Puffinus gravis
Ness Point, Lowestoft 1990

by Andrew Easton

SHORTLY AFTER 17:00hrs ON SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 22, 1990, I received a message about a Great Shearwater which had been seen off Landguard Point, Felixstowe, south Suffolk, at 15:00hrs that day. I contacted Brian Brown and, as it was too late to travel to Felixstowe and the message did not indicate whether the bird had flown off or settled on the sea, Brian suggested that Ness Point sewage outfall was worth an inspection. Taking his advice, I arrived at the point at 17:20hrs and immediately began scanning the sea.

At 17:25hrs, my attention was drawn to a bird approaching from the south, gliding low over the water with its wings level. Inspection with binoculars revealed an obvious shearwater but distinctly larger than a Manx Shearwater, Puffinus puffinus, but like that species in being dark above and white below. The white breast and belly were visible, thus eliminating Sooty Shearwater, Puffinus griseus. The bird was flying with very leisurely wing-beats interspersed with periods of gliding.

Great Shearwater
The Great Shearwater pictured above was photographed from the MV Scillonian III during the August 2000 pelagic.

Initially the bird was surprisingly close inshore, certainly less than half the distance to the yellow and black outfall marker buoys, it then started heading for the outfall itself. As it did so I noted the following: very dark blackish brown forehead and crown, the lower edge of which was extremely clear cut and extended down to at least eye-level. The eye was not visible being lost against the dark brown lores and ear-coverts. The dark-brown extended from the crown tapering towards the nape, though it did not appear to join up with the white collar.The remainder of the upperparts were uniform dark brown, though not as intensely dark as on the crown.

Being low over the water and only flapping its wings leisurely, interspersed with gliding, I did not see the underwing very well except to say that the flight feathers were dark and the underwing coverts (apart from the dark leading edge) seemed largely white. The underbody at this stage appeared uniformly white from throat to vent (but see later).

Despite much concentration I could not make out any white (or even pale) markings on the uppertail coverts or rump. This was rather disappointing as I thought this was one of the most distinctive aspects of the plumage of Great Shearwater, which I now suspected the bird to be.

As the shearwater approached the outfall pandemonium broke out amongst the smaller gulls, causing them to  take evasive action, flying high into the sky much as they do when a skua approaches. Many of the larger gulls stayed put though. At this greater distance I switched to my telescope on 20x magnification and followed the flight northwards. At all times its flight was very leisurely.

As it continued northwards and banked slightly showing its upperparts, its right wing caught the sun clearly revealing two broad rows of pale secondary coverts contrasting with the rest of the underwing. I also noted a dusky patch on the belly/vent area. It was diffused rather than clear cut and shaped like a rounded off oval.

I continued to watch the bird as it flew northwards until I lost it behind the groynes of the North Beach.

I returned via the Coastguard Station where I met the late Brian Brown, together with his wife Christine and son Tim, who had also seen the bird. Comparing notes, Brian was able to confirm that he had observed black streaks on the underwing coverts, a feature I had failed to note. Reference to books revealed that although this species normally has a prominent white 'horseshoe' on the uppertail coverts this can at times be almost lacking.

Although this bird was almost certainly the same individual seen earlier at Felixstowe, especially as that bird also had a very indistinct white uppertail covert band, it was counted as a separate bird. As a result there are currently four records for Suffolk, all listed below.

Minsmere: One, September 5, 1982
Felixstowe: Landguard, feeding behind boats offshore, September 22, 1990.
LOWESTOFT: North past Ness Point, September 22, 1990.
Southwold: One flew north, September 10, 1992.

There are two old records that are generally no longer accepted, with the first of these coming from non-other than Lowestoft in November 1898. This was brought ashore on a fishing boat and was said to have been shot at sea. The second was seen off the outer Gabbard lightship in September 1907, given the date of the four recent records perhaps the latter should be given more consideration.

Great Shearwater distribution mapThis is very much an Atlantic shearwater with huge breeding colonies on Nightingale and Inaccessible Islands in the Tristan Da Cunha group (5 million + pairs) and Gough Island (up to 3 million pairs), and very small numbers (only in the hundreds of pairs) in the Falklands. They are mainly present on the breeding grounds and in the South Atlantic from about September to May, although small numbers remain in the Southern Hemisphere during the non-breeding season. Their range extends only a short distance into the Indian Ocean eastwards past South Africa. Single birds have been recorded in the Pacific Ocean off Monterey Bay, California, February 24, 1979, and twice off Australia, the first in 1989, and the second off Sydney, April 12, 1997.

The adults begin their northward journey from late April  with juveniles following shortly after from May, they all head along the west Atlantic roughly following the coast of Brazil. Continuing north they pass the Bermuda area during May to July, after which large numbers congregate off the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, and off southern Greenland between July and September. Their clockwise circumnavigation carries on towards the eastern North Atlantic passing Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula between August and October as they head back towards the South Atlantic. It is during this time that smaller numbers occur in the Norwegian and North Sea. While most are back in the South Atlantic in the northern winter a few, presumably immatures, are still present in the North Atlantic. For example one was seen off Iceland, February 4, 2001.

del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. & Sargatal, J. eds (1992) Handbook of the birds of the World. Vol 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Harrison, P. (1983) Seabirds: an identification guide. Croom Helm, Beckenham.
Enticott, J. & Tipling, D. (1997) Photographic Handbook of the Seabirds of the World. New Holland, London.