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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Vivian M. Mendenhall

Alaskan Seabirds and How to Identify Them

Seabirds were with us during the Harriman Expedition Retraced. We saw spectacular breeding colonies on islands and cliffs. At sea, however, we were in the true home of seabirds -- large flocks near land, and a bird every few minutes even far offshore.

The rich waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska support one of the world's greatest concentrations of seabirds: approximately 60 million birds of 40 species that breed here, plus another 50 million that visit during the summer. The same kinds of seabirds inhabit both sides of the Bering Strait, since they can easily fly from coast to coast there.

Seabirds come to land during summer (May through August) to raise their young. For protection from predators such as foxes, they nest on cliffs and other inaccessible terrain. Many breed in dense colonies of several species. As soon as young birds can leave the nest, adults also depart and spend the rest of the year at sea.

The following list contains seabirds of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, first birds that breed here and then visitors. Latin names (in italics) are given for reference.

Seabirds that Breed in Alaska

TUBE-NOSED SEABIRDS are seen farther at sea than most species. The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is a gull-sized bird that comes in two colors: Bering Sea birds are white except for gray back and wings, whereas in the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska they are dark brown. Fulmars can be confused with gulls or shearwaters, but they have a distinctive stout yellow bill with an extra layer on top for the nostrils. We saw solitary fulmars almost everywhere, soaring low over the sea hunting for food. They nested near the top of cliffs in several colonies. The sparrow-sized fork-tailed storm-petrel (Oceanodroma furcata) and Leach's storm-petrel (O. leucorhoa) were seen flitting over the waves almost like butterflies. The Fork-tail is pale gray; the Leach's is darker with a white rump. Both nest in burrows on islands in the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians. They visit their colonies only at night.

CORMORANTS are large black seabirds with long necks and tails. They are usually seen near shore. The red-faced cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile) has bright red skin around the eye and cheeks in summer. This is one of nine Alaskan "Beringian" seabird species, meaning that it breeds only in the Bering Sea and its vicinity. We saw these birds primarily on the Pribilofs. The pelagic cormorant (P. pelagicus) has a dark face and a thin, dainty bill; we found it in most areas except the Pribilofs. Two uncommon cormorants in our area are the double-crested cormorant (P. auritus), a large cormorant of harbors and bays, and Brandt's cormorant (P. penicillatus), which has a blue face and is occasionally seen in southeastern Alaska.


Red-faced Cormorant

Red-faced Cormorant. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).
Click image for a larger view.

GULLS are familiar white-and-gray birds, some of which frequent beaches and landfills. There are three large gulls in Alaska; to tell them apart, look at the wingtips. The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescns) is mostly white with gray back and wings, including wingtips. It is found throughout the Gulf of Alaska, Aleutians, and the southern Bering Sea. The glaucous gull (L. hyperboreus) is the largest Alaskan gull; it is white, except for pale-gray back and wings; even its wingtips are white. We saw this species from St. Matthew Island northwards. Herring gulls (L. argentatus) are white, except for gray back and wings and black wingtips. There are a few herring gulls in the Gulf of Alaska, but we primarily saw this species on St. Lawrence Island and the Chukotsk Peninsula (the northeast Asian form, L. a. vegae). Gulls nest on cliffs or flat ground.

The smaller mew gull (L. canus) looks much like a herring gull, white with gray back and black wingtips, but the legs are yellow (those of the herring gull are pink). Mew gulls stay near the coast. We saw them in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutians. Two rare species were slaty-backed gull (L. schistisagus) and Sabine's gull (Xema sabini). The large slaty-backed gull is white with dark-gray back and wings. It breeds in Asia, except for one small site near the Yukon River delta; however, we saw one on St. Paul Island. We also saw a Sabine's gull, a small species with a dark-gray head that breeds on Arctic tundra.

KITTIWAKES have very different nesting habits from other gulls: they build nests of grass and mud on sheer cliffs. Both species are mostly white, with gray back and wings and black wingtips. As their names indicate, the most obvious difference is the color of their legs. The black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) is common throughout Alaska; we saw its colonies, and it was common at sea. The red-legged kittiwake (R. brevirostris) has vivid ruby-colored legs. This kittiwake's small population (less than 200,000 birds) is found only in the southern Bering Sea. Eighty percent nest on St. George Island, smaller numbers on Bogoslof and St. Paul. There are two other colonies in the western Aleutians and Russia's Commander Islands.


Black-legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake. (Photo by Tom Early, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).
Click image for a larger view.

JAEGERS are gull-like birds that nest on Arctic tundra, where they eat lemmings during the summer, but spend the winter at sea. They sometimes steal food from other seabirds. All have brownish-gray bodies, a black cap on the head. They are distinguished by their long central tail feathers: long pointed ones on the long-tailed jaeger (Sterccorarius longicaudus), shorter pointed ones on the parasitic jaeger (S. parasiticus), and short blunt ones on the pomarine jaeger (S. pomarinus). We saw a few jaegers at sea and during hikes on the tundra.

