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Great Shearwater - coasting

Mini-Albatrosses - our Shearwaters

Shearwater on stiff wings
Great Shearwaters feeding flock
A Long Way from Anywhere
Tristan de Cunha from Space
Tristan from the sea
Cory's Shearwaters often mix with Sooties and Great Shearwaters
Sooty Shearwaters are gray, with little contrast

    Back in the early 50’s, with Edith Folger’s book on the birds of Nantucket tucked under my arm, I would bicycle to Cisco Beach, Tom Never’s Head, or Sankaty Bluff. From there I would stare off at the shifting horizon in search of shearwaters after a heavy storm. 

    I knew these birds would always be out there, just beyond the reach of my glasses, and indeed, they can be seen from Nantucket every year, but generally only under the most horrendous conditions, for these are true pelagic birds, only coming near shore when driven there by storms.

    So, that added to the drama. One can seldom hope to find a shearwater on a good beach day. No, you must go out when the wind was driving in off the ocean, making the tears stream from your eyes. That is good shearwater weather.

    There are five species of shearwaters that may appear around Nantucket, but the one we’re homing in on is the Great Shearwater, a bird known to deep sea fishermen and mariners. Until 1908, it was a mystery as to where they ever came to land, because north of the equator they appear every summer and then vanish in the fall, never nesting. 

    Although most of us never see them, we can’t call them rare. I mean, over six million of them nest on the island of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic, an island mainly known for the sale of its postage stamps. The island’s human population of 300 had to evacuate in 1961 for two years while a volcano erupted. The shearwaters shrugged off this environmental disaster and, with huge numbers of penguins and albatrosses, continued to thrive.

    You might ask what kind of a creature can live a few months on land in an area affectionately known as the ‘roaring forties’ and then fly north eight thousand miles for their winter – our summer. Not only must they be practiced and elegant fliers, they also have to survive, even thrive, in a rather inhospitable environment unless you are a fish – salt water. The size of small gulls, they cruise on stiff wings, channeling rapidly down the leading edge of a wave to gain speed, and then pitching up into the wind to gain altitude before flipping over to glide down into the next watery valley.

    Shearwaters are the albatrosses of the north Atlantic. They are in the order Procellariiformes, which includes many seabirds that seldom if ever touch land. The Latin, procella, means storm and ties us into the fact that only during stormy weather do these hardy wanderers approach the shore. The English name for the order is ‘tubenoses’, which refers to the bony tubes along in which their nostrils reside. These rest along the upper surface of their segmented, hooked beaks and allow the birds to excrete the salt that they take in when they actually drink salt water.

    These same tubes are used by the birds to squirt out a fetid stream of oil on anyone who might try to catch them. This still didn’t discourage the northern fishermen who would take them by the hundred on hook and line. They found ways to remove the huge amounts of oil from the flesh and cook them up for dinner. But most of them were just cut up for fish bait.

    The best way to see a Great Shearwater from Nantucket is to take a whale-watching cruise. A good captain studies the waters to the east of our island and knows where to find whales. Strangely enough, these enormous mammals feed on the same rafts of plankton that sea-going birds enjoy. So, if you find whales, you are likely to be surrounded by shearwaters, petrels, and perhaps even phalaropes. If whales aren’t around, the birds can also be attracted by a technique known as chumming. Here a rather noxious mixture of fish livers and oils is poured behind the boat. If there are any shearwaters in the area, they will suddenly appear. Some say they can pick up the smell, others, that they hear the cries of their comrades.

    Great Shearwaters arrive in late May and stay in good numbers until mid October. Every thirty-five or forty years, huge plankton rafts drift close to shore and observers are treated to a once-in-a-lifetime show. In the meantime, look from Nantucket’s southern headlands after any storm and, through wind-driven tears, try and pick out the dark, stiff-winged forms of these birds shearing the waves as they make their long journeys across the sea.

Ken Blackshaw’s ornithological career began in the early 1950s under the tutelage of Nantucket’s birding doyenne, the late, Edith Folger Andrews. Since then he has traveled the world over, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, IBM, and now retired, seeing birds, studying their behavior and authoring and editing many books about birds. He is nationally recognized for his birding skills. Catch Ken with Birding Nantucket on WNCK, Nantucket's NPR Station at 89.5 FM, weekdays at 8:04 am. Ask Ken a question at: [email protected]