Seabirds – Bird Facts and Introductory Notes

Shearwaters- Skuas – Gulls – Terns & Auks

What are seabirds all about? Probably anyone of us knows the odd seabird without thinking too much about it. This article covers seabirds of the northern hemisphere and the North Atlantic. The term seabirds covers a large group of families and genera, specialised to a life on the open seas, islands and coastal regions of the earth. Some of them spent most of the year out on the Atlantic and only come to shore during breeding season. Many of these species are difficult to identify, especially because of the many different plumages these birds wear during their immature period. One of the best known group are the seagulls, and most people will have seen seagulls somewhere.

flying northern gannet
Northern Gannet

Albatrosses and Gannets

Albatrosses are very large seabirds and are mostly distributed in the Southern Atlantic and the Northern Pacific. They rarely ever appear in the North Atlantic where the Northern Gannets takes their place.

Albatrosses and Gannets have the most efficient flying abilities of all birds on earth. They spent most of their lifetime out on the ocean and only return to land for breeding.

northern fulmar on the nest
Breeding pair of the Northern Fulmar

Petrels – Fulmars – Shearwaters and Storm Petrels – the “tube-nosed”

Petrels are dark little seabirds whith white rump-patches. Usually they can be seen skimming and flitting low over the ocean waves.

Fulmars and Shearwaters ahve a distinctive flight pattern, they fly with several flaps and a glide, banking on sabre-like wings in the wave-troughs. Fulmars are fairly stout, as cpmpared to petrels and look more like a gull but also fly on stiff wings. Fulmare are most likely to be confused with the Herring Gull.

Shearwaters have slender bills, are longer-bodied than the smaller petrels and also have narrow stiff wings.

They all live out on the ocean and only return to land for breeding. The most prominent feature these birds have in common are the tube-like external nostrils.

These birds usually nest in holes or on cliff ledges.

The following species live in the West Palearctic and the Northern Atlantic:

Order: Precellariiformes
Family: Oceanitidae

  • Wilsons’s Storm Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus)
  • White-faced Storm Petrel (Pelagodroma marina)

Family: Hadobatidae – Storm Petrels

  • European Storm Petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus)
  • Leach’s Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma pelagicus)
  • Band-rumped Storm Petrel (Oceanodroma castro)

Family: Diomedeidae – Albatrosses

  • Snowy Albatross (Diomedea [exulans] exulans)
  • Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris)

Family: Procellariidae – Petrels

  • Fea’s Petrel (Pterodroma faeae)
  • Zino’s Petrel (Pterodroma madeira)
  • Soft-plumaged Petrel (Pterodroma mollis)
  • Northern Fulmar (Fulmar [glacialis] glacialis)
  • Bulwer’s Petrel (Bulweria [bulwerii] bulwerii)
  • Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)
  • Cory’s Shearwater (Puffinus diomedea)
  • Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus)
  • Manx Shearwater (Puffinus [puffinus] puffinus)
  • Baleraric Shearwater (Puffinus [puffinus] mauretanicus)
  • Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus [puffinus] yelkouan)
  • Macaronesian Shearwater (Puffinus [lhermineri] baroli)
  • Antarctic Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus)
  • Lesser Snow Petrel (Pagodroma nivea)

Family: Sulidae

northern fulmar breeding pair
Northern Fulmar


Skuas are large seabirds behaving like hawks. Their plumage is mostly dark and they have narrow angled wings. Adult skuas usually have elongated central tail feathers. The plumage shows variable intermediate and dark phases. All species show flash of white on the wings which is created by white wing-quills.

Their behaviour is rather parasitical or even piratical. They chase other birds for food and do not let off unless the other bird disgorges.

Skuas nest on the ground and sexes are very similar.

The Skua species in the Western Palearctic are:

  • Great Skua (Stercorarius skua)
  • Pomarine Skua (Stercorarius pomarinus)
  • Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus)
  • Long-tailed Jaeger (Stercorarius longicaudus)
flying herring gull
Herring Gull


Gulls are rather largish and mainly bulky seabirds living on the ocean, the coastline and are also regularly to be seen on land. They have long wings, are mostly white with grey or black backs and wings; gulls are longer-legged than terns. During flight, the tail is usually fanned out.