TERNS are graceful, robin-sized seabirds that are mostly white, with a black cap and a long forked tail. We saw a few arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea), which were starting their migration to the Antarctic for the winter. The Aleutian tern (S. aleutica) breeds only in the Bering Sea region, and no one knows where it spends the winter; we did not see it.

AUKS are football-shaped seabirds with short wings that whir rapidly as they fly. They dive and pursue their prey underwater. Most auks are black and white.

LARGE AUKS are about the size of a duck and include puffins, murres, guillemots, and the rhinoceros auklet.
  • Puffins have high, flattened orange bills and orange feet. The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) is the familiar bird with black back and white underparts and face. The tufted puffin (F. cirrhata) is all black except for white cheeks and a long yellow tuft behind each ear. The horned puffin nests in rock crevices, the tufted puffin in burrows. We saw both throughout the voyage, especially tufted puffins near grassy islands that were full of their burrows.



Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin. (Photo by A. Kondratiev).
Click image for a larger view.

  • Murres are the largest auks. They look similar to penguins, with dark head, neck, and back and a white belly. The two species look very similar; the thick-billed murre (Uria lomvia) is black above and often has a white streak at the corner of the bill, whereas the common murre (U. aalge) is dark brown above. Murres nest crowded together on cliff ledges, where they lay their eggs on the bare rock. We saw both species everywhere, but there were common murres in the Gulf of Alaska and thick-billed murres on Bering Sea islands. The pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba) is slightly smaller than a murre; it is mostly black with white wing patch and red feet. It nests in crevices and under talus (large blocks of rock). We saw guillemots near shore along most coasts. The rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) is a dark gray bird of the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutians that resembles a puffin, except for a smaller bill.



Murre Colony

Murre Colony, Norton Sound. (Photo by Vivian Mendenhall).
Click image for a larger view.

  • SMALL AUKS are between the size of a sparrow and a robin. Many small auks are a specialty of the Bering Sea area -- of the seven, five (parakeet, crested, least, and whiskered auklet, and Kittlitz's murrelet) are found only in this region.

  • The four small auklets are black and white in various patterns, and most have orange bills. The parakeet auklet (Aethia psittacula) is colored like a tiny murre, with black head and back and white belly. It nests in rock crevices throughout the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and in the Gulf of Alaska as far east as Prince William Sound. The crested auklet (A. cristatella) is all dark gray with a tall plume that curls over its forehead. The least auklet (A. pusilla) has a black back and head and a black-and-white speckled belly. Crested and least auklets nest in rock talus throughout the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Some of their colonies are immense, probably more than a million birds. We saw countless numbers of them flying to and from the southwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. The whiskered auklet (A. pygmaea) is Alaska's rarest breeding seabird, found only in the Aleutian Islands and the nearby Kurile Islands of Russia. It is similar to the crested auklet, but it is smaller and has three white streaks on each cheek. A few people on the cruise had the thrill of seeing some whiskered auklets near Unimak Pass.
  • The three murrelets are similar in size to auklets. The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) and Kittlitz's murrelet (B. brevirostris) are both are brown in summer and black and white in winter; the marbled murrelet's bill is slightly longer and the dark cap on its head is larger. Both have unusual nesting habits for a seabird: the marbled murrelet usually nests on the branches of old trees, where deep moss provides protection for the egg; the Kittlitz's Murrelet nests on mountain scree (small loose stones). We saw a few marbled murrelets in bays of Katmai National Park. The ancient murrelet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) is dark above and white below throughout the year. It nests in burrows on islands in the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians.

Seabirds that Visit Alaska but Do Not Breed There

Alaska's seas are the summer home of three ALBATROSSES. These are among the world's largest birds, with 6- to 7-foot wingspans. All three nest in the Pacific Ocean during winter. The black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) is almost entirely dark brown, from its body to its bill and feet. It has a white ring around the base of its bill, and some birds are lighter brown on the head and back. The Laysan albatross (P. immutabilis) has a white head and body and all-dark back and wings. Both these albatrosses nest primarily on the Hawaiian Islands. We saw one of each en route from Unalaska to Bogoslof Island.

The short-tailed albatross (P. diomedea) is an endangered species, having been almost wiped during the early 20th century (at that time hunters were allowed to kill birds for their feathers). Short-tails are now increasing, but there still are only about 1500 in the world. The species is dark brown when young and changes over several years to a mostly white plumage; at all ages it has a large pink bill. It breeds on two small islands in Japan. We did not have the good luck to see any.

Two species of SHEARWATERS are common in Alaskan waters during summer. The sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) and the short-tailed shearwater (P. tenuirostris) are dark brown birds about the size of a small gull. They are difficult to tell apart, but the sooty has a slightly longer bill and its underwings are sometimes pale. Both breed in the Southern Hemisphere during our winter (their summer). We frequently saw shearwaters throughout the trip, soaring and wheeling above the waves.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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