The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) has a relatively short and thick neck and large head. The bill is chunky with round, tube-like nostrils. Northern fulmars breed within the North Atlantic region, from Newfoundland in the southwest, to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the north, and northern France in the southeast. The species also breeds in the North Pacific region, in Alaska and eastern Russia. It is the only species in the order Procellariiformes that breeds in Svalbard.
The northern fulmar is a stocky petrel that reaches a length of 45–50 cm and a weight of 450–1000 g. The sexes are very similar; the male being on average slightly larger than the female.
Northern fulmars occur in various colour morphs; from light grey above and white below to fairly dark grey above and somewhat paler grey below. The dark morphs are predominant in the northern parts of the species range (including Svalbard), while the light morphs are more common in southern parts of the species range. All morphs have a diffuse light patch at the base of the primaries (“the hand”) on both sides of the wing. The wings are more rounded at their tip than in gulls.
Fulmars glide over the sea just above the surface or back and forth along breeding colonies on stiff, straight wings, interrupted by brief series of shallow, rapid wing beats. They float high in the water when swimming and need a pattering run on the water surface in order to take off.
Cackling and grunting calls are emitted at the nesting site, often in series that accelerate and are of increasing volume.
Northern fulmars breed within the North Atlantic region, from Newfoundland in the southwest, to Svalbard and Novaya Zemlya in the north, and northern France in the southeast. The species also breeds in the North Pacific region, in Alaska and eastern Russia.
Two fulmar subspecies are recognized in the Atlantic region – F. g. glacialis in the high-Arctic (including Svalbard) and F. g. auduboni in low-Arctic and boreal areas. But, they are often difficult to distinguish from one another based upon size or colour criteria.
In Svalbard, the northern fulmar breeds on coastal cliffs and on nunataks (small areas of exposed rock on the tops of mountains). Breeding sites are distributed over most of the archipelago, but are scarce in the northeast. In total, 125 colonies are registered in the area. Outside the breeding season, northern fulmars have a very pelagic life-style, roaming over large areas of ocean in search for food. This species can be observed in Svalbard from first light (they arrive in late winter, long before egglaying commences) until the end of November or early December.
European northern fulmars spend the winter in the North Atlantic, while the arctic-breeding birds probably migrate a little to the south of their breeding areas during the winter months. They are “professional” boat-followers.
The northern fulmar breeds in loose colonies on narrow ledges on steep, inaccessible cliffs. Some colonies are large and dense, while others are quite scattered. Fulmar pairs often nest on cliffs dominated by other species. In some places, e.g. Bjørnøya, they nest on flat skerries or even in burrows on inaccessible slopes. Breeding birds exhibit strong fidelity to their nesting place, which is often visited outside the breeding period.
The northern fulmar is primarily a pelagic species which remains far out at sea except during the breeding season. Even during breeding it sometimes makes long foraging trips. Fulmars breeding on Bjørnøya are known to feed in the central Barents Sea as well as along the coast of Northern Norway during the chick-rearing period.
They feed on small pelagic animals caught near, or on, the sea surface. In Svalbard they feed mainly on squid, polychaetes, pteropods, crustaceans and small fish. On Bjørnøya, capelin is their primary prey. They also scavenge fishery discards and offal.
In the Arctic, the fulmar can be seen both in open seas areas and in icefilled waters.
Life History & Reproduction
The northern fulmar is a long-lived species with a low reproductive rate. It reaches sexual maturity when ca. 10 years old and lays only a single egg.
In Svalbard, the eggs are generally laid during the latter half of May or in the first days of June. The egg is laid directly on bare soil or rock. The northern fulmar often forms a scrape by scratching and pushing soil or pebbles backwards with its feet, and it may line the nest with gravel chips and bits of dried vegetation if these are available within reach of the nest cup. Both parents take part in incubation, which lasts for about 50 days.
During the first two weeks after hatching, one of the parents always remains at the nest to protect the chick. When the chick reaches the age of ca. 14 days, both parents forage simultaneously, returning intermittently to feed and warm the chick. The chick remains in the nest for about seven weeks before it fledges.
Fulmar chicks actively defend themselves against intruders at the nest by spitting an oily gastric juice at them – often with remarkable accuracy.
The mortality rate of adult fulmars is very low and they can live to a very old age. The oldest ringed bird known in Norway (including Svalbard) was 13 years old, but the northern fulmar is known to reach an age of more than 50 years of age.
Management status and monitoring
The northern fulmar is one of Svalbard’s most numerous seabirds, but because the population is difficult to census no detailed estimate of its abundance is available. However, it is thought that more than half a million pairs breed in Svalbard. Monitoring of the breeding population on Bjørnøya and at one site on Spitsbergen since 1988 suggests that numbers in Svalbard are stable, but there is a large degree of inter-annual variation in the number of breeding pairs.
The European breeding population is large, probably exceeding 1.8 million pairs, and is thought to be more or less stable.
The boreal and low-Arctic population of the eastern North Atlantic has been spreading and increasing in number for more than 200 years. The cause of this longterm increase in the northern fulmar population is not clear, but it may be related to accidental human provisioning of these birds, first in the form of whale remnants during periods of intensive commercial whaling and later by offal and discards from offshore trawlers.