Short-tailed Shearwater

Short-taileds and Sooties Compared

Short-tailed Shearwater has been in the UK and Irish birding news recently. I have only seen Short-tailed Shearwater once. About 10 minutes after watching a Sooty. Slightly shorter, more rounded wings, slightly more flappy flight and lacking the obvious ‘silver wing-lining’ of Sooty, helped identify it. But the main feature that made for an easy identification. – it was in the Pacific Ocean!

Claiming one in the North Atlantic is obviously a whole other ball-game. Not impossible – but not yet proven to occur. Thanks to his brother Grahame, I received these stunning close-ups of the 2 species taken by Paul Walbridge off Eastern Australia.

Paul is the guy to contact if you want to see Tahiti Petrel – never mind an excellent collection of other ‘southern seabirds’. He runs pelagics out of Southport, (nr. Brisbane) Queensland. e.g. .

Further details also at

Sooty Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, July 2010 Paul Walbridge

This one has slightly longer primary projection than the Short-tailed Shearwater below and more uniformly dark plumage – though I have seen  Sooty Shearwater with darker velvety brown head and neck giving  a slight ‘hooded effect’.

Short-tailed Shearwater, Ulladulla, NSW, Australia, October 2007. Paul Walbridge.

It has the same Latin ‘name’ as the Slender-billed Curlew – ‘tenuirostris’ – which is why it’s also called Slender-billed Shearwater! Plumage features: This one clearly shows the characteristic darker half-hood over crown and nape and greyish-white throat and breast. Also the primary projection is a little shorter.

Sooty Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, July 2010. Paul Walbridge

No point making a fuss about a Sooty with projecting feet- these feet are sticking out further than on the Short-tailed Shearwater below.

Short-tailed Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, October 2007.  Paul Walbridge

It does look a little shorter -billed and especially more compact bodied than typical Sooty – doesn’t it. The white-looking line of secondaries on the far wing  is an artefact of light reflecting off the inner webs – commonly seen in  photos showing the far wing of certain seabirds- in the right light conditions  !

Sooty Shearwater, Woolongong, NSW, Australia, July 2010. Paul Walbridge

Check out those sticky-out feet! The underwing has almost all white greater under primary coverts (outer part of the wing) and alternating dark/light ‘chocolate ripple’ rows on the secondary coverts – both not found on Short-tailed Shearwaters – only usable at very close range.

Short-tailed Shearwater, Wollongong, NSW, Australia, May 2006. Paul Walbridge.

Shows bit of a darker half hood contrasting with pale throat. Shorter, more rounded wings and more compact-looking body. On this one the greater under primary coverts pale brownish. Some Short-taileds can have an underwing pattern that is much closer in appearance to that of Sooty. I also wonder about lone, close range dark-end Balearic Shearwaters being a  pitfall for this species in the North Atlantic.

Even the guys who see these regularly say they remain an identification challenge. There is a thorough summary of the characters  – in Derek Onley and Paul Scofield’s Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World.

About Martin Garner

I am a Free Spirit
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14 Responses to Short-tailed Shearwater

  1. I was chatting via email with Jeff Davies about this pair recently. One of the more consistently useful features separating the two seems to be the contrast, or lack of, between the pale areas on the underwing coverts and the underside of the remiges. Sooty shows a strong contrast, whereas Short-tailed shows little or no contrast, as is well illustrated by the ventral flight shots in your post.

    Another feature which is surprisingly useful on good quality photos is the relatively large eye of Short-tailed, giving it a ‘cute and cuddly’ appearance, and the small eye of Sooty, which gives is a mean, ‘piggy-eyed’ demeanour!

  2. Pingback: What is this Seabird? | Birding Frontiers

  3. Dan Brown says:

    Hi Martin,
    I believe there are actually two accepted records of STS from the N Atlantic (, proving that vagrancy is absolutely possible, especially after our record last year and the one(s) off Cornwall.

    Another very good feature for splitting the pair, but only on excellent views, is the presence of bold dark streaks down the centre of the underwing primary coverts in Sooty Shearwater. I never seen this in STS and never seen plain underwing primary coverts in Sooty either. You can make these out on the image in the link and and the great pics above.



  4. Teus Luijendijk says:

    What cannnot be seen on the pictures, but what I thought was a good ‘field’ character to distinguish between the two, is the nervous flight action of Short-tailed Shearwater. Sooties seen during the Western Pacific Odyssey this year seemed a bit slow and sluggish, compared to these ‘speeders’.



  5. Sean Minns says:

    I’d agree with Teus’s comments regarding the flight being another key identification feature. From many observations from ferries and land in Japan I’d say Short-tailed tend to flap more frequently than Sooty and indeed tend to be ‘speedier’ rather like Manx, Blaearic and Yelkouan.

    To my mind as Martin says it is not seperating them from Sooty that is the problem, rather is is from darker similar-sized and shaped Balearic Shearwater which seem to come in such a startling range of plumage states.

    Does anyone have any hints on seperating them effectively from Balearic?

  6. Mike Kilburn says:

    Anyone fancy a go at identifying this bird photographed from a beach in Guangdong Province in Southern China in May (where Swinhoe’s Plovers breed incidentally), where we can be pretty certain its not a Balearic!

    There is more info on the the status of various species in S China and the circumstances of the record on that page

    Any views most welcome.

    Mike Kilburn

  7. Ben Wielstra says:

    Dear all,

    I got to this post via this topic on Birdforum: See also the blog by David Sibley.

    I have a question about the ‘silver wing-lining’ in Sooty. David says the underwing coloration is variable, also in Sooty. See this picture of a Sooty (or is it…? no, it’s not!) seen last year in Dutch waters: I had never seen something like this before and I wonder how frequent such birds are.

    Ben Wielstra

  8. Hi Ben
    Glad you pointed out the Sibley thread on this topic (here by the way:

    The pic of the Dutch shearwater is interesting. I would be cautious about reading too much into the apparent colours and tones on a single photo, as lighting can be deceiving, though I’m not saying that this bird did not look like this! It’s a juv I presume from the nice neat trailing edge. For me a definite Sooty, despite the apparently anomalous wing pattern – long snouty head, long bill and small-looking piggy eye.

  9. Ben Wielstra says:

    Many thanks Dave. I can assure you the bird really did look like this as we had saw it extremely well for a long time.

  10. Hi Ben,

    Fair enough. So are there question marks over the bird’s identity or just the unusual variation in underwing pattern/colour?

  11. Ben Wielstra says:

    Hi Dave, No I am also convinced it is a Sooty, I would just like to know how frequent such birds are as I did not even know they existed before I saw this one. Cheers, Ben

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