Cover photo: Great Blue Heron with Fish
Birds have evolved to eat all kinds of food— insects, seeds, grains, nuts, seaweed, worms, other birds, and small animals— and some eat fish. Fish eaters are known as pescatarians. I like to photograph our local birds, especially when those birds have successfully caught fish. When possible, I zoom in to see the fish closer. Here are a few examples.
1. Red-breasted Merganser with Fish
Sometimes pescatarians have beaks with serrated edges so the fish can’t escape, and the bird can gather more than one at a time. This photo shows the serrated bill of the Red-breasted Merganser, whose nickname is “sawbill.” Scientists have calculated that they must dive 250 to 300 times to catch the 15 to 20 fish they need to eat every day. This male Red-breasted Merganser caught a rather large, unidentified fish, so perhaps he didn’t need to catch quite so many that day.
2. Rhinoceros Auklet with Fish
This Rhinoceros Auklet is carrying only one fish, but with its palatal denticles, or spikes in the back of its upper jaw, it can hold many fish at once to deliver to its nest. I photographed this auklet near Protection Island, home to one of the world’s largest breeding populations of Rhinoceros Auklets.
3. Pigeon Guillemot with Saddleback Gunnel
The Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s pier in Ft. Worden is a perfect place to watch Pigeon Guillemots in summer as they swim, dive, and carry fish to their nestlings under the pier. They tend to like long, “eel-like fish.” Thanks to the help from fish experts on iNaturalist, I can often identify the species. This is a Saddleback Gunnel. Its scientific name is Pholis ornata, “Pholis” is an Ancient Greek name for a fish that hides in a hole, and “ornata” refers to the decorated saddle markings on its back.
4. American Crow with Small Fish
One day I was walking with an ornithologist friend along a Ft. Flagler beach at low tide, when we noticed a crow carrying something white from the beach to the forest. Then the crow returned and did it again, and again. Finally I got a photo, and the white object turned out to be a fish! We’d never seen crows carry fish before, and realized it must have been bringing food back to the nest for hungry nestlings.
5. American Crows with Saddleback Gunnel
It’s challenging for a young bird to learn to fish! This young crow on the left continually begged its parent to share a Saddleback Gunnel (the same species caught by the Pigeon Guillemot above), but this one may have been found under a rock in a tide pool at Pt. Hudson. The parent refused and refused, until finally the young one grabbed one end. Poor baby, the parent tugged it back and flew off. Tough love.
6. Caspian Tern with Snake Prickleback
Our local Caspian Terns are the largest terns in the world, and they actually live all over the world. They are mostly pescatarian, and they are delightful to watch as they hover above the sea, then dive suddenly, beak first. This one caught another of the “eel-like fish,” a Snake Prickleback, (Lumpenus sagitta),identified by the horizontal brown bars on its side.
7. Olympic Gull Feeding Frenzy
It’s fun to watch a feeding frenzy from our beaches. Usually they’re pretty far offshore, and just look like a tangle of gulls. Gulls are omnivores, and they love fish, but they can’t dive. With binoculars, you can often see other birds with the gulls— diving seabirds, like the Rhinoceros Auklet (here at the top left). Often gulls try to swipe fish from diving seabirds, but they can also snatch fish swimming close to the surface of the sea. See if you can find the gull with a fish in its beak.
8. Bonaparte’s Gull with Fish
The elegant Bonaparte’s Gull is beautiful to watch in flight, and especially when they swoop down to pluck a fish from the surface. This one caught a long, silvery fish, then landed on the water to swallow it. I’ve kayaked at the mouth of Mats Mats Bay, surrounded by Bonaparte’s Gulls flying overhead and diving down to skim over the surface of the water to grab a fish. It’s magical, and I miss my camera when kayaking.
9. Olympic Gull with Black Prickleback
Another “eel-like fish” in our sea is the Black Prickleback (Xiphister atropurpureus), which matches the dark color of some kelp and seaweed. They burrow under rocks and seaweed in tide pools, where this one was probably caught by this Olympic Gull. (“Olympic” is the name for our common local gulls that are hybrid Glaucous-winged Gull and Western Gull.)
10. Olympic Gull with Buffalo Sculpin (two photos)
One day at North Beach, a juvenile Olympic Gull was trying to figure out how to eat a huge Buffalo Sculpin (Enophrys bison). The gull nibbled, turned the fish, and nibbled again, always keeping an eye out for other gulls who might try to join the feast. The Buffalo Sculpin is another fish that camouflages itself among the seaweed and rocks, in this case using mottled coloration. This fish is often found in tide pools and to depths of 65’, and once it was recorded even deeper in the sea— at 743’.
Soon in Part 2, I’ll share more local pescatarian birds with some different fish.
Great info. Sent to some birdy friends in other areas.
Great idea to write about fish-eating birds and so well done. Looking forward to the next installment!
I congratulate Wendy on an incredible job of explaining the relationship between
birds and fish. The identification of fish was especially important to as I think it
is more difficult than bird identification. Thank you Wendy and I look forward to the second article.
Once again, I learned so much. The extraordinary photos captivated me. Thanks Wendy.