White-headed species show dusky streaks in winter, whereas dark-hooded species mainly have white heads in winter. Sexes are similar.

Gulls mainly feed on fish and carrion and also on rubbish. Larger gulls also like to aggressively beg for food from tourists in seaside villages.

The Gulls of the Western Palearctic

In all there are 26 species existing in the Western Palearctic (= Europe, Northern Africa and Middle East). Only 10 species generally appear in Central Europe, either as breeding birds or migrants. The other species live on the edges of the Palearctic but occasionally appear in Central Europe as reare sigthings:

  • Black-headed Gull (Larus rididbundus)
  • Slender-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus genei)
  • Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)
  • Common Gull (Larus canus)
  • Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)
  • Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)
  • European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
  • American Herring Gull (Larus smithosnianus)
  • Yellow-legged Gull (Larus michahellis)
  • Armenian Gull (Larus armenicus)
  • Audouin’s Gull (Larus audouinii)
  • Caspian Gull (Larus cachinans)
  • Pallas’s Gull (Larus ichtyaetus)
  • Greater Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)
  • Lesser Black-bakced Gull (Larus fuscus)
  • Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea)
  • Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus)
  • Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactily)
  • Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)
  • Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus)
  • Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)
  • Ivory Gull (Paphophila eburnea)
  • Scooty Gull (Larus hemprichii)
  • White-eyed Gull (Larus leucophthalmus)
  • Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla)
  • Franklin’s Gull (Larus pixican)
herring gull
Herring Gull

Terns – Sternidae

Upon first sight, terns seem to resemble gulls, but they don’t. Terns are small to medium birds. They are much smaller and slimmer than the larger gulls and also have narrow wings, also very much in contrast to the broader winged gulls. In flight they are very agile and graceful. The bills are slender and more sharply pointed than is the case with gulls. During flight the billd ist mostly carried downwards. And one of the most obvious and best identification features at all is the forked tail.

Other important features, helpful to memorize for later use, are the whitish plumages. Terns have black caps during sommer and in winter foreheads are white. We can watch them hovering over water and then suddenly drop into water to catch a fish. In stark contrast to gulls they are not very good at walking.

Tern Species in the Western Palearctic

  • Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus)
  • Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscata)
  • Bridled Tern (Onachoprion anaethetus)
  • Little Tern (Sternulaalbifrons)
  • Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica)
  • Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)
  • Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida)
  • White-winged Tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)
  • Black Tern (Chlidonias niger)
  • Lesser-crested Tern (Sterna bengalensis)
  • Elegant Tern (Sterna elegans)
  • Sandwhich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)
  • Forster’s Tern (Sterna forsteri)
  • Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii Montagu 1813)
  • Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
  • Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)
common guillemot
Common Guillemot

The Auks of the North Atlantic

Auk are mainly black and white, either medium-large or rather small seabirds. They are the penguins of the North Atlantic. They spent most of the year out on the ocean and only return to land for breeding. Their most common features are elongated bodies, very small shortish wings and short tails.

Auks are able to dive to catch fish. They start the dive from the surface. Wings and feet are used to get deeper into water, while steering is done with the feet. Auks never fly high but rather low over the water.

Auk breeding colonies sit on cliff ledges and in crevices.

There are six auk species existing in the northern hemisphere. They mostly appear in North Europe, northwest Europe and West Europe:

  • Little Auk (Alle alle) – Atlantic
  • (Atlantic) Puffin (Fratercula arctica) – Atlantic
  • Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle) – Atlantic
  • (Common) Guillemot (Uria aalge) – Atlantic
  • Brünnich’s Guillemot (Uria lomiva) – Atlantic and Pacific
  • Razorbill (Alca torda) – Atlantic

Worldwild there are 22 auk species existing. Apart from the Atlantic auks, the majority of them lives in the southern hemisphere and the Pacific Ocean.

Guillemots breeding on cliff ledge

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