a web page by Don Roberson
  • 9 species worldwide in current taxonomy
  • DR personal total: 6 species (66%), 4 photo'd

Storm-petrels are small aerial seabirds found in all oceans of the world. Recently they have been split into two families, as genetic evidence reveals that ancestors of northern and tropical species diverged from ancestors of austral species about 30 million years ago (Jarvis et al. 2014, Prum et al. 2016). Some research suggested that two groups may not even be each other's nearest relatives (Penhallurick & Wink 2004, Hackett et al. 2008). It is now best to consider them two families: Austral Storm-Petrels [Oceanitidae] and Northern Storm-Petrels [Hydrobatidae].

Watching Wilson's Storm-Petrel patter over the water (above & left), one can well imagine the tales that were spun by ancient mariners. Some seafarers of old called them "Mother Carey's chickens," in reference to the Virgin Mary (Mater cara) to whom the protection of sailors was commended. Wilson's Storm-Petrel breeds on southern hemisphere islets and disperses north widely thereafter. The are huge numbers in the Atlantic; some believe the species to be among the most abundant birds in the world in sheer numbers. Many fewer reach the north Pacific, but they are annual in our autumn on Monterey Bay in California.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel breeds around Antarctica and on subAntarctic islands; another race (chilensis) breeds in the Cape Horn region of Chile. Most of the Austral Storm-Petrels are birds of the southern oceans but Elliott's Storm-Petrel Oceanites gracilis is a partial exception. The nominate race has been found breeding on islands off Chile (most of its breeding range remains unknown) but there is a breeding race (O. g. galapagoensis) on the Equator in the Galapagos Islands.

Some of the austral storm-petrels are quite wonderful to watch, and one of those is White-faced Storm-Petrel (both photos below). This amazing storm-petrel uses its very long legs to 'push off' of wavelets, thus bounding and gliding across the surface of the sea as if on a pogo-stick. I'd only had one brief encounter before, in the eastern tropical Pacific, in 1989, so to watch 70 in the Hauraki Gulf off North Island, New Zealand, in 2009 was superb. Plus, by then, there were digital cameras!

Polynesian Storm-Petrel Nesofregetta fulginosa also has this astonishing flight pattern, seeming to skip of the water erratically each time it glides down, careening from point-to-point like the mechanically ball in the old "Pong" video game.

Storm-petrels, like other members of the order Procellariiformes, have specially modified "tubes" atop their bills. This special organ, which you can see on the White-faced Storm-Petrel (above left), allows them to drink salt water and then dispose of the salt. One can sometimes see drops of concentrated salt being "sneezed" out of these tubes.

Among the many White-faced Storm-Petrels attracted to the chum laid out for them on my 2009 trip was — suddenly appearing out of nowhere — was the bird we had most wanted to see: New Zealand Storm-Petrel (right & below). A few were collected in the 1800s but it disappeared from the known avian world thereafter and was considered extinct. It was only re-discovered in the Hauraki Gulf in 2003 (Gaskin & Baird 2005), and now appears to be regular there in the austral summer. Its nest and fledglings were found on Little Barrier Island in 2009 (Raynor et al. 2013).


Photos: The shots of Wilson's Storm-Petrel Oceanites oceanicus were off Hatteras, North Carolina, on 14 June 2009. Photos of the White-faced Storm-Petrel Pelagodroma marin and New Zealand Storm-Petrel Fregetta maoriana were from a boat in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand, on 14 Nov 2009.

All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic essay

There are many seabird books, but apparently none which can strictly be called a family book on the Storm-Petrels (there are monographs on individual species, however). A very fine introduction to the family, with a selection of nice photos, is in Carboneras (1992). Photographs of all species are in Harrison (1987), and art and text in his earlier work (Harrison 1983b). The photographs are quite nice, but one must be careful with the text (esp. of the earlier book) which contains numerous errors. There is also still much to glean from Murphy (1936). A new book that includes storm-petrels among Atlantic procelarids is Robb et al. (2008); it includes not only a lively text and lovely photos, but CDs with extended samples of storm-petrel calls at night.

Literature cited:

  • Boswell, J. 1979. Flight characters of Wilson's Petrel. Brit. Birds 72: 330-334, 386.
  • Brown, R. G. B. 1980. Flight characteristics of Madeiran Petrel. Brit. Birds 73: 263-264.
  • Carboneras, C. 1992. Family Hydrobatidae (Storm-Petrels) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  • Christidis, L, and W.E. Boles. 2008. Systematics and taxonomy of Australian Birds. CSIRO Publ, Sydney.
  • Crossin, R. S. 1974. The storm petrels (Hydrobatidae), in Pelagic studies of seabirds in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean (W. B. King, ed.), pp.154-205. Smithsonian Contr. Zool. 158.
  • Gaskin, C.P., and K.A. Baird. 2005. Observations of black and white storm petrels in the Hauraki Gulf, November 2003 to June 2005. Were they of New Zealand storm-petrels? Notornis 52: 181–194.
  • Hackett, S.J.. R.T. Kimball, S. Reddy, R.C.K. Bowie, E. L. Braun, M. J. Braun, J.L. Chojnowski, W. A. Cox, K.-L. Han, J. Harshman, C.J. Huddleston, B.D. Marks, K.J. Miglia, W.S. Moore, F.H. Sheldon, D.W. Steadman, C. C. Witt, and T. Yuri. 2008. A phylogenomic study of birds reveals their evolutionary history. Science 320: 1763–1768.
  • Harrison, P. 1983a. Identification of white-rumped North Atlantic petrels. Brit. Birds 76: 161-174.
  • Harrison, P. 1983b. Seabirds: An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Harrison, P. 1987. Seabirds of the World: a Photographic Guide. Bromley, England: Christopher Helm. [Published in the U.S. as Field Guide to the Seabirds of the World, Lexington, MA.: Stephen Greene Press]
  • Jarvis, E.D., S. Mirarab, A.A. Aberer, B. Li, P. Houde, et al. 2014. Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds. Science 346: 1320–1331.
  • Murphy, R. C. 1936. Oceanic Birds of South America. 2 vols. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist., New York.
  • Naveen, R. 1981-1982. Storm-petrels of the world: an introductory guide to their identification. Birding 13: 216-239; 14: 10-15, 56-62, 140-147.
  • Penhallurick, J. and M. Wink. 2004. Analysis of the taxonomy and nomenclature of the Procellariiformes based on complete nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. Emu 104: 125-147.
  • Rayner, M.J., C.P. Gaskin, B.M. Stephenson, N.B. Fitzgerald, T.J. Landers, B.C. Robertson, P.R. Scofield, S.M.H. Ismar, and M.J. Imber. 2013. Brood patch and sex ratio observations indicate breeding provenance and timing in New Zealand storm petrel (Fregetta maoriana). Marine Ornithology 41: 107–111.
  • Robb, M., Mullarney, K., and Sound Approach. 2008. Petrels Night and Day: A Sound Approach Guide. The Sound Approach: Dorset, UK.




  a storm-petrel page initially created 26 Feb 2000, and significantly updated 25 July 2009 and split as new family 21-29 Jan 2016  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved