Post #55 of 100 Days of Blogging

Watch a Gannet enter the water as it plunge dives after prey, and the term “breakneck speed” may suddenly take on newfound relevance! The Northern Gannet is one of the aptly named diving birds that pursue their prey either by plunge diving from the air, or by surface diving while swimming. Plunge divers include birds like gannets, murres, pelicans and shearwaters. Birds like loons, ducks, grebes and cormorants are among those that dive from the surface. Underwater propulsion can be provided by wings (as used by penguins, auks and diving petrels), or feet (as used by cormorants, grebes, loons and several types of fish-eating ducks). Below are 10 bird species with remarkable underwater prowess.

#1. Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) – The world’s deepest diving bird

The record for deepest dive among birds is held by the Emperor penguin, which has been recorded at depths of over 530 m !  It can also stay underwater more than 15 minutes at a time. Of course this incredible ability underwater is not matched once out of the water; the adaptation for a life at sea has cost it the ability to fly.

#2 Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) – The only North American plunge diving pelican

The Brown pelican doesn’t get anywhere close to the Emperor Penguin when it comes to diving depth. However, this smallest of the world’s 8 pelican species is the only North American pelican that plunge dives for food. ( The closely related Peruvian Pelican is the only other pelican that feeds  this way). Other pelicans will work together in flocks to corral their food but the Brown pelican takes catching its food to whole other heights. Literally. The Pelican will spy its prey from 12-18m above the water’s surface, then plunge dive toward it head first and scoop it up with its unique pouch like bill.

#3. Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) – The High Speed Torpedo Diver

These bird have been called Queens of the Sea. Gannets sight fish from the air then plunge dive down at the water from heights as high as 30 m. It can enter the water at speeds calculated of up to 24m/s. Heading to the water literally at breakneck speed, they fold their wings at the last minute, giving them the appearance of a swept-wing fighter aircraft morphing into a missile. The gannet’s forward momentum carries it about 3m underwater at initial entry; they may then arc around and re-emerge from the water or use their feet and wings to propel them down even further. Gannets are able to dive down as far as 12- 15m before returning to the surface, grabbing prey in their serrated dagger like bill along the way. The fish may be swallowed underwater or eaten once back up at the surface.

The remarkable force with which the Gannet is able to enter the water and hunt led to a recent study at Virginia Tech to analyze how gannets actually keep from breaking their necks while doing so. The special form of its head and neck are the key design factors that allow this bird to propel itself into the water at such high speed without injury; but all design has its limits. The life of a diving Northern Gannet is not without grave risks as recorded in the video clip below.

#4. Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia) – Avian Guinness Record Holder

This species holds the Guinness record for the deepest underwater dive by a flying bird. The Thick-billed Murre, a member of the Auk family, can reach depth of 210 m and make as many as 20 consecutive dives to catch its preferred prey of cod and herring. It can remain submerged for up four minutes at a time. On the downside, its remarkable underwater hunting abilities has made it one of the species prone to entanglement in fisherman’s gill nets.

#5. Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) – The Deep Diving Arctic Duck

The Long-tailed Duck breeds in the high Arctic and migrates to spend the winter along both coasts of North America. It is also found out at sea. It is one of the deepest diving ducks, and will dive from the surface of the water down as far as 60 meters mainly mollusks, crustaceans, insects. It has also been found as by-catch of gill nets.

#6. Imperial Cormorant (Phalacrocorax atriceps) – The Patagonian Super Diver

As reported in one of the Fishy Friday posts on this blog, the Double-crested cormorant dive to 10-15 m, although some have  been recorded to over 25 m. However, to the surprise of scientists studying another member of the cormorant family near Punta Leon in Patagonia, Argentina, the imperial Cormorant has impressive “super- dive” powers. An imperial Cormorant fitted with a camera, plunged 46 meters down into the water in a remarkable 40 seconds. It then pursued prey on the seafloor, re-emerging at the surface after more than two and a half minutes underwater. Watch the video below recorded its amazing exploits.

#7. Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) – The Deepest Diving Shearwater

This pelagic seabird breeds in Australia and makes an incredible migratory round-trip of 30,000km each year, to spend northern summers in in southern Alaska, although some continue all the way up to the Arctic Ocean. All of this in only 6 weeks, one way! However, not only are they incredible flyers, they have also been recorded fishing to depth of 70m.

#8. Red-throated Loon (Gavia. stellata) – Agile diving loon

In North America, the Red-throated Loon breeds mainly on remote ponds, primarily in coastal tundra habitat. This is the smallest of the loon species, and needs less distance to take off from water than other loons. It can even launch itself into flight from land but it is not exactly graceful when it does move around on land. It searches for prey by peering from the surface or hunting underwater. This species has been recorded to depths of about 40m. Unfortunately, Red-throated loons are also a species reported as by-catch in gill nets.

#9. Atlantic Puffin (Fratatercula arctica) – A Bird Protection Quebec Favorite

The Atlantic Puffin, is another seabird of the Auk family with remarkable diving abilities. That’s not the only reason it made this list though. We have a soft spot for this bird! As it happens, Bird Protection Quebec’s oldest sanctuary, Île aux Perroquets, is an important Puffin nesting colony in the Saint-Lawrence river. You can click to see photos and read more about the sanctuary here.

Birds of the auk family use their wings to dive and as a result they have less flight capability than most other birds. Feeding puffins dive into fish schools. A study from the University of Iceland found that the Puffin regularly descends down to 40m and even as far as 60 m. However, like other diving birds, during the breeding season dives aren’t as deep. The Icelandic study reports that during nesting, the birds usually stay within several kilometers of their nests, and only dive 5-10 m under the surface for about  20 and 60 seconds. By comparison, when in the open ocean, puffins spend more than a third of their time underwater and can reach underwater speeds up to 5 km/h.

#10. American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) North America’s only truly aquatic songbird

A songbird that dives  may be somewhat unexpected, but the American Dipper hunts for its dinner underwater. It  is found along the mountain streams of western North America as well as central America. Equipped with a nictitating eyelid (a translucent extra eyelid) and scales that close its nostrils when submerged, this plump little gray bird is able to pursue its main prey of aquatic insects; although it may occasionally eat tiny fish, tadpoles or small crayfish. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the video below really portrays how amazing this little bird is!