At a distance: Northern Fulmars in flight
by Greg Gillson,
copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Bird Guide, Inc. all rights reserved.

Northern Fulmars come in a wide array of color phases, from dark to light. Their stiff-winged flapping and gliding is similar to shearwaters. Thus, fulmars can be (and regularly are) confused with any of Oregon's shearwaters or gulls. This article discusses the flight behavior of fulmars. The flight style, if observed for a half-minute or longer, should allow one to identify (or eliminate) Northern Fulmar, even from a great distance, such as birds seen from shore.

Northern Fulmars and Sooty Shearwaters are two of Oregon's most abundant tubenosed seabirds. Both, on occasion, migrate and fly close to shore. First thing in the morning, if it is sunny onshore with a fog bank out a mile or two, seabirds are often observed close to shore. Dark fulmars may be mistaken for Sooty Shearwaters. But first, since they are at a distance, it is necessary to separate them from gulls.

Gulls are powerful fliers. When traveling, they are usually high up in the sky, flapping steadily with deep wingbeats. The wing strokes are above and below the horizontal at an angle of as much as 45-degrees. The wing profile from head-on is rather arched. They may glide before dropping to the water's surface, and wheel and soar in high winds, but it is not the usual flight style.

Tubenosed seabirds glide on the few inches of air rising in front of waves, riding a wave like a surfer. Shearwaters glide so low that they do actually shear the water with their saber-like wings. These birds use dynamic soaring to fly with minimal effort. Basically, they rise up into the wind, glide downwind gaining speed, then drop down next to the water, where winds are lower, to fly in the desired direction. Thus, their flight is slowly undulating, rising up above a wave, then disappearing down in a trough. Wing strokes are usually rapid and shallow. They glide on stiff, flat wings, often held slightly below the horizontal.

Even among the tubenosed seabirds, long-winged albatrosses fly differently than short-winged storm-petrels. Likewise, the more broad-winged fulmars fly differently than the more narrow-winged shearwaters. First, lets look at the characteristic flight style of Sooty Shearwater.

Sooty Shearwater flight style

The characteristic flight of Sooty Shearwaters (above) is 3-7 quick, stiff-winged flaps, low along the water, followed by an arced banked glide of 3-5 seconds. This pattern is repeated continuously. Birds tend to glide in a straight line, they do not change directions in the middle of a glide. They flap down in the wave troughs. In stronger winds they arc higher; in calm conditions they remain more flat.

Now let's compare this style with that of Northern Fulmar.

Northern Fulmar flight style

Northern Fulmars (above) also flap and glide. However both flapping and gliding last longer. The wing strokes are shallow and rapid. One interesting habit is that they often flap when at the high point of their glide, rather than down in a wave-trough as Sooty Shearwaters. "If it flaps while up in the air it is a fulmar" is a good maxim. Another characteristic is that fulmars will change directions and perhaps even wheel around while in their extended glides. In this they may resemble Pink-footed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters. But those species have deep, slower, wing strokes.

So, whether you are on a seawatch at Boiler Bay with a scope, or on a swaying boat with only your unaided eyes, you should be able to tell if a distant bird is a fulmar or not after watching for a short while.

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