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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petre Dave Jones



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Northern Fulmar

Fulmarus glacialis

Northern Fulmar Steve Mirick

Northern Fulmar photographed by Steve Mirick

Northern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In North America breeds: Alaska,British Columbis,Arctic and eastern Canada. Many in North Ireland, Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Islands,Russia, Greenland,Iceland, British Isles. Nesting individuals easy to see at close range in the Orkney Islands where the webmaster photographed a pair nesting on the sides of a small quary close to the road. See Wandering Birder.

Other Names Taxonomy
Arctic Fulmar, or sometimes just Fulmar.

Northern Fulmar Jim Wallius Identification - Light Morph
Face on photo of white morph Northern Fulmar by Jim Wallius shows the nasal tube on the top of the bill that houses the nostrils.

While the white morph Fulmar may look like a gull, it is a true Procellaridae. Gulls must come to land to drink fresh water. The Fulmar comes to land only to breed getting water from feeding and using salt glands to remove the excess salt from the blood which then drains into the nostrils which are enclosed in a separate nasal tube on the top of the bill..

Notice that the nasal tube on the bill appears dark. This shows the picture was taken in the Atlantic Ocean. Birds in the Pacific have yellow tubes.


Identification at sea - Light Morph
At sea look for a bird that flies like the shearwaters to which it is closely related with plumage that looks more like a gull. This web site focuses on the light morph birds because that is what is seen off the coast of New England.

Steep forehead and dark eye give it a distinctive look. On a recent pelagic out Brielle, NJ which had good numbers of Fulmars and adult Kittiwakes, I was surprised at the people who were having difficulty separating the two. Kittiwakes fly with a rapid wingbeat, but often glide on air currents behind the ship.

Northern Fulmar light morph photographed in the Shetland Islands by Emmalee Tarry with a point and shoot camera.

Northern Fulmar EBTarry

At sea the author has always been impressed with the white patches that sometimes show up quite promiently on the upper wing of the light morph bird. Harrison (1983 ) attributes these patches to the white bases and inner webs of the primaries.

Below left: A distant photo of a light morph Atlantic Fulmar taken by Karl Lukins on the December 2001 pelagic out of Brielle, NJ, shows these white patches very well.The close view in Steve Mirick’s photo below and to the right  confirms this explanation.

Northern Fulmar Brielle, NY Northern Fulmar Steve Mirick

Like other seabirds, the Fulmar does not start breeding until 8-10 years of age and then lays but one egg per year.

Immature birds probably spend the first 3 years at sea and these are the individuals we are likely to see off the New England coast.

Breeding birds remain in the area of the colonies all winter unless it is ice covered. The Fulmar is a long lived bird. There is documentation of individuals still breeding at 40 years of age.

Nests on high cliffs near the sea. Sites usually mixed with other species such as kittiwakes, murres, and cormorants.

Nesting pair of Fulmars in Northern Ireland photographed by Emmalee Tarry, To see nesting birds go to the British Isles.

Northern Fulmar nest on cliff EBTarry

Omnivorous. Active ship follower and attends trawlers. Loves suet. Tends to circle the boat for some time so beware over counting the same birds.

Obtains food by: dipping, surface seizing, surface- plunging, pursuit-diving, and scavenging.

Color Morphs
The Northern Fulmar color morphs range from almost white to very dark gray birds. Most birds in the Atlantic are the light morphs and are about the color of a Herring Gull. In some locations on the Pacific side the dark forms greatly outnumber the light forms. This was observed in Unalaska on the Aleutian Islands.

Color morphs of Northern Fulmar Alaska  EB Tarry

Dark morph Northern Fulmar with a light morph bird photographed in the Aleutian Islands on Unalaska by Emmalee Tarry with a point and shoot Camera.

At sea the dark morph Fulmar may be confused with a shearwater.The nasal tube on the bill in both of these birds is yellow rather than black. This is typical of Fulmars in the Pacific.

Also notice how much the light morph bird resembles a gull. At a distance you will not be able to see the tube on the bill. The fulmar flies more like a shearwater with wing beats interspersed with glides. So if it looks like a gull but flies like a shearwater think Fulmar.

A pearl gray dark morph Fulmar was seen and photographed by Jim Besada on the 2010 fall NH Audubon Tri-state Pelagic. Compare this bird with the two in the photo above. This bird’s color is intermediate between the light morph and the dark morph.                                                                                                                             This was the first dark morph fulmar seen on an east coast trip by the webmaster.

Notice the dark nasal tube on the bill. and compare with the nasal tubes of both of the Pacific coast birds which are light.

Northern Fulmar Jim Besada Northern Fulmar Jim Besada
Northern Fulmar Jim Beseda

One final Jim Beseda photograph of the dark morph Fulmar taken on the 2010 NH Audubon pelagic out of Rye, NH.

The bird is running across the water to take off because the wind is not very strong. Note the calm sea.

Also notice the dark nasal tube on top of the bill.


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Harrison, Peter (1983) Seabirds an identification guide Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston

Hatch,S.A. and D.N.Nettleship.( 1998) Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). In The Birds of North America, No. 361 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.) The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA

Howell, Steve N.G. (2012) Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-petrels of North America A Photographic Guide Princeton University Press; Princeton

Sibley, David (2000) The Sibley Guide to Birds Alfred A. Knopf, New York.