Seabirds

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Seabirds, Pacific Northwest

The BC Coastal Region has many types of Seabirds, the gulls, the terns, the cormorants, the murres, puffins, grebes, loons, and many more.
Bonaparte Gulls, Photo By Bud Logan

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 are dramatic, large aquatic birds. They don’t have waterproof feathers like most aquatic birds and need to perch, with wings spread out, on rocks, pilings or docks to dry off.

Double crested cormorants are dramatic, large aquatic birds. They don't have waterproof feathers like most aquatic birds and need to perch, with wings spread out, on rocks, pilings or docks to dry off.
Double Crested Cormorants, photo by Bud Logan

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.

Double crested cormorants occupy many water habitats across North America
Double Crested Cormorants, photo by Bud Logan

The female will lay up to 4 eggs and both parents take turns incubating them. After hatching, the young are fed regurgitated food by both parents. After leaving the nest, the young roam the colony in groups called creches and return to the nest site only when they are hungry. The young are completely independent of their parents at 10 weeks.

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.

The smallest gull of North America, the Bonaparte Gull is often described as tern like in flight.
Bonaparte Gulls, photo by Bud Logan

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.

On nesting grounds, the Bonaparte gull feeds mostly on insects. In coastal areas during the winter season, fish make up the better part of their diet
Bonaparte Gulls, photo by Bud Logan

Bonaparte’s Gulls nest in small colonies or in single nests. They nest in trees which is very unusual for a species of gulls. They prefer to nest in spruce trees, and nests are built of twigs, moss, lichen, grass, and various types of vegetation. Nests are built 1 to 5 meters off the ground. The female lays up to 3 eggs, which both adults will take turns incubating. They hatch in about 25 days. Both parents help feed the young.

The pacific loon has a grey head and small size. With a vibrant purple throat. It also has a stout body, long neck and ruby red eyes.
Pacific Loon, Photo Copyright By Sean McCann

The lake, ponds and ocean shores of the Pacific Northwest Coastal Region is home to the Pacific Loon. The Pacific loon is perhaps the most abundant loon in North America. It closely resembles the arctic loon and until recently, the two loons were considered the same species.

The Pacific loon has a grey head and small size. With a vibrant purple throat. It also has a stout body, long neck, and ruby red eyes. Their bill, tail, and rump are black and its underparts are mostly white. Its wings and upper back are checkered with black and white feathers that make four distinct patterns. In the winter, these feathers change colors and become blackish brown.

Pacific loons webbed feet help them power through the water, Pacific loons are also exceptional divers. When on land, the Pacific loon looks extremely awkward because its legs aren’t designed for walking. For this reason, the loon can only take off from water.

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.

Red Throated Loon, Seabirds, Birds, Vancouver Island, BC Coastal Region, Pacific Northwest
Red Throated Loon, Photo Copyright By Pauline Greenhalgh

The Red-Throated Loon is a very common visitor to the Pacific Northwest Coast. They only reach up to 65 cm long and are the smallest species of all known Loon species in the wild. They are very good at flying with speeds of up to almost 80 km per hour and they can fly for a very long period of time. They are very beautiful.

They have a gray coloring on top and white on the bottom of the body. As you can guess from the name, they have a reddish patch on the throat. However, it isn’t present all year long, but only during mating. They are often mistaken for other types of loons when that coloration is missing. Their small size should help you identify them though.

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.

There are two species of murre, the common murre and the thick billed murre. They and their close relatives, the razor bills, dovekies, guillemots, and puffins are all members of a group of black and white seabirds called auks.
Common Murre, Photo By Robert Logan

There are two species of murre, the common murre, and the thick-billed murre. They and their close relatives, the razorbills, dovekies, guillemots, and puffins are all members of a group of black and white seabirds called auks.

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.

The Thick Billed Murres darker and shinier feathers, in winter, the Common Murre shows a white streak behind the eye.
Common Murre, Photo By Robert Logan

Both species have sharp, dagger-like bills that are somewhat flattened from side to side; however, as the name suggests, the Thick-Billed Murres beak is shorter and stouter than the Common Murres. The beak is black, and in summer the two species can be told apart by a white line along the cutting edge of the top half of the Thick-Billed Murres beak. These seabirds are found year-round off the Pacific coast of Canada and all of the outer islands.

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.

Common Murre, Auks, Birds, Vancouver Island, BC Coastal Region, Pacific Northwest
Common Murre, Photo By Robert Logan

Unlike many ducks, which propel themselves underwater with their feet, Murres dive by swimming with half open wings, as if flying underwater. Their wings have to be relatively short to do this because water has much more resistance than air and takes much more effort to move through.
Murres can remain submerged for several minutes at a time. Depths of 100 m appear to be common.

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.

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.
Common Murre, Photo By Robert Logan

At three weeks, the chicks leave the colony with the male parent. In colonies on high cliffs, the chick jumps from the nest ledge and glides down to the sea, closely followed by its parent. They set out on the chick’s first foray from the breeding colony just at dusk, so that by dawn they can be as far as possible from the colony, where the chick could be eaten by various predators. They then begin their migration together. The female leaves the colony alone soon afterward. The chick stays with the adult male until it is able to fly and feed itself.

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.

Take a walk along any beach, look toward the sea and you will be amazed at the variety of seabirds. I have always enjoyed watching the almost comedic antics of our gulls.
Western Gull, Photo By Bud Logan

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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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