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Daily Journals

September 12, 2006

It seems as though the polar animals have each had their own special day — seals on Wednesday, polar bears on Saturday, walrus on Monday. Today, the birds had their turn. I stood on the stern for several hours watching as Fulmars, Ivory Gulls and Kittiwakes caught the updrafts around the ship and mocked my inability to ride the sky.

Fulmars are masters of flight, built for precision maneuvers with long, narrow wings that catch any updraft off the waves. Photographing them was a challenge as they whisked by, banked and popped up somewhere else. At times, I wished for my macro lens instead of my telephoto lens because they would suddenly appear at eye level only a few feet away. Naturally, those were the times the light was perfect, the ship at its steadiest and the birds lingered the longest. Usually it was like skeet shooting, following a bulleting Fulmar with my camera as it blew by my head in a rocket glide.

For all their poetry in flight, the Fulmars acquired their unusual name for a much less appealing trait. Fulmar comes from the Norse meaning “foul gull” and refers to their defensive habit of spitting acrid-smelling oil at potential predators. This defense is most useful during the one time of year they are on land, the nesting season. One reference says the Fulmar’s stomach oil can be potentially fatal to another bird because the oil destroys the water repellency of the aggressor’s feathers, making it susceptible to wetting to the skin and dying from the cold.

Like many of the northern seabirds, Fulmars nest on rocky seaside cliffs. Their single egg takes almost two months to hatch. Young fledge in six to eight weeks. Young birds live at sea for several years before returning to land to nest for the first time. Fulmars have been an important resource for Arctic people — feathers used for bedding, stomach oil for lamps and medicine, and eggs and meat for food.

Ivory GullThe bird that has brought the most questions from expedition team members has been "that all white gull." The Ivory Gull is pure white, with a yellowish beak, black legs and coal black eyes. Martin Doble, one of the ice researchers, described the bird's whiteness by saying "it makes the snow look dirty." Seeing a flock of Ivory Gulls resting on an ice block today reminded me of an old saying, “The best way to count how many birds there are is to count the legs and divide by two.” Indeed, all that could be seen were the dark legs against the white of the ice.

Ivory Gulls are one of the few truly Arctic birds, breeding and wintering above 70 °N latitude. They feed on marine crustaceans and fish. They also scavenge the kills of Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears. In the air an Ivory Gull is a thing of beauty. Against the gray skies we have had, they appear as a winged cloud. I can only imagine how brilliant they would seem in a blue sky.

Other birds we have seen at sea include Guillemots, Glaucous Gulls, Ross's Gulls, Pomarine Skuas, a species of Phalarope and what appeared to be a Little Auk. The most surprising visitors have been a couple of Snow Buntings seen off and on the past few days. Why would these ground-living finch-like birds wander this far out onto the ice? Perhaps, like many of us on board, they appreciate the serenity, the peacefulness and the utter majesty of this place.

—Mike Dunn


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Kapitan Dranitsyn