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4 Reasons the Great Shearwater Deserves Your Attention

Get to know these fearless residents of the open ocean

ShearwaterLanding_AmyWarren
A Great Shearwater coming in for a landing. Jeffrey's Ledge, New Hampshire © Amy Warren

On my first beach trip this season, I noticed a beautiful bird sailing across the shore, wings outstretched, skimming the water. I was struck with an appreciation for its grace and skill.

But I also realized how few species of seabirds I am able to identify!

I feel as though puffins, pelicans, penguins and seagulls get all the love (well, not seagulls, really … but at least they get beach snacks!) so I did some research. I quickly discovered many incredible varieties and wanted to take some time to spotlight a lesser-known, but equally worthy, majestic marine bird: the great shearwater.

Here are some cool facts about what makes this species (Ardenna gravis) so special:

1. They have an incredibly long and unique migratory pattern.

Great shearwaters are one of the only species to travel from breeding grounds in the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere, the normal pattern being the other way around. They follow a circuitous migration route, moving north up the eastern seaboard of first South and then North America, before crossing the Atlantic in August. They then take a nice tour of Great Britain and Ireland before heading back to South America. What a life!

Great Shearwater in Tristan da Cunha
Great Shearwater in Tristan da Cunha © Marian Herz

2. Shearwaters are mainly divers and swimmers.

They forage for food by plunging into water from the air, diving down to depths more than 200 feet! The prey caught underwater is then brought to the surface and devoured. They can even feed by diving from the surface and swimming underwater to seize fish and squid, their main choice for dinner.

3. Their conservation status is ideal.

Thankfully, great shearwaters are not threatened or endangered in any way. Currently, they are abundant with enormous total populations in remote islands of the Atlantic Ocean. 5 million breeding pairs live on Tristan da Cunha, 600,000 to 3 million pairs live on Gough Island and some pairs live on the Falkland Islands.

Thousands of short tailed shearwaters surrounded our boat as we sailed home from Wilsons Promontory to Phillip Island
Thousands of short tailed shearwaters. Kilcunda, Australia © Renee De Bondt

4. These birds need a running start to become airborne.

They run along the water surface before taking flight, aided by webbed feet to facilitate takeoff.

Bonus fact: A group of shearwaters is collectively known as an “improbability” of shearwaters.

This large seabird can be recognized by its distinctive plumage. Check for a dark cap and brown belly patch, in addition to dark markings on its underwings, which remain straight and stiff in flight. Although I can’t say for certain if the bird I saw was a great shearwater, my beach encounter led me to learn all about these incredible creatures of the sea and sky. Hopefully, as the weather heats up and visitors flock to the beaches along the eastern coast of the United States, these facts and photos can help you identify a great shearwater yourself this summer!

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