Grays Harbor Birds — Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

When I asked Doug Schurman if I could use this photo of a Northern Fulmar off the coast of Grays Harbor, it was because it showed a bird I rarely see alive.

As one of the volunteers with COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team), I more often see these birds dead on the beach. I have always been struck by the softness of their feathers and the overall elegance of their appearance, but had not seen their wonderful eyes.

This photo shows the “whole package” including that very noticeable bill, showing why it is one of a group of birds called “tubenoses”, or birds capable of tracking food by their sense of smell. The last article I wrote, featuring the Leatherback Turtle, mentioned Westport Seabirds and their pelagic trips to the seas off Grays Harbor; this bird is one of the more familiar ones seen on those trips as it is another of the pelagic birds.

Size: The length varies from 15 to 20 inches, with a wingspan of 39 to 44 inches, and a weight of 16 to 35 ounces.

General Description: The Northern Fulmar looks similar to a gull overall, but is stockier, has a thicker and shorter neck, and has longer and more rounded wings and tail. The bill is topped with large, yellow nostril tubes. It uses rapid wing beats alternating with stiff-winged glides, and it can dive to a depth of at least 10 feet. It comes in several “morphs” or colors, with the medium gray morph being the one shown here.

Habitat: The Northern Fulmar is a pelagic bird, found in the cold waters of the northern oceans all along the North American continent. It breeds on the steep cliffs of islands or on mainland promontories and is one of the northern-most seabird breeders, often crossing pack ice to reach the breeding sites. It summers as far south as California on the west coast and Maine on the east coast, and winters north to the limits of the open waters.

Behavior: This bird uses quick wing beats and the cushion of air to glide just above the waves, watching for prey just below the surface. It often follows fishing boats to grab fish waste thrown overboard, and can propel itself underwater using its feet and wings. You will not see it standing on the sand begging food as do the gulls.

Diet: The diet of the Northern Fulmar consists of crustaceans, fish, small squid, and jellyfish.

Nesting: Northern Fulmars breed in colonies on a slope or bank, or on the narrow ledges of cliffs, mainly in the high Arctic islands of Canada and the Bering Sea. They are slow to mature, not reaching breeding status until the age of 8 to 10 years. They do not build a nest but will fashion a shallow scrape if in the hollow of a bank or slope, often lined with stones. If on a ledge, they lay their single egg right on the rock. They are active in their nesting colonies throughout the day. Both parents incubate the egg for about 7 weeks, and when the egg hatches, both parents regurgitate food for the chick. The chick usually takes its first flight at about 7 weeks.

Migration Status: Some fulmars move south for the summer, some remain as far north as there is open water, and some remain in the breeding grounds for the summer.

Conservation Status: The commercial fishing industry is a major factor in the increase in populations of the fulmars, providing them with most of their food from the offal (guts, heads, etc.) thrown overboard. Wherever there is a fishing boat, fulmars and other seabirds can be found following it keeping the area clean of leavings from the boats. They will continue to thrive as long as the fisheries thrive, and as long as their habitat is not threatened.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Fulmars are found offshore of the harbor at upwellings off the continental shelf, so the best way to see these birds is on a boat trip. They can sometimes be seen from the jetties at Westport or Ocean Shores, especially after our large Pacific storms.