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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Stiff winds and stiff wings

Yesterday it was blowing 20-25 knots out of the northwest, with gusts to 30-35 knots.  I'm guessing the strong winds had something to do with this visitor to Salmon Creek Beach.  Do you recognize this bird?

Here are a few closer views:

Note the relatively stocky and thick-necked appearance.

This is a Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis).  Fulmars are seabirds related to shearwaters and petrels.  They're in a group known as "tubenoses" because their nostrils are enclosed in long tubes on top of their bills.  This feature is hard to discern in the pictures from 20 October 2012, but see the next close-up taken at Cordell Bank on 14 October 2011.

In all of these photos, note the stiff-winged profile and imagine a flight pattern alternating between glides and shallow wing beats.  The fulmar was soaring up over the waves, moving across the wind.  

The distinctive arcing and banking flight caught my eye.  Although I've seen fulmars from land, this is the first one I've noticed spending significant time in the surf zone.  

During the fall and winter, it's common to see fulmars offshore, with an ocean backdrop.  It's unusual to view them with coastal hills and trees in the background, or gliding over driftwood on the beach!

A few fun facts about Northern Fulmars (thanks to The Birds of North America account by Hatch and Nettleship):

- There are only 34 breeding colonies in North America.  Half of them are in Alaska.  99% of the Alaskan population is found at several island colonies (Semidi Island, Chagulak Island, Pribilof Islands, and St. Matthew and Hall islands).

- Fulmars are broadly distributed across the Pacific Ocean during the winter, but common only north of 35-40°N.  (Bodega Head is at 38°N.)

- They don't breed until 8-10 years old.  They raise only one chick per year.  They're very long-lived, with an average lifespan of ~30 years.

- Fulmars have a strong sense of smell and use olfactory cues to locate their prey, e.g., fish, squid, and zooplankton (primarily crustaceans).

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