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Seabirds

General Information

The open sea covers about 70% of the earth to an average depth of about 2 miles. It is little wonder then, that some 312 species of birds in 17 families have adapted to this vast aquatic environment. These are the seabirds, that range in size from the large albatrosses with wingspans of up to 12 feet to the diminutive petrels that were named after the Apostle Peter by early seafarers because of their habit of dangling their feet in the water while hovering just above the sea surface, giving the appearance that they were walking on water.

Seabirds also include the Penguins, Fulmars, Prions (Whalebirds), Shearwaters, Boobies, Gannets, Puffins, Auks, Razorbills, Murres, Dovekies, Guillemots,  Auklets, Murrelets, Gulls, terns, and some ducks and geese.

Because many species of seabirds spend most of their lives at sea far from the eyes of man, little is known about their habits, their movements, or their associations. Fortunately, increasing interest in these birds, and the publication of some excellent guides, has generated more interest in these birds and in their conservation needs.

Shown below are some photos and information on some of the seabirds. Our hope is that these will stimulate you to learn more about these interesting creatures that inhabit the largest habitat on earth, and to involve yourself in efforts to protect and conserve them for future generations.

 

Seabirds can be observed from land on many coasts of the world. One of the great places to observe seabirds is at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Kauai. This former Coast Guard base was turned over to the USFWS, and developed into a showcase seabird refuge. A colony of Laysan Albatrosses was re-established here, and now supports more than 40 nesting pairs.

Kilauea Point, Kauai, Hawaii
Figure 1 - Kilauea Point, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Laysan Albatross and nestling
Figure 2 - Laysan Albatross and nestling

 

When one thinks of a seabird, the albatross is often the first to come to mind. Fourteen species of albatross wander the world's oceans. Some remain at sea for years, and may circumnavigate the world before they return to their place of birth to choose a mate and raise their young.

A Laysan Albatross banded in the Hawaiian Islands was encountered 23 days later off Japan, some 2,000 miles away.

These birds are monogamous, mate for life, and may live more than 40 years. The chick is truly an ugly duckling that transforms in about 2 months to a magnificent looking adult. It will go to sea for up to 9 years before it returns to its place of birth to breed.

 

The albatross is so clumsy on land that early mariners nicknamed them Gooney Birds, or Mollymauks. Once in the air, they transform into masters of the air. Their mode of flight is called dynamic soaring because they instinctively take advantage of gravity and the wind velocity gradient over the sea surface to generate lift and thrust. They can attain ground speeds of nearly 60 mph, and can soar endlessly without having to flap their wings.

 

Albatross taking flight
Figure 3 - Albatross taking flight

 

Laysan Albatross in flight
Figure 4 - Laysan Albatross in flight

 

Albatrosses routinely travel great distances. Studies show that an adult Wandering Albatross will leave its mate at the nest and travel up to 9,320 miles in search of food before returning to relieve its mate. Longer distances are usually covered during daylight hours than at night because these birds pause to feed at night on squid that come to the sea surface.

Frigatebirds were named by early mariners who noticed the similarity of these birds to a small, fast, sail driven vessel of marauding habit called a frigate. Frigatebirds often chase and harass other seabirds to make them disgorge their food so they can steal it, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism. Like pigeons, they have strong homing abilities, and early Polynesians took them to sea or to other islands so that they could attach messages to them and communicate back to their home island.

 

Great Frigatebird
Figure 5 - Great Frigatebird

 

Jaeger (immature Parasitic?)
Figure 6 - Jaeger (immature Parasitic?)

 

There are three species of Jaegers (in the Skua family). This emaciated Jaeger came ashore along with some adult Jaegers in April at Tortugero, Costa Rica after a storm at sea. Jaegers are piratical seabirds that breed in the high Arctic and disperse to southern seas along routes that are still largely a mystery. On their Tundra breeding grounds, Jaegers feed on mice, lemmings, butterflies, insects, fish and the nestlings of other birds.

If anyone can positively ID this bird from these photos, please feel free to write to us and solve the mystery!

Jaeger (immature Parasitic?)
Figure 7 - Jaeger (immature Parasitic?)

 

Red-footed Booby on nest
Figure 8 - Red-footed Booby on nest

 

The name Booby traces back to the Spanish word bobo, meaning foolish, daft or silly. Spanish mariners gave these birds this name because they never seemed to learn to fear man, and were easily caught when they alighted on a ship. Boobies feed on flying fish, and frequently attach themselves to ships, flying across the bow to catch flying fish that are forced into the air by the approach of the ship.

Six species of Boobies occur worldwide in tropical and subtropical oceans, including the Red-footed, Blue-footed, Blue-faced, Masked and Brown Booby.

