Seabirds are also termed "pelagic" or marine birds. They live on the ocean, most eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, or aquatic vegetation. Generally, they have dense, waterproof feathers, and layers of fat to keep them warm. A unique feature about seabirds is that they have desalination filters in their bills that can eliminate salt from the water they drink. Some have webbed or partially webbed feet for swimming, plucking fish from the shallows, or executing precise, plunging dives. In general, seabirds live longer than other wild birds; most have an average lifespan of 50 years.
Here are 14 common types of seabirds to look for that'll make coastal birding even more special.
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Albatrosses are tremendous pelagic birds. They are among the largest flying birds in the world, with mammoth wingspans and long, narrow wings that give them superb lift for easy flight. Their large wingspan allows them to travel long distances, sometimes up to 10,000 miles in a single journey. Unlike many marine birds, albatrosses also walk well on land. There are 22 albatross species in the world, all in the Diomedeidae family.
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There are many auk species, like murres, puffins, and guillemots. They all have compact bodies well adapted to northern seas and colder waters. These birds typically have an upright posture on land and can be clumsy when walking. Most have black and white plumage, and many also have colorful bills or distinct markings. All auks are part of the Alcidae bird family.
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Seven booby species are in the Sulidae family. They are named for their silly facial expressions and history of gullible behavior around sailors. These beautiful tropical gannets have bright bills and feet, including the celebrated blue-footed booby. They are larger, heavy birds that can seem awkward in flight and on land, but they are excellent fliers and divers. You can often find them perched on buoys, cliffs, or rocks. Boobies prefer to eat anchovies, mackerel, sardines, and squid.
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Also called pirate birds or man-of-war birds, frigatebirds are stately fliers with long, hooked bills, sharply pointed wings, and boldly forked tails. The red throat pouch of the males is distinctive, as is this bird's high, soaring flight. All five species of frigatebirds belong to the Fregatidae family and are large birds that may circle slowly and elegantly before diving to steal fish from other birds.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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Because of their chunky build and short tails, fulmars are a type of petrel that look very similar to gulls. They are opportunistic feeders, foraging widely, including scavenging in the trash or eating carrion. They have long tubular noses with prominent bill structures for saltwater filtration. There are only two fulmar species in the Procellariidae family: the northern and the southern fulmar.
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Gannets are large seabirds with chunky builds that appear somewhat ungainly on land, but they are strong fliers and powerful dive fishers. Closely related to boobies, they also belong to the Sulidae family. All three gannet species—northern gannet, cape gannet, and Australasian gannet—look very similar. Sometimes you can only tell the species apart by where they are living.
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A type of auk that resembles penguins, murres have dark and light counter-shaded plumage and swim underwater to pursue fish. They have an upright posture and a clumsy, waddling gait when on land. There are only two murre species, the common murre, and the thick-billed murre, both found in northern oceans. These species are in the Alcidae bird family, along with puffins and guillemots.
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Flightless birds of the southern oceans, penguins are specialized seabirds in the Spheniscidae family well equipped for frigid waters with insulating plumage and fat. They are stunning swimmers and have specialized flippers rather than feathered wings. However, despite their chilly reputation, several penguin species breed in tropical regions, such as the little penguins. The 18 penguin species vary significantly in size and range, though several penguin species are physically similar.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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Petrels are small seabirds distinguished by their elongated, tubular nostrils and low, wave-skimming flight. They often stay so close to the water that they have the appearance of walking on its surface. Like many seabirds, petrels stay at sea nearly all their lives, returning to land only to breed. The term "petrel" is found in several scientific families; however, true petrels are generally considered part of the Procellariidae family.
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Puffins are large auks with broad, colorful bills and whimsical expressions, so they are often called sea clowns or sea parrots. They are powerful swimmers and nest in large breeding colonies, typically on offshore islands or isolated northern coasts. They have an upright posture on land; their wingbeats are rapid, and their path is direct while in flight. There are only three puffin species, horned, Atlantic, and tufted, all in the Alcidae bird family.
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Shearwaters are part of the Procellariidae family. Shearwaters are small petrels with long wings specializing in low, gliding flight. Their wingtips may brush the waves and "shear the water" as they fly, giving these birds their familiar name. There are more than 30 shearwater species with a wide variety of sizes. They can be found worldwide, but they often remain far out to sea. Where feeding conditions are ideal, they gather in large groups, especially where ocean upwellings bring prey such as fish, plankton, and squid close to the surface.
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Unlike many seabirds, tropicbirds have primarily white plumage and are easily identified by their very long streaming tail feathers. They have short legs and are shallow plunge divers when they hunt. There are only three species of tropicbird that are the only members of the Phaethontidae family: the red-billed tropicbird, the white-tailed tropicbird, and the red-tailed tropicbird.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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Gulls in the Laridae family are commonly called seagulls; there are 54 gull species. They are closely related to terns and distantly related to auks. Gulls are typically medium to large birds that are intelligent, using loud wailing or squawking calls to communicate. Most gulls are ground-nesting, monogamous carnivores that like to eat crustaceans, mollusks, fish, small birds, and will scavenge opportunistically. Gulls have unhinging jaws which allow them to consume larger prey. Most gull species are migratory, with birds moving to warmer habitats during the winter.
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Terns are seabirds in the Sternidae family, formerly part of the gulls' Laridae family. There are 40 tern species, and they are all slender, lightly built birds. The Arctic tern migrates further than any other bird on the planet, traveling from pole to pole, breeding on the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the northern summer and heading to the Southern Hemisphere for the southern summer. North American Arctic terns fly about 24,000 miles each year. Most other tern species travel long distances between the breeding and non-breeding season.