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Wildlife Spotlight: Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
By Peter Winch
Winter in the Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary is a dramatic time of year. Fierce storms surge past the islands, gray whales migrate through the waters, and thousands of birds visit the area to feed or prospect for nests. One seabird that arrives every winter is the northern fulmar.
Northern fulmars travel down to Californian waters to feed on squid, jellies and small offshore fish, but also to avoid the atrocious winter weather in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Often mistaken for gulls, fulmars are in fact relatives of the albatross and petrels.
Fulmars are a bit stockier than gulls, with thick necks and short yellow bills. With more than a 40” wingspan, they come in a variety of morphs from gray to brown to almost completely white. The most common morphs seen off Californian waters are brown and gray.
The northern fulmar is a “tube nose”, so called for the two tubes located on either side of the beak. This adaptation is used to process salt in their diet, as these birds live almost their entire lives out on the ocean.
Traveling in flocks and notorious for scavenging on carrion, fulmars are frequently spotted behind fishing boats. Paradoxically, the decline of commercial fishing has had an adverse impact on their population. Northern fulmars thrive on offal and discarded bycatch from fishing boats, and their population rose dramatically during the first three quarters of the last century, when commercial fishing was at its peak. But with less commercial fishing and the modernization of fishing techniques involving less bycatch and waste, this source of food has been reduced.
Northern fulmars forage in the open ocean. Their calorific intake is highest in the summer months when feeding in the Bering Sea on caplain, pollock, cod and rockfish. Occasionally fulmars are prone to malnutrition in Californian waters, with dead or emaciated and anemic birds being found on local beaches.
A study on dead fulmars found on Monterey beaches in 2003 revealed empty stomachs containing squid beaks and plastic fragments. As with the albatross, the northern fulmar is prone to ingesting plastic—mistaking it for food—as it scavenges off the top of the water.
Fulmars nest in late spring in large colonies of up to 200,000 birds on remote Alaskan Islands. They usually lay one egg in a shallow scrape. Incubations lasts 50 days and the chick takes almost as long again to fledge.
If they are threatened while on their nest, fulmars have a rather nasty defense strategy. They can projectile vomit a jet of fishy oil over any intruder from a distance of ten feet.
Fulmars reach sexual maturity at 5 to 6 years old and have been known to survive well into their 40’s.
Spotting the Fulmar
When out on the ocean the key distinguishing feature of the northern fulmar is its flight. It will be flying with longer, thinner wings and swooping and soaring like a shearwater, not flapping like a gull.
FMSA will be looking out for these graceful birds on the whale watching trips scheduled for January 27th and March 10th.
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