Descent of the tubenoses! (Volume 2)

17 06 2011
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Northern fulmar found by Frank Kenny in New Jersey last month

First off, an answer to the question Mary Wright posted regarding the weird “band” on the shearwater shown on the previous post. Carolyn Moore, who found the bird, says that the band appeared to be plastic. From the photo, it does appear to be either plastic or leather, and almost seems to be braided. Rather than looking like an entanglement, it looks to have been deliberately placed on the bird as there is some sort of clasp or button type closure on the material. It resembles, in some ways, the jesses that falconers place on their captive animals. I have had no luck finding any kind of tracking device that looks like this thing, but I continue to ask around, and will let you know if I hear back from some of the bird tracking experts I just happen to know.

And now, to slake your thirst for more procellarids (fancy/sciency term for tubenose species), here’s a two for one deal on Northern fulmars! Based on their grayish plumage, and, at first glance, gull-like bill, it’s no surprise that both of these birds were reported as gulls. Fulmars are not at all common on SEANET beaches, and our volunteers can be forgiven for not recognizing this unusual (to us) character. Fulmars breed mainly in northern Europe, though smaller colonies are present in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, off the coasts of Alaska and Canada. The fulmar breeding season begins in May, and birds head north from their wintering waters, which extend as far south as North Carolina here in the Atlantic. Juvenile birds resemble adults, so we don’t know if the two specimens found were young birds or not. Northern fulmars are very long-lived, and breed into their 50s. They take an extraordinarily long time to reach sexual maturity, and don’t begin breeding until 8-10 years of age, so our two dead birds may not have been old enough to breed and thus not in any particular rush to reach the waters of the northern Atlantic. It’s also impossible to say what killed these birds based only on photos.

Northern fulmar found by Carolyn Moore in New York last month.

A long-term monitoring study in the North Sea over in Europe has shown a few trends in the hundreds of necropsies performed on beached fulmars there. While not the cause of death in the vast majority of birds, the most visually striking finding is large amounts of plastic in the birds’ stomachs. Depending on the location, 30 to 90% of fulmars have some amount of plastic in their digestive tracts. Birds on breeding grounds in the high Arctic tend to have less plastic than their more southern breeding cousins, but even these numbers are on the rise as plastic follows the currents into even the most “pristine” reaches of the world. The plastic does not often cause death, or even serious disease, and healthy, breeding birds often have more plastic in their stomachs than sick or dying ones, but there’s no getting around how troubling the whole scenario remains.

To leave you with a some good fulmar news though, the population is in good shape. European populations of the species exploded through the early 20th century, possibly due to the supplemental food the birds gleaned by foraging near ever-burgeoning fishing fleets. For now, their numbers remain quite stable. What effect plummeting fisheries stocks and climate change will have on these long-lived, pelagic birds remains to be seen, but is, of course, not likely to be favorable. So much for leaving you with good news.

Plastic from the stomach of a Northern fulmar.

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