Shear grace

Bruce Mactavish
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

The shearwaters of Newfoundland

All this month I have been on a seismic vessel working off northeast Newfoundland. My bird watching has been a diet consisting totally of sea birds.

Being an avid birdwatcher by nature, I have a need to see birds every day just to feel normal. So, I have been watching seabirds as the fog allows. My typical day consists of fewer than 10 species of birds, with Leach’s storm-petrel, northern fulmar and great shearwater being the only everyday common species in the deep water beyond the continental shelf where I have been most of the month.  

The waters off Newfoundland and Labrador are a destination for huge numbers of seabirds in the summer time. A couple columns back I talked about some of the enormous nesting colonies of seabirds that are a great attraction for out-of-province and resident tourists. There are other seabirds that play an important part of the summer scene at sea that do not come here to nest.

Shearwaters occur in provincial waters by the hundreds of thousands every summer. They are a worldwide group of seabirds shaped by the wind and open seas.

Shearwaters fly with a distinctive burst of flapping followed by long glides on wings held stiffly straight out to the side. In a moderate wind, they rarely have to flap at all, but hold their wings out straight like an airplane and ride through the currents of wind over the waves. This is what makes shearwaters a joy to watch.

They were formed by the open ocean winds. They travel thousands of kilometres every year, mostly within a metre or two of the surface of the ocean. They are so developed for the unrestricted open air over the sea that they are nearly helpless on land. Therefore they shun land except during the nesting season when they dig burrows in the soft earth of isolated islands to lay an egg.

The four species of Newfoundland and Labrador shearwaters are great and sooty shearwater (both abundant), manx shearwater (uncommon) and Cory’s shearwater (rare). The Cory’s shearwater is a warm-water species and occurs only within waters influenced by Gulf Stream waters at least 200 kilometres off the south coast of Newfoundland. Only a couple of Newfoundland birders have managed to get to that area and tick this one for their Newfoundland lists.

The manx shearwater is a European nesting species. A few do nest on Middle Lawn Island off the Burin Peninsula, but most of the manx shearwaters occurring in our waters during the summer are one and two year old birds that have not reached breeding maturity yet so are free to roam the ocean in summer.

The great and sooty shearwater are plentiful in waters around Newfoundland and Labrador. Both of these species nest in the South Atlantic while we are enduring our winter and fly into our hemisphere to enjoy our summer. The smart birds experience summer all their lives.

Shearwaters are attracted to Newfoundland and Labrador for the summer food smorgasbord. Shearwaters are caplin eaters. The swarms of caplin near shore entice large numbers of seagoing shearwaters well inside their usual comfort zone.

You will not see them just anywhere that caplin spawn. For instance, do not expect to see them at the famous caplin spawning beach at Middle Cove near St. John’s. That is just too uncomfortable for the shearwaters being surrounded on three sides by cliffs. However, when they are spawning at Middle Cove beach you might find them not too far away off Torbay Point.

Caplin often congregate in large beds at capes and points during the summer before and after making their ritual beach sacrifice. Although caplin do not spawn at Cape Spear, shearwaters and whales feed on caplin that collect in temporary large schools here during the spawning season.  As a rule, capes and points become excellent locations to see shearwaters during the summer season.

Shearwater can be seen from the ferries to Nova Scotia and fishing boats around the province, but there is something special about standing on solid earth and watching these true seabirds. Fishermen know shearwaters as hagdowns or bawks.

The two common species, great and sooty shearwaters, are easily identified. They are the size of small gulls. Great shearwaters have brown backs and white bellies with a contrasting dark brown cap. Sooty shearwaters are uniform dark brown all over. They freely associate with one another. If you see one species you will probably see the other at the same location.

The manx shearwater is outnumbered by the great and sooty shearwaters by hundreds to one, but it is still worth looking for. It has the same habits as its bigger cousins and enjoys caplin every meal of the day. Consider it a little prize if you spot this small shearwater, uniform blackish-brown above and gleaming white below.  

Shearwaters are not an everyday happening for landlubbers. But sooner or later you might find yourself with the opportunity to see them.

Now you can identify them, right?


Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: The Cory

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Middle Cove, Gulf Stream South Atlantic Nova Scotia

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page