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Gulls, Gannets and Guillemots: A Guide to Arctic Seabirds

As a Naturalist for Lindblad Expeditions, Jamie Coleman has traveled around the world. "Our incredible ships take us to some truly inhospitable places, yet wherever we go, we are never too far from seabirds, especially on our Arctic itineraries," he explains.

After spending two years doing research on Farne Islands, UK, which is home to 150,000 seabirds, Coleman has developed an obsession with them. "
These animals are some of the most impressively adapted on this planet. They must be able to navigate and travel thousands of miles over an open ocean in search of food, exposed to treacherous storms and blinding sunlight." Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up


Fortunately, as Coleman shares, they haven’t mastered breeding at sea, meaning that millions must come ashore once a year. Many of them choose to do this in the Arctic, giving curious travelers the chance to observe them at closer range.

Michael S Nolan_Kittiwake_AR191.jpg
Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Seabirds are very particular in where they will nest, often needing cliffs, protection from predators, and access to food—therefore where there’s a few, there are normally thousands. Even better, they tend to gather in fairly picturesque locations ideal for photo ops. These breeding aggregations are a sensory overload, with skies sometimes filled with an abundance of several different species all rushing to tend to their young before the winter sets in, and the sound that accompanies this sight can only be trumped by the smell, which is truly unforgettable!


Here, Coleman gives us a look at some of the most common and exciting seabird species we encounter on our expeditions in the Arctic, everywhere from Svalbard and Greenland to Iceland, the Canadian High Arctic and beyond.

Arctic Tern

Arctic terns are arguably the most spectacular migrant on the planet as they fly approximately 91,000 miles annually from pole to pole in search of 24 hours of daylight. It is not uncommon for us to encounter these birds on Antarctic trips during their ‘winter’ period. They arrive back to their Arctic breeding grounds, post transcontinental migration, still full of fight and energy which is needed to keep their colonies safe from arctic foxes, polar bears, and the occasional tourist if they get too close. Just remember if you look up to spot one, keep your mouth closed!

Where to see me:  Svalbard, Norway, Iceland, British Isles, Greenland, Canada, Alaska

Photo: Jamie Coleman

Thick Billed Murre

The penguins of the North, these incredible divers can reach depths of 750 feet in search of their fishy food. Unlike penguins or their extinct cousins, the Great Auk, thick billed murres haven’t lost the ability to fly yet, although they are definitely better adapted for swimming. At just 18 days old, murre chicks ‘fledge’, when they often throw themselves off the cliffs, still fluffy and unable to fly. They flap their wings which doesn't help much but since they are so light they are usually fine. Chicks won't develop their flight feathers until two months, but can dive and escape predators beneath the water and will learn to fish during this time until the father leaves.

Where to see me: Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska

Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Northern Fulmar

Aerial geniuses, this cousin of the albatross makes flying look effortless. Equipped with broad, long, lightweight wings, fulmars harvest the wind’s energy and the uplift from waves to soar for miles without barely flapping. Watching these birds playing in the wind as they follow the ship is both mesmerizing and a photographer’s dream, as they will often cruise close by to check us out. Their heads are stashed full of olfactory cells meaning fulmars have incredible senses of smell, which aids in navigation, mate finding, and food finding.

Where to see me: Svalbard, Norway, Iceland, British Isles, Greenland, Canada, Alaska

Arctic Skua

Arctic skuas are kleptoparasites, meaning much of their food is stolen from other birds, giving them the moniker, "pirates of the sky." As smaller, less aggressive seabirds return to breeding colonies, they are pursued by the speedy and agile skuas, who will attack and harass until their victim gives up their last meal. These aerial duels make for entertaining observation, and while many feel sympathetic to the smaller birds, you can’t help but appreciate the very skilled skuas.

 

Where to see me: Svalbard, Norway, Iceland, British Isles, Greenland, Canada, Alaska

Photo: Jamie Coleman

Northern Gannet

As the Arctic warms, gannets are quickly spreading north. These incredible divers can travel huge distances from breeding grounds in search of fish. Big schools of fish can attract hundreds, if not thousands of gannets who fly up high before plunging at speeds close to 100km per hour into the water. Equipped with protective facial sacs and internal nostrils, these powerful birds can endure the force of impact for a fishy meal. Aggregations of gannets can be spotted from miles away and are also a great indicator for spotting marine mammals.

 

Where to see me: Norway, Iceland, British Isles

Black-Legged Kittiwake

A small gull with an onomatopoeic name, kittiwakes only come to land to breed, not to hunt for food, so there is no chance of them stealing your fish and chips! Their “kitt-i-wake” call is a signature of Arctic seabird colonies, and with thousands nesting in close proximity on some cliffs the experience can be deafening. Sadly, this call is getting rarer in a rapidly warming Arctic with reduced prey availability as colonies are influenced by influxes of warmer water.

Where to see me: Svalbard, Norway, Iceland, British Isles, Greenland, Canada, Alaska

 

Photo: Sven Lindblad

Black Guillemots

Since black guillemots aren’t quite as good divers as many of the other members of the auk family, they can often be found in shallower waters as we Zodiac cruise closer to shore or among the ice. Their feet and the inside of their mouths are unmistakably bright red, and their white wing flashes look hypnotic as they fly beneath the water.

Where to see me: Svalbard, Norway, Iceland, British Isles, Greenland, Canada, Alaska

Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Little Auk

Visiting a little auk colony should be on everyone’s bucket list. There is nothing quite like having thousands of these 'flying hamsters' screeching above your head as they circle their breeding slopes. Like all seabirds, little auks are very important for coastal ecosystems as they bring tons of nutrient-rich guano ashore, which allows other life to flourish. They are also an important prey species for many Arctic predators, including the arctic fox, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife near their colonies.

Where to see me: Svalbard, Greenland, Canada


Photo: Jamie Coleman

Common Eider Duck

Eiders are a sea duck and an important species for many Arctic communities. They often breed in proximity to human settlements, utilizing the protection from predators. Mother ducks line their nests with warm down, which is collected and cleaned at the end of the season to insulate bedding and clothing; it takes 80 eider nests to make just one duvet which explains the high cost! When at sea, eiders can dive down to 100 feet in search of mussels and other shellfish, which they take from the seabed.

Where to see me: Alaska, Canada, British Isles, Iceland, Norway, Svalbard, Greenland

 

Photo: Michael S. Nolan

Atlantic Puffin

Everybody’s favorite, these “sea parrots” mostly breed within self-dug burrows, which can reach six foot in length. It’s easy to tell when their single egg has hatched, as parents will start bringing beakfuls of fish to land. Using denticles (backward facing spikes) on the roof of the mouth, puffins can carry multiple fish at once while continuing to fish. The record catch is more than 80 fish at a time! Puffin bills are not only disproportionately large and spectacularly colorful, but they also glow under UV light. As seabirds also have ultraviolet vision, this is likely a trait for displaying health and condition to prospective mates.

Where to see me: Svalbard, Norway, Iceland, British Isles, Greenland, Canada

Photo: Ralph Lee Hopkins

Ivory Gull

The ivory gull is an Arctic specialist and a rarity. They spend much of their lives in association with predators, in particular polar bears, from whom they scavenge. This means if you have spotted one, there is a good chance you are not too far from a bear, so win-win! Like many of the Arctic seabirds, the ivory gulls’ success is intricately linked to sea ice extent, so as the sea ice declines, their numbers are doing the same.

 

Where to see me: Svalbard, Greenland, Canada