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Sea birds

In the summer months, cliff sites around the Moray Firth are noisy places. Thousands of sea birds come to nest on the cliffs and rear their young, competing with each other for space on the narrow ledges. Gulls, guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and gannets are just some examples of regular visitors to local cliffs.

Sea birds spend a significant part of their lives out at sea - many of them return to the land only to breed. Cliffs offer sea birds ideal nesting sites, being close to fishing grounds but also relatively safe from terrestrial predators.

The bulk of cliff breeding seabirds in the Moray Firth are found on the East Caithness cliffs, North Sutor, Hopeman, Troup Head, Lion's Head and Pennan Head.

The ability to fly enables sea birds to range far and wide in search for food. In order to fly birds must be as light as possible, which they achieve by having thin, hollow bones and very light feathers. However, adaptations for efficient flight often conflict with the requirements for catching food underwater. Sea birds have become very specialised for life in the marine environment. They have webbed feet for swimming and many have oiled feathers which keep them from getting cold and waterlogged. They also posses salt glands near their beaks which excrete excess salt and enable them to drink sea water without dehydrating.

Feeding Methods
Sea birds have adopted many different feeding strategies to exploit the vast food supply of the marine environment, the strategy depending on the type of prey and the depth at which it is located. The following is an outline of some of the methods adopted by sea birds in the Moray Firth.

FEEDING STRATEGY BIRD SPECIES DETAILS
Surface feeding Gulls Fulmars          Picks food from on or just below the water surface while flying.
Plunge diving Terns Makes shallow dives from the air to catch small fish such as sand eels.
Deep plunge diving Gannets Folding its wings back to streamline its body, the gannet dives from great heights. It is thus able to make deep dives lasting up to 20 seconds and catch fish up to 30cm in length
Underwater feeding - pursuit diving using wings Guillemots, Puffins Although these birds' short stubby wings look inefficient for flight, they make superb "flippers" for chasing prey underwater.
Underwater feeding - pursuit diving using feet Cormorant The cormorant propels itself underwater with its webbed feet. Unoiled feathers decrease its buoyancy on the surface making diving easier, but soggy wings often need to be held out to dry.
Underwater feeding - bottom feeding Eider Duck The Eider obtains molluscs, particularly mussels, and crustaceans by diving for up to a minute at a time.
Aerial piracy Great Skua The Skua pursues other seabirds to force them to disgorge their food, which it then eats

Puffin in Flight