Just returned from a cruise on the North Atlantic. There are a number of seabirds nesting on cliffs during the short summer season such as murres, guillemots, gulls, kittwakes, and the colorful Atlantic Puffin. But getting away from the shoreline and traversing the open ocean there are fewer but perhaps more interesting birds like shearwaters, petrels, and the fulmar. Many fulmars. Seeming to be of endless energy, fulmars followed our ship endlessly, hoping that the propellors churn up some food for them or, I surmise, hope that the passengers or crew throw some food overboard for them. Here’s a video
Looking a lot like a gull, the fulmar is actually a tubenose of the order Procelliformes, family Procellaridae, along with shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses. In flight they fly with a stiff-winged flapping and if you can get a good look, their shorter head and tubenose are defining characters. The name comes from the Old Norse Fúlmár meaning “foul-gull” because of the birds’ vomiting a foul-smelling liquid that is produced and stored in their proventriculus, an expansion of the esophagus. The waxy liquid is used to feed the one or two chicks they produce and also as a defense against predators. It is said that this waxy liquid may so mat down the plumage of a predator that it will result in its inability to fly and eventual death.
Members of the order Procellariiformes have a strong sense of smell, being able to detect dimethyl sulfide released from plankton in the ocean which helps to locate prey at sea
Procellariiforms drink seawater, so they have to excrete excess salt. They have an enlarged nasal gland at the base of the bill above the eye and this salt gland removes salt from the system, forming a 5 percent saline solution that drips out of the nostrils.
Both species of fulmar are similar in appearance with a bright white belly, light gray dorsal side, and black or speckled wingtips.
The Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) are found primarily in subarctic regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. They breed in the Arctic regions of the North Atlantic and in eastern Siberia and the Alaskan Peninsula. Northern populations usually migrate south when the sea is frozen but spend most of their life on the open ocean. They breed on rocky cliffs and islands and sometimes nest on houses along the sea coast. The Southern Fulmar (F. glacialoides) nests in the Southern Hemisphere around the edges of the Antarctic.
Fulmars will eat anything in the ocean or on the shore, including carrion. They have well-developed nasal organs and can detect smells up to 20 miles away. Most likely they are smelling dimethyl sulfide, a volatile substance produced by plankton. What fascinated me, watching these birds over 1000 miles of ocean, is that I never saw one sitting on the water, no matter how calm the seas, The birds flew just over the waves or the flat ocean, occasionally participating in dynamic soaring, but mostly right above the water. Just plain fulsome.