We were approaching the opening into St. John’s harbour, always a stirring sight to me. I was enjoying the early sun as it played on the water and shook the colour awake on land when one of the oceanographic staff came running up to the bridge to tell me they had caught a “little bird” on the deck. I was thinking maybe a warbler or sparrow blown out over the water but, no, it was a Leach’s Storm-petrel! These wonderful little birds (about the size of a starling) are members of the Procellariiformes – the “tubenoses”, a family that includes Northern Fulmars and Albatrosses. I had been seeing a lot of them, often as much as a couple of hundred kilometers off the Labrador or Newfoundland coast.
They nest in shallow burrows on islands. Baccalieu Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, is home to an estimated 3 million pairs (of the 5 million world-wide). They lay a single egg and, 42 days later when when it hatches, forage for their chick well offshore. They return at night to their burrows to feed the young to avoid avian predators such as gulls for whom they are easy prey due to their clumsiness on land. (I mean, who needs to be able to walk well when you spend almost all your life on the high seas?)
Tubenoses have evolved an interesting strategy for provisioning their young that allows them to range hundreds of kilometers from their nests. This would be impossible if they were carrying their prey back whole as do, say, Puffins. But these birds, which eat plankton, euphausiids, copepods, squid, and small fish (like lanternfish which they catch when they ascend from the deeps to the surface at night), convert and store the prey as energy-rich oils which are more readily transported in a sac before the stomach. [When we were studying Norther Fulmars on Devon Island, we discovered that they also use the oil as protection against avian predators (and human researchers). They projectile vomit (we called it “gacking”) the oil onto the feathers of the attacker. Evidently it takes away from the waterproofing of the victim’s feathers making it very prone to hypothermia.] The nestlings, which tend to carry heavy amounts of fat anyway, may be reprovisioned only once a night…and sometimes (in fact, fairly often) not for two or three nights as their parents range far and wide in search of food.
These birds are quite susceptible to light attractions in the fog – lighted ships under these conditions can sometimes attract many of these birds. If they land on the decks it is difficult for them to take off again. This would seem to have been the case with this particular bird which we had found hiding among some bins on deck. We had had a lot of fog the day/night before and the ship is well-lit throughout the night. When we had finished examing it (it appeared to be in quite good shape so it hadn’t been on board long), one of the oceanographers carried it to the side of the ship and gently tossed it into the air where it took wing and was soon just a dot on the horizon.
[At first glance Leach’s and Wilson’s Storm-petrels look a lot alike but once you spend time with them it’s fairly easy to discriminate between them. The Leach’s is somewhat larger with long pointed wings that have a pronounced bend at the wrist. The Wilson’s have a shorter more rounded wing without the pronounce angle. Leach’s appear more brownish, Wilson’s blacker. The flight of the Leach’s is more erratic reminiscent of a moth or nighthawk whereas that of the Wilson’s has been described as like a swallow. Leach’s have a forked tail while Wilson’s have a square tail with the feet extending beyond it (when seen up close in good light). And, lastly, Leach’s have a smaller white rump patch, sometimes with a dark split in the middle of it.]