 

The Grand Canyon of the Pacific seems an unlikely place to find seabirds, but this is a great place to find Tropicbirds soaring and nesting on the cliffs of these steep canyon walls. Near here is Waialeale, the highest peak on the island. This mountain receives about 34 feet (yes, that’s feet, not inches) of rain each year, and is considered the wettest spot on the earth.

 

Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii
Figure 9 - Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii

 

Tropicbirds at Waimea Canyon Waterfall
Figure 10 - Tropicbirds at Waimea Canyon Waterfall

 

Zooming in on the waterfall in Waimea Canyon, one can begin to see the white specks that are White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring along the cliffs.

Three species of Tropicbirds occur worldwide in tropical and subtropical seas. These birds are truly pelagic, spending most of their life at sea. At sea they are mostly solitary. Notice the characteristic long tail streamer and the black feet of this bird. The legs and feet are located well back on the body, so that they must crawl on their bellies when on land.

 

White-tailed Tropicbird
Figure 11 - White-tailed Tropicbird

 

Long-tailed duck (Oldsquaw)
Figure 12 - Long-tailed duck (Oldsquaw)

 

The Long-tailed Duck has an Arctic circumpolar distribution. It nests along Arctic coasts across Canada, Europe and Siberia, and winters south along oceanic coastlines to Washington State, South Carolina, Korea, the British Isles, and the large inland lakes of central Asia and the US. It dives to depths of 200 feet for molluscs, shrimp and crabs. Other ducks that associate with the sea or coastal region include Eiders, Scoters, Steamer Ducks and the Harlequin Duck.

 

Brent Geese are mostly tied to coastal regions. They breed in the Arctic and winter in coastal bays. The Brant shown here were wintering along the New Jersey coast. Other species of geese that associate themselves to the sea or coastal regions include the Barnacle Goose and Emperor Goose.

 

Brent Goose (USA-Brant)
Figure 13 - Brent Goose (USA-Brant)

 

Heermann’s Gull
Figure 14 - Heermann’s Gull

 

No discussion of seabirds would be complete without a mention of the some 45 species of Gulls and 42 species of terns that occur worldwide. These birds, mostly of coastal regions, are perhaps the most familiar of the seabirds.

Heermann’s Gull occurs on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. It is distinctive because of its overall dark color and blood red bill. It is the only dusky adult gull of western North America. It is also unusual in that it breeds in the Gulf of California, and in winter months, disperses north along the Pacific coast to Canada and south to Mexico.

Nearly three thousand years ago, someone familiar with the sea penned these words. Across the centuries, they still ring true.

'They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.'
- Psalm 107:23 -

Most of us landlubbers must content ourselves to observe seabirds from the shore or from day cruises that take us a bit off shore. Mariners that sail the world’s open seas have the best opportunity to observe and study seabirds, and develop information on their occurrence and movements.

 

'They that go down to the sea in ships...'
Figure 15 - 'They that go down to the sea in ships...'

 

Adaptations to the Marine World

Seabirds, unlike most other birds, have a keen sense of smell helps them locate food in the vast oceanic realm. This is often exploited by birdwatchers who chum the water with smelly fish oil and suet to attract seabirds that may be downwind of their boat.

You may have already asked yourself how seabirds that spend most of their lives at sea obtain water to drink? The Ancient Mariner lamented: 'Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.'

Drinking salty sea water can be fatal to man and most animals, so early ornithologists were puzzled by this mystery. Today we know that seabirds have a special gland located near each eye that filters out excess salt from their blood, and channels it to the nasal passages. If you observe a seabird up close, it may appear to have a runny nose. This is actually the salty water being excreted by the Supraorbital Gland.

Conservation Issues

At some time in their life, all seabirds must leave their ocean world and return to land to breed, usually in immense colonies along rocky coasts or sandy beaches. This brings them into direct conflict with man and his domestic predators, and many historic breeding colonies have been wiped out.

Seabirds are not safe at sea either, and tens of thousands are drowned when they are entangled in open sea drift nets or become hooked by long lines set to catch marine fish. On Lake Michigan in 1946, one fisherman caught 27,000 Long-tailed Ducks in his nets in one season.

We are all familiar with the devastation that occurs to wildlife from oil spills and oil released into the environment.

There is still much we do not know about seabirds. Perhaps your interest will lead you to study seabirds and find some of the answers, and join with conservation efforts to save these birds for future generations.

References

Harrison, P. 1983. Seabirds, an identification guide. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

Harrison, P. 1987. A field guide to seabirds of the world. The Stephen Greene Press, Lexington, MA.

Pratt, H. D., 1993. Enjoying Birds in Hawaii. A birdfinding guide to the fiftieth state. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu.

Stallcup, R. 1990. Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific. Point Reyes Bird Observatory.

Terres, J. K. 1995. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books, Avenel, NJ

Tuck, Gerald. 1980. A guide to Seabirds of the Ocean Routes. Collins, London.

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