Seabirds, Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest Coastal Region has many types of Seabirds, the gulls, the terns, the cormorants, the murres, puffins, grebes, loons, cormorants and many more. Take a walk along any beach, look toward the sea and you will be amazed. I have always enjoyed watching the almost comedic antics of our gulls.
Double Crested Cormorants occupy many water habitats across North America, including coastlines, estuaries, lakes, and ponds. Most spend winter in the southern United States but many migrating birds winter on the south coast of the Pacific Northwest.
The south coast has various breeding colonies and a large year-round population. During the breeding season, cormorants are monogamous and live in large, social colonies. Cormorant couples work together to raise their young, from building a nest and incubating the eggs to feeding chicks once they have hatched. Unpaired males will search for females shortly after choosing a nest site. Once a mate has been found, the male will bring nest material to her, and the female does the building. The nest is a platform of sticks and debris, usually found on a rocky cliff above the water, but could be the ground, or even in a tree. Over a few weeks, the nest materials become cemented together by droppings.
Cormorants will sometimes rebuild an old nest rather than start a new one from scratch. And when they find pieces of useful junk, like old bits of rope, net, or other beach debris, they will often incorporate this into their nests. Sometimes these nests can look pretty wild.
Bonaparte’s gulls are plentiful all over The Pacific Northwest Coastal Region and winter up and down both the east and west sides of Vancouver Island. The smallest gull of North America, the Bonaparte Gull is often described as tern-like in flight.
This gull has narrow wings, a slender, black, pin-like bill, and pink legs. It has a light slate gray back, with a black line down the trailing edge of the outer wing, and a white belly. The leading edges on the upper surfaces of the outer wing are white. In breeding plumage, the adult has a black head and an incomplete white eye ring.
Non-breeding adults lack the black hood and the adult’s head is white with dark smudges and a dark ear spot. Dark markings on the wings of the juvenile look like a narrow, dark ‘M’ across its back in flight.
On nesting grounds, the Bonaparte’s gulls feed mostly on insects. In coastal areas during the winter season, fish make up the better part of their diet. In a study of the effect of fish-eating birds on inshore fish, Bonaparte’s Gulls were the most efficient predators of the ten species of birds that were part of the study. Bonaparte’s gulls reach breeding age at two years old. The Bonaparte Gull diet consists of insects, fish, and crustaceans. These gulls breed from Alaska south to southern BC Coast.
When attempting to fly, the Pacific loon is not very graceful. In order to become airborne, the Pacific loon needs about 30 to 50 m of take-off space. It usually skids across the water’s surface, furiously flapping its wings before it finally leaves the water.
This loon prefers to dwell in deep waters. Its habitat includes the ocean, bays, estuaries, channels, coves and freshwater lakes. This loon feeds on a diet of Pacific herring, aquatic vegetation, insects, mollusks and frogs. When alarmed, the loon uses its voice like a siren to make a loud piercing screech. It also prefers to dive rather than fly to safety.
As its name suggests, they spend most of their time nesting along the Pacific coast, ranging from Alaska all the way to Mexico. In summer months, the loon returns to northern Canada and inland Alaska to breed on Arctic lakes. They have a wide distribution and can also be found nesting in Japan and other areas bordering the Pacific.
The Red-Throated Loon is found throughout Northern America. They live mainly along the water and will very seldom be seen on land. They migrate each year to the north to nest in the spring. They tend to stay very close to the shoreline as they migrate.
The feet on the Red Throated Loon are located very far back so they have a difficult time walking on land. They do cover ground though after breeding to get to the water by pushing with their feet while sliding on their breast. They are able to take flight from land though when startled, they are the only species of Loon that is able to do this.
They go through a molting period when they can’t fly. This molt is in the late summer months.
They use various forms of vocalization to communicate. They will send out sounds to identify habitat as they approach the water. They give warning calls if they are disturbed to ward off people and predators. They will also offer a low pitch warbling sound for calling mates or to interact with their young.
They consume a variety of foods including fish and crustaceans. The Red-Throated Loon prefers fish though and that is the item they will always eat if it is there. They will turn to insects, plants, and other debris when necessary though in order to get enough food to eat.
They often dive to get fish right out of the water. They have an amazing vision that allows them to see fish from a very far distance. They can dive up to 25 meters below the surface of the water. They are able to stay under the water for up to 1 minute at a time.
Breeding takes place mainly in the Arctic region. The pairs are very careful about determining who they will mate with. They often keep the same mate for several years but they can change who they mate with. Both parents will guard the eggs and help to ensure that they are able to mature. The female lays two eggs and incubates them for about 26 days.
When the young arrive the female stays with them while the male brings back food for all of them.
The two species look much alike. In summer they are black on the back, neck and upper breast and they are glossy white below, they look as if they are wearing elegant dinner jackets. In winter, the throat, cheeks, and upper breast turn white. In summer, the Common Murres chocolate colored back is lighter than the Thick-Billed Murres darker and shinier feathers, in winter, the Common Murre shows a white streak behind the eye.
Because their tails are very short, Murres use their feet as rudders for flying, spreading them apart for quick maneuvers. Murres cannot turn sharply and may have difficulty landing at their rocky breeding colonies on stormy days. Murres are awkward on land because their feet are placed far back on their bodies like the loons. They either shuffle along slowly on their haunches or patter erratically with wings flapping wildly.
However, the Common Murre do not rely heavily on flying and walking, because they spend eight or nine months of the year continuously at sea, coming ashore only to breed.
Some Thick-Billed Murres breed in small numbers among common murres on the Pacific Coast, but most breed in the arctic regions of northern Canada and Alaska.
Murres only begin to breed successfully at about five years of age and generally lay one egg each breeding season. No nest is constructed, and the egg is laid directly on the rocky ledge. The egg is relatively large, weighing about 100 g, and is incubated continuously by one of the parents. They take equal turns of one or two days sitting while the other parent is feeding at sea.
The chick hatches in about a month and is covered with an insulating coat of downy feathers. The parents continue to brood the chick to keep it warm as long as it stays at the colony. One parent always stays with the chick while the other brings it food.
True seabirds are ocean-going birds that make their living off the sea, most only coming to land only to breed and raise their young. Not often seen during the non-breeding season. These birds are quite easily viewed in spring and summer when they come to shore to breed.
A seabird’s life on land is pretty chaotic. As spring unfolds, huge rafts of seabirds gather around nesting islands as they prepare to breed. The rocky coast of BC provides seabirds with ideal nesting habitat. Thousands of coastal bluffs and islands dot the region. Though small in size they provide safe breeding habitat for many species of seabirds.
Some feed on small fishes and others on zooplankton. Seabirds tend to be generalized in their diet, taking a wide spectrum of different sizes and types of prey. However, while rearing chicks they are more selective. Murres and puffins, feed on a varied diet but feed their chicks exclusively on fish. In some situations, a particular species of fish may become dominant in the diet.
Some of these birds are constantly on the wing in search of their particular food supply. Their food is often distributed in a random way, requiring them to search large areas to locate it. When a school of fish is spotted at the surface or a herring spawn, and the birds will gorge themselves until they can scarcely take off. They then may not feed for several days, they live a feast to famine lifestyle.