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The Complete Guide to British Birds: Petrels and Shearwaters

Updated on March 12, 2013

Sitting Tight

This particular fulmar has elected to nest in an unusually accessible place.
This particular fulmar has elected to nest in an unusually accessible place. | Source

In Glorious Flight

A Northern fulmar in full and glorious flight.
A Northern fulmar in full and glorious flight. | Source

Northern Fulmar

If any predator should dare an invasion of the fulmar’s nesting territory, then they risk a rather unusual and hostile reception. The fulmar brings up horrible and stinky oil, produced from its stomach, and squirts it all over the enemy in accurately aimed jet; essentially this bird vomits over any prospective enemy. Both the adults and the chicks are capable of defending themselves in this way.

The fulmar population has increased astonishingly in the last 200 years. They were first noted in Iceland around 1750, and pairs had settled in the Faeroe Islands by 1820 and the Shetlands by 1878. Just over a century later, those early pioneers had increased to more than 300,000 pairs and were distributed right around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. This increase in population is all the more astonishing, considering that these birds do not start breeding until they reach the age of six, and even then they only lay one egg a year. One key factor that may have helped the fulmar is the vast expansion of fishing, the offal thrown overboard provides large quantities of food for a wide variety of seabirds.

At first glance it resembles a small gull, with a grey back and a white head, but on closer inspection its prominent tubular nostrils set on top of the bill indicate that is in fact a species of petrel. The sexes are virtually identical to our eyes.

The fulmar’s breeding cycle commences with a simple courtship display, with the birds essentially cackling and crooning at each other. Then, like many sea birds they do not actually build a nest; instead it lays its single egg in a convenient depression on a cliff edge or an offshore rock pillar. Both parents share incubation duty, which takes about 50 days. In the seven weeks it takes the chick to fledge, both parents give it food regurgitated from their own stomachs.

The Manx Shearwater in Flight

The flight of a Manx shearwater alternates between gliding and rapid flapping, both with stiff wings.
The flight of a Manx shearwater alternates between gliding and rapid flapping, both with stiff wings. | Source

The Ghostly Call of the Manx Shearwater

Inside a Manx Shearwater Burrow

Manx Shearwater

After an absence of more than a century, this remarkable bird has returned in considerable numbers, breeding mainly on the Isle of Man, from which its name is derived. There are also thriving colonies on other British islands, particularly off the western coast of England. They spend virtually all of their lives at sea, only coming to land to breed; once the breeding season is over they disperse widely, with some deciding to spend the winter as far away as the coast of South America.

Manx shearwaters are very good and efficient flyers, using powerful wing beats, interspersed with long glides in which they apparently skim the water’s surface, appearing to ‘shear’ the waves. The Manx shearwater is one of the best navigators in the entire natural world. One particular bird from the Welsh island of Skokholm was taken to Massachusetts, more than 3000 miles across the Atlantic and well beyond its normal range. After being released, it took just 12 days to travel across the US, back across the Atlantic to its waiting chick on Skokholm. As well as being a good flyer, they are also skilful and buoyant swimmers, keeping their heads and tails well up.

Old Icelandic sagas dating from the 11th century make reference of the bird’s eerie unnerving din of a call which they use mostly as a greeting signature whenever they return to the nest after feeding at sea; they usually do this in the hour before midnight. The Manx shearwater builds its nest in a burrow, often using old rabbit burrows. Both parents share the incubation of the single egg. The chick enters the world covered in a dense down and remains in the burrow for about ten weeks, after which they will take to the air and start venturing out to sea.

While the Manx shearwater is the only one of its kind to breed in Britain, there are several other species that occasionally visit these shores in passing. They are a sheer joy to watch, tipping from side to side as they glide gracefully over the surface of the ocean with a few leisurely wing beats every now and then. The Cory’s shearwater which is quite hard to identify as it simply has a grey brown plumage, lacking any distinguishable markings arrives from islands in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Africa. The great shearwater is easier to identify on account of its dark cap and contrasting pale collar comes from the southern Atlantic. The aptly named sooty shearwater travels up from the Antarctic, while another aptly named bird, the little shearwater travels all the way from islands off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand.

Europe's Smallest Seabird...

The European storm petrel is roughly the size of a house martin, measuring about 5 inches from beak to tail.
The European storm petrel is roughly the size of a house martin, measuring about 5 inches from beak to tail. | Source

...And its Rarer Relative

The Wilson's storm petrel is only a rare visitor to British shores, and like its more common relative follows ships in the hope of picking morsels of food.
The Wilson's storm petrel is only a rare visitor to British shores, and like its more common relative follows ships in the hope of picking morsels of food. | Source

Footage Of A Storm Petrel Being Fitted With A Ring

Storm Petrel

When the storm or stormy petrel followed the wake of a vessel, it was believed to forecast the coming of a storm. In fact though, the bird probably follows ships in order to feed on the marine life brought to the surface by the disturbance of their passage. The name ‘petrel’ is thought to have derived from a diminutive of Peter; when feeding the bird flits and hovers just above the water, often with feet pattering on the surface, appearing at first glance to ‘walk on water’ just as St. Peter did in the Bible story. The storm petrel is sometimes called the Mother Carey’s chicken, a name that may be a corruption of Mater Cara, ‘Dear Mother’, an old name given by sailors in the eastern Mediterranean to the Virgin Mary.

