Another seabird species that I found to breed in Ireland is the Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. In a fleeting glimpse this bird may look like a gull but a closer look quickly reveals that is a close relative of albatrosses and shearwaters, the tubenoses Procellariiformes.
Can you see how this group of birds, the tubnoses, got its name? Doesn’t it look like they have a tube on top of their bill? This tubular nasal passage is used for olfaction. Yes, some birds do have the ability to smell. Especially seabirds use this sense to locate flocks of krill, shrimp-like animals that feed on single-celled marine plants (phytoplankton) right below the ocean’s surface. Breaking up phytoplankton cells releases a chemical called dimethylsulfide that concentrates in the air above areas where phytoplankton and thus krill are abundant. Researchers suspect that seabirds may smell their prey.
An acute sense of smell may also aid these birds to locate their nest within a breeding colony – you may recall the dense breeding conditions on the coastal cliffs from Monday’s post.
Furthermore, at the base of their bill these true seabirds have a gland that helps them excrete excess salt as they drink seawater. These birds and their relatives often spend long times out over the ocean without any land in sight. Thus they depend on drinking seawater.
So what do Northern Fulmars sound like? They are especially vocal when they return to their partner on the nest, they engage in an often minutes-lasting greeting ceremony. Listen to this pair recorded by Gabriel Leite in Clare county, Ireland (XC372370):
The unique morphological characteristics make these birds well adapted to their preferred environment of the northern oceans. They are among the longest-lived birds known, researchers estimate an average lifespan of 32 years for the Northern Fulmar.
About the Author: Angelika Nelson is the curator of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics and currently teaches at the Audubon summer camp on Hog Island, ME.