Category Archives: a) Petrels to Shearwaters

Scopoli’s Shearwater Identification

Martin Garner

Hi- this is a reblogged post. Following this interesting bird (with Bob Flood’s helpful input) a few days ago off Scilly I am just putting this one back up. Have seen a few scary Scopoli’s and scary Cory’s but for another day if I ever dig out the photos. Here’s a more straightforward Scopoli’s Shearwater and one to look for with all this seabird weather in the southwest. Hope someone scores.


 They shouldn’t be called pelagics; they should be called ‘super pelagics!’ A species I haven’t mentioned yet, seen on the Lanzarote Pelagics at the end of June 2012 was Scopoli’s Shearwater. As if Wilson’s, Madeiran, Storm, White-faced and Bulwer’s Petrels wasn’t enough! I was fortunate to pick up a Scopoli’s candidate coming  into the chum. I yelled it out to Dani and we both did the only sensible thing: fire off a bunch of photos to see if the impression of ‘extra white’- would add up. Thankfully the bird hung around and we got nice repeat views, to compare with hundreds of Cory’s Shearwaters seen over the day.

Scopoli’s Shearwater

Here’s the bird, only the 2nd record in the Canaries. You can see the extra white extending as white fingers into the underside of the outer primaries. It also has only 1 dark spot on outermost greater under primary coverts. In the field it looked slimmer winged and paler/ greyer headed. It also had a more obvious dark ‘W’ across the upper wing. Have  a look and compare with the Cory’s further down. Scopoli’s Shearwater, N of Lanzarote, 30th June 2012. all photos Martin Garner

Cory’s Shearwater

With upwards of 600 Cory’s Shearwaters seen the same day- there was plenty of comparison. Here’s a few. Normally the border between underwing coverts and under side of primaries form a nice dark ‘scoop’. However some have  paler fingers (usually not on p10) giving some Cory’s ‘extra white’.  They have 2 dark spotted outer primary coverts where the Scopoli’s have one and the upperparts are more wholly dark, lacking a more distinct ‘W’. The right lighting is essential to see these things properly! Cory’s Shearwaters, N of Lanzarote, 30th June 2012. all photos Martin Garner …and huge thanks to the wonderful Dani and Juan, founders of the ‘super pelagics’. Will be back there soon. Bring it on!

Cahow (Bermuda Petrel) what chance of seeing one off Ireland?

Cahows – Hope Springs Eternal

Paul Moore


“BERMUDA PETREL  seen from Celtic Voyager over Porcupine Bank c 170nm WNW of  Slea Head today. Per Niall Keogh”   As texts go it was a bit of a shocker,  kind of a …where were you when you heard moment, a  JFK shot,  Roy Keane walking out of the World Cup, kind of  shock.

It shouldn’t have come as a major surprise really , in recent years there has been a growing tendency  for the accessibility of rarities in Ireland to be in inverse proportion to their status; generally the rarer they are, the harder they have been to see. Kinglet, Kingbird, Skimmer, Slaty backed , Bulwer’s, Purple Gallinule have all been untwitchable or effectively so. Thus if one of the rarest seabirds in the world was to be seen in Irish waters then you could be pretty sure there’s unlikely to be a second chance; or at least that seems to be the consensus.

Globally Bermuda Petrels are very rare indeed, just over one hundred pairs breed, and amazingly, outside of Bermuda it seems there have been no sightings from land  anywhere. . According to Bob Flood of Scilly pelagics  young birds disperse to no one knows where and return to the breeding colonies anywhere between two to seven years after fledging.  Presumably they take this opportunity to locate favoured feeding areas to which they can return to in subsequent years. Adults spend the breeding season north of Bermuda and the non breeding season  in waters around the Azores. But even that is a bit of a generalization, unlike Petrels, Pterodromas appear to make an entirely personal choice as to where they forage at any time of the year, during the breeding season some stay in waters close to home while others travel vast distances to forage.

Anyone with an interest in seabirds and seawatching in Ireland would have been aware of the results of a  Data logger study of  the  Cahow which showed that at least one bird had come within a couple of hundred km of the Irish coast in Spring 2011. Of course as the data loggers can be out by as much as 150km there was the possibility it wasn’t quite that close but now one has been seen and suddenly it’s a whole new ball game.

The two birds tracked to waters off western Europe appear to have been failed breeders, in April and May, as adults they should have been feeding chicks. Given how rare they are it’s even possible Niall Keogh’s Celtic Voyager bird could be the same data logged  bird back again to a favourite spot.

