Common Marine Birds
Glaucous-Winged Gulls and Pigeon Guillemots, Photo by Captain Yves
  • June 2, 2019

An identification guide to some marine birds you are likely to see in Victoria, British Columbia.

Scroll down to learn about:

  • Bald Eagles
  • Ospreys
  • Pelagic Cormorants
  • Double-Crested Cormorants
  • Pigeon Guillemots
  • Great Blue Herons
  • Glaucous-Winged Gulls

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle, Photo by Captain Yves, taken by zoom lens and heavily cropped.

Latin Name: Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Distinguishing Features:

Bald Eagles mature between the ages of 4 and 5 years. Young eagles will be mottled brown. Once mature their head feathers will turn white.

Maximum Size and Age:

Up to 38 inches tall, they can live to 21-25 years.

Fun Facts:

  • Their talons are 3 to 4 inches long.
  • Their foot pads are rough with tiny barbs to hold onto slippery fish, like a fine velcro.
  • Females are slightly larger than males.

Common Behaviour:

Often seen perched near the tops of trees, sometimes on rocks. Bald Eagles are often seen in the vicinity of food, either catching fish, harassing other predators to steal their food, or near a fresh carcass.

Our Most Exciting Sighting:

A recent tour had observed a Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whale eating a gull (photo included below under Glaucous-Winged Gull). Then a Bald Eagle swooped in to steal the whale’s meal! It is common for Bald Eagles to harass other birds like Osprey to steal their catch. It would take a pretty gutsy Bald Eagle to take on a Killer Whale.

Osprey

Osprey
Osprey, Photo by Seokhee Kim is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Latin Name: Pandion haliaetus

Distinguishing Features:

Osprey may be confused for a large seagull due to the ‘M’ shape of their wings while in flight. Look for a white body with a black eye strip and a black spot on the “elbow” of their wings.

Maximum Size and Age:

Osprey have a 5 foot wingspan, the oldest recorded Osprey was 25 years old.

Fun Facts:

Osprey primarily eat fish and often nest elevated platforms of man-made structures.

Common Behaviour:

Soaring above the water in search of food.

Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant, Photo by GregTheBusker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Latin Name: Phalacrocorax pelagicus

Distinguishing Features:

Pelagic Cormorants are the smallest cormorant with glossy black plumage and a red throat patch.

Maximum Size and Age:

30 inches tall. The oldest known Pelagic Cormorant was found in British Columbia at 17 years, 10 months old.

Pelagic Cormorants
Cormorants, Photo by Jason Mclean

Fun Facts:

These foot-propelled diving birds can dive to 200 ft. While their name suggests they like open ocean habitats, they actually prefer inshore waters.

Common Behaviour:

Often seen standing with outstretched wings. These birds do not have the water repellent coating on their feathers like other birds. Instead they allow their feathers to soak up water so that they can dive deep (because they become less buoyant). However, this means they need to dry out their wings after a bout of diving.

Double-Crested Cormorant

Double Crested Cormorant
Double-Crested Cormorant, Photo by NWCouncil is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Latin Name: Phalacrocorax auritus

Distinguishing Features:

Dark feathers, orange-yellow throat patch. Unlike other cormorants, Double-Crested Cormorants will have a distinctive kink in their neck while flying.

Maximum Size and Age:

35 inches tall. The oldest known Double-Crested Cormorant was at least 22 years old.

double crested cormorant
Cormorants, Photo by Cameron Ontkean

Fun Facts:

This foot-propelled diving bird can dive to 200ft!

Common Behaviour:

Often seen with outstretched wings. Cormorants do not have the water repellent coating on their feathers like other birds. Instead they allow their feathers to soak up water. The water replaces the air that would be trapped between the feathers. With less air in their plumage, the birds are less buoyant and able to dive deeper. However the cost to this adaptation is that cormorants need to dry out their wings after diving.

Pigeon Guillemot

Pigeon Guillemot
Pigeon Guillemots, Photo by Captain Yves

Latin Name: Cepphus columba

Distinguishing Features:

Pigeon Guillemots have bright red feet and beak lining. They are black with white patches on both wings.

Maximum Size and Age:

As the name suggests, Pigeon Guillemots are pigeon-sized birds at 14 inches tall.The oldest one on record was over 15 years old when it was recaptured and released as part of a bird banding study.

Pigeon Guillemot
Pigeon Guillemot taking off, Photo by Captain Yves

Fun Facts:

Pigeon Guillemots will climb rocky cliffs by flapping their wings vigorously while using the sharp claws on their webbed feet for grip.

Common Behaviour:

Often will see them run on top of the water before fully getting air born. This is partly because of their large feet.

Glaucous-Winged Gull

Glaucous-Winged Gull
Glaucous-Winged Gull, Photo by Captain Yves.

Latin Name: Larus glaucescens

Distinguishing Features:

White with grey wings. Wingtips are grey, not white or black like most gulls. Yellow beak with a red spot on lower mandible (jaw). Juveniles are distinct looking with grey mottled plumage and dark beak and feet.

Maximum Size and Age:

Up to 23 inches, oldest was 23 years, banded in BC and found in Washington.

Juvenile Glaucous-Winged Gull
Juvenile Glaucous-Winged Gull, Photo by Captain Yves

Fun Facts:

Some may think that the darker grey gulls are a different species or females exhibiting sexual dimorphism (where males and females look different). The mottled grey gulls are actually juveniles. Once they mature beyond a year they become lighter in colour. As they develop adult coloration over the first few years of their life their beak becomes progressively more yellow, their body becomes whiter and wings solid grey. Their dark-grey feet become lighter pink once they mature as well.

Common Behaviour:

Gulls are opportunistic feeders, and will often steal food from other birds. They will eat fish that they can catch near the surface. Any aggregations of gulls at sea are a good indicator of a school of fish near the surface called a ‘bait ball’. Bait Ball’s often attract whales and dolphins too so it’s always a good a idea to keep an eye out.

Our Most Exciting Sighting:

On April 21, 2019, our Naturalist Marcus photographed a Killer Whale eating a Gull. These whales usually prey on marine mammals however an unsuspecting seabird can make a great snack.

Whale eating seagull
A Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whale eating a gull. Photo by Naturalist Marcus, taken with zoom lens and heavily cropped.

Threats and conservation:

Glaucous-Winged Gulls have a stable population in North America, though they may have experienced some declines between 1966 and 2015.

Join us for whale watching tour and keep an eye out on the water for these marine bird species and more!

Written by Stefania Gorgopa, Marine Biologist

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