Fulmarus glacialis (Linnaeus, 1761)
Other names: Arctic fulmar
Geographical variation: Three subspecies recognised, with the nominate glacialis breeding in the high-Arctic North Atlantic, auduboni breeding in low-Arctic and temperate regions of the North Atlantic, and the Pacific Ocean form rodgersii breeding on coasts and islands of eastern Siberia and south-west Alaska, including many sites in the Aleutian and Kurile Islands.
The northern fulmar is an abundant, medium-sized gull-like petrel that has been recorded in the Southern Hemisphere once only, south of New Zealand in 2014. The New Zealand bird was a dark morph individual with head and bill characteristics typical of the form found in the northern North Pacific Ocean (F. g. rodgersii).
The northern fulmar is a heavy-bodied, medium-sized seabird that ranges in colour from pale grey to dark grey. Dark morph birds (also known as 'blue morph') are most likely to reach New Zealand seas, as they are the predominant morph at lower latitudes in the North Pacific. They are entirely dark grey (some with a pale patch at the base of the primaries on the upper wing), though even the darkest birds are paler than other dark petrels or shearwaters of a similar size (e.g. flesh-footed shearwater). Plumage becomes browner when worn. The feet are dull pinkish-grey, and the bill is pale bluish-grey (or pale pinkish yellow) with a darker orange-yellow terminal hook, often separated from the rest of the bill by a narrow blackish band. Moulting birds, or those in faded plumage can have blotched dark-and-pale plumage quite unlike other petrels (though compare with Cape petrel). Pale morph birds have a small dark patch in front of the eye on an otherwise white head, with underparts including underwings also white; the silver-grey upperwings have a whitish panel at the base of the darker primaries. The bill is usually pinker than in dark morph birds, with the black subterminal ring reduced or absent; legs and feet pale pinkish-grey. Intermediate colour morphs occur in a continuous gradation. The wings are broad and rounded, with a span of 100-110 cm. Pacific birds (F.g. rodgersii) have relatively smaller heads and more slender bills than low-latitude Atlantic birds (F.g. auduboni).
Voice: Northern fulmars make grunting and chuckling noises when in a flock squabbling over a rich food source. The main call at colonies is a raucous cackling.
Similar species: pale morph northern fulmars looks similar to Antarctic fulmars, but they have different coloured bills (Antarctic fulmar has pink bill with blue nasal tubes and black terminal hook). Dark morph northern fulmars are generally paler than dark shearwaters of a similar size, and have larger heads, broader wings and more stocky bodies. White-chinned petrel is darker, and the bill is paler without the deeper yellow terminal hook. Dark morph northern fulmar may appear similar to an immature southern black-backed gull, but the latter has a dark bill of different structure, and northern fulmar is stockier with a thicker neck. The smaller fulmarine petrels (including both fulmar species and Cape petrel) fly with distinctive shallow wingbeats and straight wings, quite unlike other petrels and shearwaters.
Distribution and habitat
The northern fulmar is abundant in cold temperate and polar seas in the northern hemisphere, with F.g. rodgersii breeding at numerous cliff sites in eastern Siberia (Kurile, Commander, Kamchatka, Wrangel, Pribiloff, St Lawrence Islands and adjacent coasts), Aleutian Islands and Alaskan Peninsula. Outside the May-September northern summer breeding season, the at-sea distribution extends to Japan and Baja California south to about 34° N (exceptionally to 22° N, Mexico).
The northern fulmar has been recorded within 17 km of the North Pole, further north than any other petrel.
New Zealand records
A single record of a bird photographed at sea east of the Snares Islands in February 2014.
Threats and conservation
The northern fulmar has a very large range and an increasing population estimated at more than 20 million individuals. It is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List.
Behaviour and ecology
Northern fulmars are highly sociable birds, and often feed and rest in large flocks. Large congregations of birds, often mixed with other seabirds, such as shearwaters and kittiwakes, gather around food concentrations at sea. They are the most common ship-following species in the northern North Pacific, often in vast flocks, and are noisy and aggressive while feeding in large congregations.
Breeding is highly colonial, in shallow holes or broad ledges on cliffs. During courtship displays paired birds touch bills, wave heads, and preen together, while calling loudly. Adults defend the nest from intruders by lunging forward with wide open bill, and cackling loudly. Adults and chicks often squirt foul-smelling stomach oils at intruders (fulmars, skuas or humans) when alarmed.
Northern fulmars consume crustaceans, fish and squid, including large quantities of fishery discards. Food is taken by surface-seizing, and shallow dives to about 4 m.
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Harrison, P. 1987. Seabirds of the world: a photographic guide. A & C Black, London.
Howell, S.N.G. 2012. Petrels, albatrosses and storm-petrels of North America: a photographic guide. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
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Miskelly, C.M. 2016 [updated 2017]. Northern fulmar. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz
- Breeding season
- Egg laying dates