Fulmar, Shearwaters & Storm Petrels
The Order Procellariiformes including the Families
Procellariidae (shearwaters and fulmar) and the Hydrobatidae (storm-petrels)
The Order of birds called the Procellariiformes is a diverse group of birds that are truly pelagic; built for the open ocean. Each ocean has a suite of tubenoses that divide the habitat between them. They include generalists, specialists, planktivores, piscivores, winter visitors, summer visitors, dippers, divers and more. All of them spend much of the year wandering in search of the rare patches of food scattered across the ocean. Unlike most birds, these have a sharp sense of smell to zero in on gatherings of fish and plankton that leave behind distinctive smelling slicks of oil. Their nickname, tubenoses, refers to the curious, tube-like structures that enclose the nostrils and run part way down the bill. These tubes may aid in the gathering of scents and in expelling concentrated salt water (they may also aid in keeping rough seas from entering the lungs or even increase sensitivity to air pressure when soaring dynamically).
Considering the gathering of life, it is no wonder that such a diversity of tubenoses make their way on to the Bank throughout the year. Like whales, their appearance here may be tied to the differing cycles of their prey. During years of plenty, they may gather by the thousands. During years of low productivity, they may wander away over the Bank in search of more productive areas.
In general, the tubenoses are long-lived (up to twenty years) birds that gather on remote islands for nesting. Some dig deep nesting chambers, while others nest on high cliffs or hide in deep crevasses to avoid predators. Individual birds have strong ties to their nesting sites and pairs may nest together for many years but abandon each other and their chicks after nesting. Fledglings may not touch land again for up to ten years; wandering the open ocean until sexually mature.
During a busy year for this Order of birds, it can get difficult to sort the species out. Pay attention not only to the plumage of the bird but even more attention should be given to the habits. Does it soar? Are the wing beats slow or fast? Does it dive? Does it flutter?
(measurements in the species descriptions represent the wingspan).
The northern fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis (107 cm or 43 inches) breeds in the high Arctic, east to Scotland and typically occurs here in the non-breeding season from October to May. This is a wide-ranging oceanic bird with the overall appearance of a gull; typically gray and white. However, the stiff winged, low soaring flight of this pelagic gypsy separates it from a gull immediately. The fulmar often shows white flashes on the outer wing and appears thick-necked and stocky overall compared to the gulls. At least two forms occur: dark and light phases. The lighted phased birds are more commonly seen on the Bank. During the cooler seasons, and especially on east winds, fulmars move onto the Bank searching for schools of fish and squid.
Cory’s shearwaters, Calonectris diomedea, are the largest of the shearwaters in our area, with a wingspan of 110 cm (3.5 feet). Brown above and light below, Cory’s lack the complex pattern of the similar sized greater shearwater. Good field characteristics include the overall brown plumage, light or yellow bill and more soaring flight.
Sightings of Cory’s are relatively rare to sporadic on Stellwagen Bank, perhaps due to warm water currents. At least, their occurence on the Bank often coincides with warmer waters. They may show up in numbers in some years when food elsewhere is scarce. Like other shearwaters, they feed on schooling fish and squid and may be found foraging at the edges of feeding groups of other shearwaters on the Bank. These shearwaters breed on islands in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, most notably the Azores.
The greater shearwater, Puffinus gravis, (105 cm or 42 inches) breeds in the Southern Hemisphere, off the tip of South America, at a group of islands called the Tristan da Cunha. This trans-equatorial migrant occurs off the New England coast in May and begins to move south by mid-October. Thousands may occur over Stellwagen Bank during July and August in a single day. Like other shearwaters, the greater soars, stiff winged, close to the surface, true to its name. It feeds on any organic material available, especially small fish and large zooplankton and may follow fishing boats or whales for scraps. Generally, it is brown above, pale below, with a white rump patch. This relatively large shearwater shows a dark brown cap and a pale collar around the neck.
The sooty shearwater, Puffinus griseus (100 cm or 40 inches), like the greater, breeds in the Southern Hemisphere on islands off of South America, New Zealand and Australia. Some of the non-breeding birds move into the North Atlantic from May through September (during the austral winter). Like the greater, the sooty shearwater nests in burrows. Their chicks may spend two months underground before emerging and going out to sea. Non-breeding sub-adults may spend three years wandering at sea. Like other shearwaters, the sooty feeds on fish and other organic matter found at the surface or caught by short, diagonal plunge dives. This is the only all brown to ashy gray shearwater we see off the New England coast. The sooty may show glimpses of silver on the wing lining in flight.
The manx shearwater, Puffinus puffinus (80 cm or 32 inches), is an obscure nester with breeding records ranging from Europe to Canada, from Cape Cod to the Baja Penninsula, Mexico. This small, black and white shearwater, can be separated from other shearwaters by its small size and rapid wing beats. The manx occurs on Stellwagen Bank throughout the summer but is generally less numerous than the others. It is opportunistic feeding primarily on small fish and zooplankton that may be pursued by swimming under water.
Wilson’s storm-petrel, Oceanites oceanicus (40 cm or 16 inches), is an abundant, trans-equatorial migrant that nests with penguins in the Antarctic while we celebrate New Year’s day! This relatively tiny bird is considered by some to be the most abundant bird on the planet, and can be found on Stellwagen Bank in uncountable thousands during July and August. Its feeding style is distinctive: it patters the surface of the water with its long legs and toes as it flutters over clouds of copepods and other zooplankton. From this habit comes the common name, petrel, the dimminutive of St. Peter who walked on water. All black with a white rump patch and wedge-shaped tail, Wilson’s have relatively short, rounded wings and a more direct flight while travelling than the Leach’s.
Leach’s storm-petrels, Oceanodroma leucorhoa (47 cm or 19 inches), breed at several locations in the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes, Iceland to the British Isles (a small colony of five or so pairs, nests on Penikese Island in Buzzard’s Bay, MA). Rarely encountered on the Bank except after storms, especially from May through January, Leach’s are a more offshore species than Wilson’s storm-petrels. Most of the storm-petrels seen on Stellwagen Bank are likely to be the Wilson’s. Leach’s, like the Wilson’s, are dark brown or black with a white rump patch but the Leach’s are slightly larger and have a forked tail. Also, their flight tends to be more gliding with rapid changes of direction and veering.