If occurrences of Cahow in Europe are limited to failed breeders then it doesn’t bode well for anyone hoping to see one, though as the population hopefully continues to recover the chances are slowly improving. It’s a sobering thought for anyone trying to see a Cahow here that  your chances may depend on the failed breeding attempt of a critically endangered bird – hopefully the observers of the Celtic Voyager Cahow were suitably muted in their celebrations with this knowledge  J,  though I wouldn’t bet on it!

Pterodromas appear to like feeding  in upwellings, where currents collide or where deep canyons meet underwater shelves forcing nutrients to the surface; returning to that  map from 2012,  all  6 dots in Irish waters are near the shelf, one quite near Niall’s sighting, one apparently over shallower waters to the east but the other four are  intriguing, clustered around an amphitheatre shaped  ‘scoop’ out of the shelf known as the Porcupine Seabight.



Above: 2011/2012 Breeding Season Report Cahow Recovery Program Jeremy Madeiros

Map from the excellent Bermuda  Dept of Conservation Services  Cahow Recovery Programme


This area measures approximately 300 km X 200 km and is well-known for it’s biodiversity. The first Irish Blue Whale to be photographed was here in 2008 with more since then and it was also the approximate destination for some of the pioneering Irish  pelagics in the late 1980’s when birders logged good numbers of Wilson’s Petrels north of the area. The reasons for the Seabight’s richness is the complex underwater geography causing numerous upwellings over a large area and also the fact that it is sufficiently close to land to receive  nutrients washed from the  land into shallower waters. One  marine ecologist speculated it may be one of the great seabird hotspots, you just need to get there.

The nearest point of the Bight to the SW Irish coast is approx 60 miles from the south western peninsulas of Ireland and as far as I can find out just a few birders have made the trip in recent decades. One Cork birder has been twice with the Irish whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG),  in his desire to see Blue Whales in Irish waters. He reported the area teeming with life, Great Shearwaters were the commonest  bird, a flock of over 30 Wilson’s Petrels and  many many Cetaceans, 9 species on one trip with Humpbacks surfacing beside the boat, (apparently their breath stinks) though no Blue Whales yet.

Another occasional observer is Ronan McLaughlin, an Irish Naval officer.  Ronan has been in the area a number of times and he prepared the map below, it probably deserves an article in it’s own right as he has been keeping notes whenever he can, (off duty obviously!) He also takes his camera with him and has photographed most of the main sightings mentioned below eg


map 2


(As a complete aside, with that number of Wilson’s Petrels being seen in the area then Madeiran or White – faced is surely on the cards, and what else might be out there is purely the stuff of  imagination.  The Gulf Stream washes against the south and west coasts of Ireland having originated from Florida where it greatly assists pelagic trips from Hatteras. Check out the Seabirding Blog and dream  )


So to cut to the chase, at least some Bermuda Petrels appear to like spending time in the waters off south-western Ireland in Spring, what are the chances of seeing one?  Infinitesimally  small probably, there’s only a few hundred Cahows and a lot of Atlantic Ocean, and yet if the Atlantic Voyagers got lucky so could someone else. It’s an unfortunate accident of geography for sea birders that the edge of the continental shelf is so far from land around the UK and Ireland, it’s not easy to get there and if you don’t fancy joining the navy or crewing on a Spanish trawler then your options are limited. The whale watching trip costs £1000 per head and it’s too far out for a normal charter.  Unless someone starts drilling for oil out there then the only stable base for a scope is on a headland.

If a Bermuda Petrel is going to be seen on a seawatch off SW Ireland then the first requirement is that someone needs to be looking and by and large this rarely happens. There are virtually no spring pelagics in Ireland, and almost nobody seawatches from the extreme SW in spring any more.  Spring seawatching would have been carried out occasionally on Cape Clear up to the early 2000’s and sometimes off Dursey Island and no Cahows were noted though the population would have been even smaller back then.

Another limiting factor is the lack of suitable conditions , you just don’t get many big blows from the SW in spring. Add in the species rarity and that the nearest  record to land so far seems to be about 100 miles and it would be easy to feel pessimistic. It’s not totally hopeless though, the species has been logged covering 500 miles in a day so a 100 mile diversion on the wind to within sight of land should be no great  exertion.

The relevant seawatching points off SW Ireland – the toes of the Teddy bear as I would have been taught in school – (if that doesn’t make any sense have a look at the shape of the whole island and use your imagination) are Cape Clear, Mizen Head, Dursey Island, Valentia Island and possibly Brandon Point.

