A Northern Fulmar flying by.Photo credit: Catherine Pham

A Northern Fulmar flying by.Photo credit: Catherine Pham

Many people think of Northern Fulmars as the marine equivalent of pigeons—flying rats. I used to think that too, when I worked as a fisheries observer aboard large commercial fishing boats in the Bering Sea. Hundreds of fulmars would follow us in hopes of getting a free meal. Even though they are not the only species to follow boats, they are often singled out for criticism, maybe because they are rather homely in comparison to birds like kittiwakes and shearwaters.

As a seabird observer, I’ve had more opportunity to study them. When I survey, I do my best to avoid counting birds that are following us so as to not overestimate bird densities. That means that I’m always keeping an eye out for followers and making mental note of their plumage characteristics so I can keep track of them. Of course, keeping track of individual birds is much harder when there’s dozens of them, but that has only increased my appreciation for fulmars and their colors.

The light morph birds in particular, which dominate the fulmar population this far north, are fascinating. Some are nearly pure white with dark feathers neatly outlining their wings, while others are completely gray-brown across their mantle and look like they’re trying to masquerade as mini Laysan Albatrosses. There seems to be an infinite amount of variation in between those two extremes.

 Northern Fulmars milling around the R/V  Sikuliaq  while on station. Photo credit: Catherine Pham

Northern Fulmars milling around the R/V Sikuliaq while on station. Photo credit: Catherine Pham

Since we left port over two weeks ago, we’ve been accompanied by a retinue of fulmars ranging in numbers from less than a dozen to quite possibly over a hundred. I will miss their eternal optimism and their endless plumage variations when this cruise is over in a few days.