New England Seabirds
This site is dedicated to the great world traveler the Wilson's Storm-petrel

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Wilson's Storm-petrel

Oceanites oceanicus

Wilson's Storm-petrel by Jim Wallius

Photo by Jim Wallius 

All photos on this page remain the property of the photographer.

Signature Species
This web site is dedicated to Wilson's Storm-petrel. This is because a trip to Stellwagen Bank or almost any other canyon or bank in our area will see thousands of this delightful little bird which is vacationing in our northern seas. Unlike other Storm-petrels it is a ship follower and a scavenger.

The author has traveled to Antarctica where the bird breeds. At Brown Bluff on the Antarctic Peninsula a few birds were seen flying to and from the cliffs overhead. At sea we frequently saw an individual flying over the water. However nothing comes close to the thousands of these little birds swarming around the whale watching boats on Stellwagen Bank in the summer. Don't miss this wonderful show.

Yellow Feet?
Early field guides including the one from which the signature graphic of this web page was taken show Wilson's Storm-petrel with yellow webbing between the toes. This characteristic is almost never observed in the field without having the bird in hand. Modern field guides do not usually show this characteristic as it is not really a field mark.


But look at what Arthur H. Kopelman president and sponsor of the CRESLI pelagics captured in this awesome photograph of a Wilson's Storm-petrel clearly displaying yellow webs. Veatch's Canyon, June 6, 2006

One of the advantages of our  area is that many birders and many photographers are getting out there. Thanks for sharing.

From the July 19,2008 BBC Pelagic to the Continental Shelf edge, this great photo of Wilson's Storm-petrels by Scott Spangenberg  The bird on the left has its feet closed as usual, but the bird on the right is caught with both feet open giving us a clear look at the yellow web. Nice photo Scott.

When To See
Look for this bird from June to October on Stellwagen Bank and even in the harbor in summer.  The highest numbers are seen in July and early August. The bird is best observed on very calm seas when you can see it skipping across the water and picking up bits of food on the wing.


Identification - Dark with white rump
The first Storm-petrel you are likely to see in New England waters is the Wilson's Storm-petrel or WSP. Your identification problem will be to separate it from the three other dark with white rump Storm-petrels possible in our waters.  See Separating New England Storm-petrels on the introductory page.

In this awesome photograph taken by Scott Spangenberg you can see the primary field marks of the WSP.

Notice first the complete white tail band. The upper wings have light  crescent shaped  bands that do not reach the leading edge of the wing (2).  When flying the long legs trail behind the tail.(1). 

Notice also the straight trailing edge of the wings in calm winds.(3)


Ian Davis captured this view of Wilson's Storm-petrel which shows the underside as it banks toward the boat.  Notice that the wings are dark underneath and that the white rump wraps on either side of the tail.  Legs extend beyond tail.

Photographed on the BBC 2007 June 30 pelagic. The close approach of this Storm-petrel and the thousands that swarm in our waters makes photographs like this possible.  Thanks for sharing.

Breeds in the southern hemisphere and migrates to the north Atlantic in our summer to feed on copepods and small crustaceans which it picks from the surface of the water on the wing as you can see in this photograph  by Jim Wallius.

Feeds over the continental shelf. Follows ships and whales. Attracted to chum.

Known to feed on oil from carcases. About 20 birds were observed feeding near the carcas of a Right Whale by the Newburyport Whale Watch just outside the mouth of the Merrimack River. See Whales Always Lose.

The most obvious Storm-petrel behavior is pattering their feet along the surface of the water when feeding.  This is best observed on a calm ocean. 

Observe the angle of the wings when pattering.  Wilson's Storm-petrel, the wings are from the horizontal to a shallow V shape as seen in Chris Ciccone's photograph.

Usually found in groups either resting on the ocean or feeding.


Here a Wilson's Storm-petrel patters on the ocean surface with wings  almost horizontal.

Photographed by Leonard Medlock on the August 08 BBC Extreme Pelagic.

Glen Tepke captured this example of Wilson's Storm-petrel pattering on the water. Again notice the angle of the wings above the horizontal. The white rump patch wraps around the rump.

Glen Tepke Wilson's Storm-petrel

The Right Storm-petrel To Watch
Wilson's is the Storm-petrel to watch as it readily approaches boats and can often be observed within 3 feet of the boat. It is not easy to photograph as it is small and quick. Follows ships and attends trawlers.

On the first pelagic trip to Monterey Bay in California, I was looking forward to identifying several new Storm-petrels.  The first flock spotted was far from the boat almost to the horizon.  I decided to wait for a closer flock.  But the next flock was far away as was the following flock and they didn't seem to respond to the boat's chumming.  Other storm-petrels are not boat followers.  I had to work at distant storm-petrels.  That's when I came to appreciate our wonderful little birdwatcher friendly Wilson's Storm-petrel.

Southern Hemisphere Breeder
Two subspecies "O.o.oceanicus breeds in South Georgia, Crozets, Kerguelen, Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, islands off Cape Horn , and perhaps also at Peter, Balleny and Bouvet Islands. O.o. exasperatus South Shetlands, South Sandwich , and most if not all suitable sections of Antarctic coastline." Harrison 1983 (2)

In the Antarctic Peninsula nests in cavities in glacial rubble, scree, and also in tunnels excavated by the birds under boulders. Usually enters and leaves the nest site at night. One egg per nest. Both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick.

Adults, eggs and chicks preyed upon by Skuas. (11). An even bigger danger is that the adult, egg, or chick become trapped in the burrow by a heavy snow storm. Researchers in Antarctica found mummified remains in burrows.

Does Wilson's Storm-petrel dive? I have seen thousands of Wilsons and never saw a single bird dive under the water. Parmelee (10) descrbes an incident of Wilson's Storm-petrel "submerging to grasp rising oil droplets before the droplets could float to the surface and burst."

Wilson's | Leach's | White-faced | Band-rumped | European      last update: 11/20/2008