The Crested Auklet is a uniquely ornamented, crowd-loving bird of Arctic waters that occasionally forms huge flocks reminiscent of the Passenger Pigeon.
By Rex Graham
One of the many places to see these birds is amid the whale-rich seas along Russia’s northeast coast where strong ocean currents surge with marine life, and can provide views of a lifetime for anybody in the right place at the right time.
On Aug. 18, 2013, at the eastern tip of Russia’s Chukotski Peninsula, a Canadian researcher witnessed something few humans have seen – an uninterrupted passage of over 10 million Crested Auklets over a four-hour period.
That observation is simply part of the life of a bird at home in a crowd.
Crested Auklets Highly Social
Crested Auklets also congregate while nesting at remote, rocky sites across the vast north. However, at their nesting sites they slip between the jagged rocks and are hard to count. On the open ocean, there are sometimes so many that accurate counts are also nearly impossible.
The long, forward-pointing forehead feathers of male and female Crested Auklets are unique in the world of birds. The size of a male’s crest matters to potential female mates, and the length of her crest also matters to the male. This is a rare case among all bird species of a mutual mating preference focused on the feather ornaments of both sexes.
Courting Crested Auklets also have a strong odor. A pungent citrus-smelling chemical in their feathers may repel parasites, and the chemical pleases potential mates that regard the odor as a signal of mate quality.
A Crested Auklet marches to the beat of a common social drum.
Pairs, which mate for life, each produce a single egg per nesting season. Hatching is highly synchronous with the other eggs in the colony. Hundreds of thousands or millions of eggs all hatch within 10 days of each other. Fledging is just as synchronized.
The best way for birders and bird photographers to observe Crested Auklets without disturbing their breeding colonies is to seek them at sea. They forage for shrimp-like krill about 25-32 mm (1-1.25 in) in length that rise from the depths to the ocean surface at night, especially in areas of strong currents or upwellings. The krill spend each day at depths of 500 m (1,640 ft), out of reach of diving auklets and Humpback Whales.
Huge Flocks of Crested Auklets
The 10 million Crested Auklets in the flock seen in 2013 were close to the tip of Russia’s Chukotski Peninsula near Cape Kekurnyi. This is an area of strong currents at the narrowest gap of the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska.
Mark Mafeti, the Canadian scientist who described the event, said he first saw a group of about 450,000 Crested Auklets floating on a vast mat, taking turns diving into what he suspected were waters with lots of zooplankton (krill, copepods and other small invertebrates).
“In fact, our attention was initially drawn to the area in which the auklets were foraging by a large aggregation of at least 300 Humpback Whales within the same general area, also apparently feeding on zooplankton,” Mafeti wrote in the journal Marine Ornithology.