Cape and Dursey are islands, with very differing access issues. Cape is only accessible by boat, Dursey by cable car, so neither is good for an opportunistic seawatch.

      Brandon is probably too far north and sheltered and only good in a west or north west wind, though nobody seems to have seawatched from there in spring anyway according to the local birders.

So that leaves Mizen and Valentia Island. Valentia isn’t a ‘proper’ island being accessed by a bridge and has had little seawatching carried out from it, but see this post on the Kerry Birding Blog highlighting a new area’s potential


Mizen Head in west Cork has long been known as a seawatching spot.  Access is no longer possible from the lighthouse, at least not legally, but there are a number of other areas. Galley Cove on the south side of the peninsula involves a clamber over rocks, Brow Head requires a walk through fields, or there’s the car park  at the lighthouse if you like your comfort though this is very high up.  These last two seem the best bet for a Spring Bermuda or who knows even a Black – Capped Petrel seawatch.

So to summarise this speculative piece, the chances are slim though slowly improving, nobody’s really looking at the right time of year and as Niall Keogh showed, blind optimism can pay off. Future planned data logging studies will be fascinating in what they reveal, in the meantime the first big blow next Spring I know where I’ll be going, and if by some miracle I do connect, rest assured my celebrations will be every bit as muted as the Celtic Voyagers.


More Blue Fulmars with dark in the tail

Svalbard, July 2013

with grateful thanks to Alan McBride for these stunning photos. See his website.

“Hey Martin,

Enjoyed your post about the Atlantic Fulmar (and most others too)… Attached are three from Svalbard waters between 05 and 08 July last year, 2013…
Of the birds I photographed and where I can see the tail clearly I’d say there was less than 2% with dark anywhere on tail and in some, it seems to be partial. These three are best I could come up with ;-(
Hope they’re of interest / use…
Very best wishes





Alan McBride  ·  Photographer / Writer Lancashire England · Languedoc France · Sydney Australia

Blue Fulmars with dark tail bands

Bob Flood and Martin Garner

.We have received several interesting responses to the posting on Atlantic Fulmars with dark subterminal tail-bands (technically subterminal because Atlantic Fulmars have narrow whitish tips to tail feathers).

Atlantic (2 to the left) and Pacific Fulmar (3 to the right) tails by Ian Lewington. From 'Frontiers in Birding'

Atlantic (2 to the left) and Pacific Fulmar (3 to the right) tails by Ian Lewington. From ‘Frontiers in Birding’



Brett Richards has recorded similar birds from Flamborough as follows: On 4 January 2009, seven Blue Fulmars were seen. One had a very dark, almost blackish fairly narrow subterminal tail-band, and this was the darkest part of the plumage. On 5 March 2012, eight Blue Fulmars were seen. One had dark/dusky tail corners. So, it seems these Arctic breeders with dark subterminal tail-bands make it to the UK. Beware headland watchers!

Atlantic Blue Fulmar with dark in tail, Spitsbergen June 2012, Darryl Spittle

Atlantic Blue Fulmar with dark in tail, Spitsbergen June 2012, Darryl Spittle

Darryl Spittle found a photo of an Atlantic Fulmar with a partial subterminal tail-band in his fulmar photos taken in Spitsbergen in June 2012.

Blue Fulmar showing dark in tail, Spitsbergen. Image copyright Hadoram Shirihai © Tubenoses Project

Blue Fulmar showing dark in tail, Spitsbergen. Image copyright Hadoram Shirihai © Tubenoses Project


We also heard from Hadoram Shirihai. In summers 2004–8 he made a census of plumage-types across much of the main breeding areas, concentrating on Iceland, Jan Mayen, Bear Island, Svalbard, and the Arctic northeast Canada. In this survey he also noticed that intermediate and dark morphs can have adark subterminal tail-band. He noted, as we did in our photographs and video, that the subterminal tail-band is variable; narrow, wide, or only on some feathers and may be asymmetrical. Although Hadoram does not have his notes with him, he seems to recall at least c 5 % of the birds in some locations exhibited this feature, but it was most frequently observed in Svalbard, with some as far south as Jan Mayen and Bear Is. He agrees that these birds are not Pacific Fulmars.

