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A brief look at Jaegers

January/February 2011 | by Claus Vogel

One of the many highlights from a recent photo assignment on Ellesmere Island was a chance encounter with a pair of long-tailed jaegers giving chase to an Arctic tern that had just returned from fishing on a nearby lake.

Displaying impressive aerial acrobatics, the jaegers bombarded the smaller tern with a series of dive bombs and aggressive head-on attacks. Eventually, the tern had no choice but to drop its catch. A split second later one of the attackers swooped below the tern and gracefully caught the minnow-like fish in midair with its powerfully hooked bill.

Several minutes later I spotted the black-masked bandits near my tent feeding a chick with their stolen catch.

Jaegers, from the German word for “hunter,” are close relatives of gulls and well-known members of the Arctic landscape. They differ from gulls in having specialized hooked bills with supraorbital salt glands that allow them to drink salt water. These birds also have prominent claws and tough scales on their legs giving them hawk-like features.

There are three species of jaegers that breed in Canada’s Arctic during the summer months. For the remainder of the year they spend their time at sea in the warm waters off the coasts of South America and Africa. All three species are strong fliers and practice some degree of piracy or kleptoparasitism — the harassing of other birds until they are forced to drop their catch.

During the winter months, when the jaegers are at sea, they obtain most of their food by provoking smaller seabirds such as terns, kittiwakes and auks into giving up their catch or by stealing it directly from their bills.

Other times the jaegers have been known to bully their victims by chasing after them in mid-flight or pulling at their feathers until the exhausted bird regurgitates its food and loses its catch to the Jaeger.

By the time they arrive in the North to breed, these birds become active predators and voracious thieves chasing and feeding on lemmings, voles, newly hatched chicks as well as on insects and berries. They have also been known to raid nests and steal eggs from a variety of birds including snow geese. On occasion they will resort to harassing terns and other birds into giving up their prized catches.

Hard to believe such an elegant and graceful flier in the Arctic sky can be such a menace. Little wonder why many refer to jaegers as pirates of the sky.

Currently Claus is living in the Yukon. Check out his website www.tradewindsphoto.ca for more stories and images from Canada’s North.