Birds of the coast
Along with the ever-present sound of the sea, it is the voices of birds that really help give a place that special coastal feel. Any examination of coastal wildlife should begin with a look at seabirds, for none are better suited to a marine existence than this motley crew. Every year during the breeding season, the scarred cliffs of Britain become a hive of activity as seabirds return from their winter wanderings. Like a field during a festival, the best spots are soon snatched as individuals start to settle in. Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins and Fulmars are just some of the species that come together to form mixed breeding colonies. During peak season, hundreds of thousands of birds can be found gathered together on cliff faces, a scene that is both visually and aurally spectacular. A seabird breeding colony in full flow is an awe-inspiring assault on the senses. Set against a backdrop of crashing waves, the distinctive voices of such a large number of birds come together to create a soundscape that is full of energy and activity.
Atlantic Puffins on the Isle of Mull, 1989
Puffins (Fratercula arctica) are seabirds found around the coast of the United Kingdom. They are small in size, with black and white feathers, a colourful beak and orange-red webbed feet.
This recording was made by Derek McGinn during the breeding season. Between April and August, Puffins nest on grassy sea cliffs to lay a single egg, incubate it and feed the chick until it is ready to leave the nest. Although silent at sea, the soft growling call is produced by both Puffin parents whilst inside their nests. Behind the crashing of the sea waves other species call out, including Oystercatchers, Herring Gulls and at the end a Kittiwake.
In addition to the songs and calls of seabirds, the changing seasons bring migratory birds to British shores. In these fleeting moments, one might be lucky enough to hear the raucous honk of geese arriving for the winter, or the sweet chirps of warblers and swallows as they arrive in the summer. Their transient presence shows how the coast is constantly in flux and brimming with life that comes and goes in accordance with an ancient rhythm.
Seabird colony at Dunstanburgh Castle, 1986
Dunstanburgh Castle, a medieval fortress in Northumberland, sits atop a sea cliff known as Gull Crag. Its remote landscape provides a home to colonies of seabirds, captured in this recording by Chris Watson, including Kittiwake, Fulmar, Guillemot and Seawash.
The language of dolphins
Other creatures of the deep have voices as well. Bottlenose Dolphins, in their pods of up to 20, are often found hunting and frolicking around the coasts of Scotland and Wales. These extremely intelligent creatures do not possess vocal chords, but make sounds by expelling air from sacs near their blowhole. Dolphins ‘speak’ to one another to keep tabs on the group and to share news about nearby food or impending danger. The vocalisations of each dolphin are unique, and manifest in a series of pulses and whistles; scientists believe that dolphins speak an as-yet un-decoded language.
How do human-made sounds impact the environment?
The magnificence and energy of the coastal landscape can mask its fragile nature. What may appear as a minor change, such as a small increase in water temperature or a rise in sea level, or the introduction of new species, can have a potentially dire outcome on the health of a population or ecosystem.
This delicate balance is something that humans are still learning to grasp, as we share land, air and sea with other animals. Anthropogenic noise – sound caused by human activity – has been shown to affect wildlife in different ways. Underwater listening is very different to listening above the waves: when under water, sound travels faster and disintegrates more slowly. The result of this is that noises that might only be heard a few kilometres from a source above water can travel for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres under water. While naval sonars are known to cause whale strandings, and boating noises can increase aggression in some fish species, even our best intentions can impact the marine environment’s equilibrium. Offshore windfarms, for instance, although vital in providing renewable energy, can be rather disruptive. Researchers have observed abnormal breeding patterns in crustaceans and a decrease in porpoises and dolphins around wind turbines, in areas of intense sound disruption, reminding us that humans aren’t the only ones with ears.
Killer whales and noise pollution in Norway
This underwater recording of a pod of orcas, or killer whales, was made by Ocean Sounds to demonstrate how noise pollution affects marine animals. We can hear how an idling whale-watching boat disrupts the orcas’ attempts to communicate with its pod.
From naval sonars causing mass whale strandings, or boating noises increasing aggression in some species of fish, even our best intentions can have consequences on the marine environment’s equilibrium. Offshore windfarms, for instance, although vital in the effort to minimise carbon emissions, is the marine equivalent of the unbearably noisy neighbour. Researchers have observed abnormal breeding patterns in crustaceans, and a decrease in porpoises and dolphins around wind turbines, in areas of intense sound disruption, reminding us that humans aren’t the only ones with ears.
How has the coast inspired art?
The expanse of the sea and coast has provided stimulus for a multitude of artists, writers, poets and musicians for millennia. From medieval art, to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the raw imagery of Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Turner’s beautiful seascapes, and Debussy’s La Mer, the sea and the coast have inspired genius.
 Tougaard, J., & Mikaelsen, M A., Effects of larger turbines for the offshore wind farm at Krieger’s Flak, Sweden: Assesment of impact on marine mammals (Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 2018), p. 18 <https://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR286.pdf>
Banner image © Jonny Hannah