Blue Fulmar, Spitsbergen. This is about as pale Blue as it's possible to get and still identify!  Image copyright Hadoram Shirihai © Tubenoses Project

Blue Fulmar, Spitsbergen. This is about as pale Blue as it’s possible to get and still identify! Image copyright Hadoram Shirihai © Tubenoses Project


Blue and non Blue Fulmars off Scarborough. July 214 Justin Carr

Blue and non Blue Fulmars off Scarborough. July 214 Justin Carr

Possibilities currently under investigation by Bob and Hein van Grouw include: ancestral gene from Pacific Fulmar, gene recently passed on by Pacific Fulmar, aberration in the way pigment granules are distributed (inheritable or not inheritable). So, even the thought-to-be familiar Atlantic Fulmar is in fact full of mysteries and puzzles (of which there are more to come)!

Video of dark-tailed bird which sparked the latest explorations:


Blue Fulmars with dark tail bands in the North Atlantic

What’s going on?

Bob Flood

‘A key criteria for separation of Pacific Fulmar from Atlantic Fulmar is that in Pacific Fulmar the tail typically is much darker than the uppertail-coverts and contrasts strongly with them (i.e. visible tail either wholly dark or mainly dark forming a contrasting thick band); but not so in Atlantic Fulmar. This is a striking feature of Pacific Fulmar in all but dark morphs.

So, when I saw this intermediate-morph bird in Spitsbergen (North Atlantic) with an obvious dark tail band, I immediately thought it could be a Pacific Fulmar. It would be a first for the Western Palearctic! The video was taken during an Oceanwide expedition cruise in Spitsbergen and I hoped a photographer on board might have photographed the bird so I could check details. No such luck. However, I alerted one of the expedition team Christophe Gouraud (top guy) and, to cut a long story short, we now have good SLR photos of two other fulmars in Spitsbergen with dark tail bands.

It appears that there is a population of fulmars in western Spitsbergen (at least) with dark tail bands. How many is unknown. We have not heard of anything like this before and we find it an astonishing discovery, given that the area is well researched and well-travelled; but it begs the question, ‘What is going on?’

We will give a full expose in the forthcoming multimedia ID guide ‘Albatrosses & Fulmarine Petrels’ (Bob Flood & Ashley Fisher), and Hein van Grouw (Natural History Museum, Tring) and I will discuss the birds in a forthcoming article. We are still working through the possibilities with a few strong candidates on the table. One thing I am fairly confident of is that the birds are Atlantic and not Pacific Fulmars based on structure and other features of plumage aspect (though Pacific genes are not eliminated). So, the ID criteria for separating Pacific from Atlantic Fulmars perhaps will have to be rewritten?

Note that recent DNA research recommends elevation of the two forms to species level:

Kerr, K. C. R., & Dove, C. J. 2013. Delimiting shades of gray: phylogeography of the Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. Ecology & Evolution 3: 1915–1930.’


Puzzling Seabird Photos @#?!

August 9th 2013

Rich Baines was searching for images of seabirds and was checking through photos taken last August. I was on the boat with him, and we had superb views of this juvenile Yellow-legged Gull.

He came across these previously unnoticed blurry photos which are understandably disconcerting. There were several Manx Shearwaters in the area. It has been suggested this might be a pterodroma. I am not sure, I understand that line of thought but I see some features that raise questions.

Rich thought readers of BF would like to comment. ID suggestions very welcome.

_V8H9643 _V8H9644 _V8H9641 _V8H9642

Should be some more ‘context’ photos to follow.


Some Manx from the same day:


Black-browed Albatross on Helgoland

Helgoland is experiencing a fantastic spring the last 3 weeks. The most recent addition to the Helgoland list is a Black-browed Albatros, giving spectacular views from a few meters distance.

Jochen D.

The run of rarities started on May 15th with a Western Subalpine Warbler (usually we get eastern subspecies here). On 20.5. Trumpeter Finch was added to the Helgoland list. Since there have been 4 Blyth’s Reed Warblers, several Greenish Warblers, a River Warbler, Lesser Grey Shrike, Booted Warbler and 2 more Subalpine Warblers (1 albistriata and a probable subalpina).


On May 28th a Black-browed Albatros was discovered by local birder Gotthard Krug flying close to the island. After several hours of searching it was refound and was seen close to the bird cliff. The rest of the day and also next day it was giving spectacular views flying close over the heads of the observers. In the evening of 29th the wind dropped and the albatros disappeared to the disappointment of many birders arriving next day.


Yesterday the bird suddenly appeared again flying low over the village but was seen only once afterwards. Today it appeared around noon putting on an unforgettable show, flying with stretched feet low over the heads again – it seemed that not only the birders but also the albatros had a lot of fun!

And I even got it on my garden list yesterday (and so it today flying overhead again) …