The storm petrel is closely related to the fulmar, possessing the same tubular nostrils perched on top of its bill. It’s Europe’s smallest seabird and has a sooty black plumage, except for a white rump and a pale bar that runs across both wings, that is especially conspicuous when viewed from below.

It spends virtually its entire life on the open sea except when breeding; at that time it will come ashore under the cover of darkness to remote and lonely islands off the western shores of the British islands. They normally nest in colonies that vary in size from just a few pairs to many thousands. Like its fulmar relative, they don’t build a nest; instead the female lays a single egg on a bare ledge. The newly hatched chick is initially covered thickly in greyish-brown down; then they grow a second plumage of darker down before their flight feathers finally develop.

As well as the storm petrel, there are two rarer petrels that occasionally visit our shores. One is the Leach’s petrel which has a blackish brown plumage, a white rump and a forked tail. Their inner wing shows a paler brown diagonal band on top, while the under wings are dark. The other rare petrel is the Wilson’s petrel which can be distinguished by its long legs and yellow webbed feet that may extend beyond the tail; their tail incidentally is not forked, but rather square shaped.

More to follow...

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I can certainly see why the Fulmar has increased in numbers; who would want to mess with that bird?

      Great hub James; very interesting stuff and nice research!

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hahaha, yes you're right Bill, its certainly one of the more fascinating birds that inhabit our shores. I did find a video on youtube of guy trying to film the fulmar close up before getting vomited on. I was going to post it, but the guy swore repeatedly at the fact his camera was covered in vomit. Serves him right for getting too close. Thanks for popping by.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      I learn something new every day here in Hubland! Thanks for this informative Hub.

      I voted this Hub Up,etc.

    • profile image

      summerberrie 4 years ago

      The storm petrel is too, cute. I love shore birds. They are always so busy and seem so playful. Thanks for sharing your birds!

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Just me... Darn that aviannovice (with best wishes). :))

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      I have always loved watching seabirds, except when they were trying to steal my fishing bait. :) Fascinating information on the seabirds n the UK; they have just as many similarities as they have differences with the birds I'm used to seeing along the shores of Alaska. Loved it. :)

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Mary, glad you liked it.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi summerberrie, yes they are pretty cute aren't they. I love the charisma that seems to just ooze from them, always a joy to watch. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hehehee, thanks Mhatter- glad you stopped by.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Terrye, I've always found it amazing how you can be hundreds of miles away from home and yet you see a bird that you recognise, and you instantly feel like you're right at home. Thanks for popping by.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 4 years ago from United States

      I love birds and found your hub to be very interesting. It amazes me how different birds have such unique characteristics. The Manx Shearwater sure are noisy! Very interesting hub.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Pamela, I love the call of the Manx shearwater- you can understand where some of our ghost stories come from it must have played merry hell with the minds of our ancestors.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 4 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      Very comprehensive descriptions of these birds. I'm impressed with the Manx Shearwater's navigation and range, it is quite remarkable.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Phil.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      I am very familiar with fulmars, but less so with shearwaters. I grew up in Shetland and was back there in the summer. Went to visit Mousa Broch where it's possible to get night trips specifically to see the storm petrels, but we went during the day so didn't see them. Another time I'd like to go because they look beautiful. I was interested to read how they got their name.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I like hearing about the British birds, as I don't get to see too many here.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Melovy yes it was interesting for me too, because I had no idea too, so it was a joy to find that out. I remember seeing fulmars up near the Farne Islands. At first I thought they were gulls, but then after a second look I noticed that their head was completely different from a gull- it was such a thrill because I'd never seen one before. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Deb, I'm glad you enjoy hearing about British birds. There's a few more hubs on the way so keep an eye out. Thanks for popping by.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Great hub James. I love seabirds but I have to admit, that in an excess of ignorance, I call them all "seagulls". Thanks for enlightening me.

    • FullOfLoveSites profile image

      FullOfLoveSites 4 years ago from United States

      I love reading about nature, thanks for putting it up. Beautifully written. :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Christopher, glad to be of service my friend. As always, thanks for visiting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you FullofLoveSites, glad you liked it, and thank you for the follow too.

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      That's a great hub. Informative, interesting and well laid out, too.

      I got my first ever sighting of a shearwater flying across the sea way between the mainland at Seahouses and The Farnes just the other week.

      I thought myself pretty lucky.

      Looking forward to the rest of your series. :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes I've been to the Farnes as well, its such a magical place. I remember being mesmerised by both the seabirds and the seals. I stayed in a lovely village close by called Lowick. Thanks for popping by whowas.

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      Yes, Lowick is lovely in a bleak, Northumbrian way!

      I'll probably retire to my adopted home in Italy if the economy holds out but my second choice would be Holy Island. The birding up here along the Northumbrian coast is second to none.

      If you are ever up this way and have the inclination, drop me a line and it would be interesting to meet up and swap notes, as they say.

      Although bear in mind that about half the year I'm elsewhere but it may be worth a shot. I know some of the best bird brains in Britain, too, so I'm sure you'd have a great time.

      Anyway, The Farnes are spectacular and the terns this year did really well. Common, Arctic, Sandwich and Roseate - amazing it was!

      All the best.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks whowas, if I ever venture up to Northumberland again, then I'll be sure to drop you a line.

      Wow, I've never seen a roseate tern- wish I could've seen them myself!

      Thanks again.

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