Fulmars have lovely faces. They always look to me like they’re wearing smudged eye shadow. I stroked its head, noticing how thick the feathers were on top, then, oblivious to my nice leather ankle boots and dressy jeans, I stepped into the water, and carefully eased the bundle down.
I pulled aside the bottom layer of the jacket to free the bird’s feet, then set it in the water and eased the rest of the jacket away. It flapped a bit to get its balance, then started paddling furiously away from us.
I suggested if we left then we could still make the concert, but Graham said we should stay and make sure it got away okay, which made me happy.
We watched it swim against the incoming tide at a remarkable pace. Once or twice it tried its wings as if to fly, but I think it was exhausted and it settled for swimming out to sea until from the shore we could no longer make out even a white speck.
We stayed for a few more minutes marvelling at the beautiful sunset, noticing a seal who had evidently been watching the proceedings, before eventually heading home. I was sorry to miss the concert, but felt that nothing could match the warm fuzzy feeling of helping a creature to safety that must surely have otherwise died.