Ashley Fisher & Bob Flood
The one thing certain about pelagic trips is that you can never be certain what you will see. The 2000 pelagic season off Scilly had been particularly good, and July was by far the best month. In contrast, the 2001 season had been fairly quiet, the highlights being single Wilson’s Storm-petrels Oceanites oceanicus on eight dates up to 8th July, and we had become despondent. Our efforts were, however, more than compensated for on 8th July when, out of the blue and quite astonishingly, a Fea’s Petrel Pterodroma feae appeared at point-blank range off the starboard side of M. V. Kingfisher.
Overall size and structure
In comparison with Manx Shearwater seen that evening: (a) body length roughly the same; (b) head and neck more thickset and body form stockier; (c) wings noticeably longer; and (d) bill a good deal heavier and deeper.
Bill: large, heavy, and deep. Head and neck: large bull-head and thick neck. Body: stocky and full-chested, tapering towards rear end. Tail: long and tapered, coming to a blunt point. Wings: long, slim wings with pointed hand, and minimal convex curvature to the trailing edge of the primaries (apparent in every frame of the video footage).
At distance, the bird was almost monochrome. Head: ostensibly hooded, comprising a dark, dirty grey crown, darker than neck and mantle, and darker again panda-like smudgy blackish eye-patch. Mantle: grey, contrasting with paler uppertail-coverts and tail. Tail and uppertail-coverts: paler than the rest of the upperparts, appearing pale grey to almost white. Throat and underparts: white. Central breast: clear and unmarked with no more than a grey patch on the sides of the neck and upper-breast, and thus lacking a lateral breast-band. Upperwing: grey-brown (more brown than grey) with an observable but, to some observers, subtle ‘M’ across the outstretched wings formed by dark primaries and primary coverts, dark secondary, median and lesser coverts, and a dark band across an otherwise grey rump that connected the two ‘half-Ms’ on each wing. Underwing: at long-range, appeared entirely dark. At middle-range, a small extension of white onto the base of the under-forewing was apparent and, at close-range and also visible in video-grabs, a complex of grey shades that formed a broad, dark bar in the region of the median underwing-coverts, and which faded at the carpal joint. This dark bar was accentuated by the conspicuous white inner forewing and a greyer central area extending to the arm and hand. Trailing edge appeared darker than the greyer central area.
Bill black, legs: not visible.
Distinctive and typically that of a Pterodroma. The following describes the Fea’s flight action as caught on video. At times gliding quite effortlessly, low over the sea on bowed wings, punctuated occasionally by two to six wingbeats. The bird would gain momentum with a run of faster wingbeats, and rise effortlessly up to 3–4 metres, turn and complete a full circle on a downward glide before tilting the other way and peeling off in the opposite direction.
Watch the original video footage of the first confirmed sighting in British waters: please be advised this video contains strong language Click here
Why Fea’s Petrel?
Separation of Fea’s and Zino’s Petrels requires the utmost care and attention to detail, combined with exceptional viewing conditions, while the unlikely possibility of a Soft-plumaged Petrel P. mollis is more readily addressed. Until the appearance of the Scilly bird, no Fea’s/Zino’s Petrels seen previously around the coasts of Britain had been sufficiently close, or lingered for long enough, to enable the crucial features to be examined in detail. Now, we were presented with an unprecedented opportunity to clinch the identification to the species level, one way or the other. Although we had no prior experience of positively identified Fea’s or Zino’s Petrel, RLF had previously seen two Fea’s/Zino’s Petrels from Scilly-based pelagics and Soft-plumaged Petrel at sea off Cape Town, South Africa. Subsequently, he has seen Fea’s Petrel near Madeira, another positively identified Fea’s Petrel off Scilly, and a further three Fea’s/Zino’s, also off Scilly. In addition, PM and MP had seen one Fea’s/Zino’s Petrel while seawatching from the mainland, but for EAF, this was his first ever Pterodroma, although he has since seen another positively identified Fea’s Petrel and two additional Fea’s/Zino’s Petrel from Scilly-based pelagics. Added to this, both RLF and EAF are highly experienced pelagic seabirders, typically venturing into the seas around Scilly about 50 times each year between June and October in search of seabirds, in most sea states from balmy doldrum conditions up to force 6 or 7. Thus, we are extremely familiar with all the likely species that we could encounter, in a range of weather and sea conditions. Consequently, we were fully aware of all the features that we needed to concentrate on in the event of such an encounter.
Given the outstanding views and supporting video footage of this bird, we knew the possibility existed that this bird could be positively identified. Excluding Soft-plumaged Petrel was fairly straightforward at the time of observation, owing to the lack of breast-band and whitish tail among other things, but eliminating the closely similar Zino’s Petrel required careful attention to detail and critical observation of key features. After 12 minutes of terrific views, combined with photographic support, we were confident that we had also eliminated Zino’s Petrel.
Soft-plumaged invariably has a complete, or near complete, lateral breast-band (of 250 seen in the southern oceans in March 2006, RLF noted just one with a near complete lateral breast-band, the remainder being complete), whereas our bird showed a clear and unmarked breast with no more than a grey patch on either side of the neck and upper breast. Our bird also had a dark, dirty-grey crown, darker than the neck and mantle, whereas a Soft-plumaged Petrel would show a ‘clean’ grey crown, similar in tone to neck and mantle. In addition, the tail of the Scilly bird was paler than the rest of the upperparts, appearing somewhere from pale grey to almost white, whereas the tail of Soft-plumaged is clean grey and similar in tone to the mantle. Crucially, the bill structure of our bird was large, heavy and deep, whereas the bill structure of most Soft-plumaged Petrels is intermediate between Fea’s and the much slimmer bill of Zino’s Petrels (see Ian Lewington’s illustrations in Harrop 2004). We were extremely confident that Soft-plumaged Petrel had been eliminated using this combination of features.
Given that the plumages of Fea’s and Zino’s Petrels are, to all intents and purposes, identical, their separation relies on a combination of size and structural differences, with Fea’s being the larger and heavier of the two species.
Wing shape provides further supporting evidence towards a positive identification in favour of Fea’s Petrel. In all still images taken from the video footage, and thus as seen in many different positions, the wing-shape of our bird is long and slim, with pointed ‘hands’ and minimal convex curvature to the trailing edge of the primaries. In general, the wing of Fea’s Petrel appears long and slim because P10 is longer than P9 (primaries numbered descendantly, P10 being the outermost). In contrast, the wing structure of Zino’s Petrel appears shorter and blunter because P10 is the same length as, or slightly shorter than, P9. This issue is important, as it explains the difference between the ‘pointed Fea’s vs. blunter Zino’s wing tip theory’ (Gantlett 1995; Tove 2001).
Brinkley, N. 2004. Zino’s Petrel at sea off Madeira, 27th April 2004. www.Madeira.seawatching.net
Fisher, D. 1989. Pterodroma petrels in Madeira. Birding World 2: 286.
Flood, R. L., & Lascelles, B. 2004. Another Fea’s Petrel off Scilly. Birding World 17: 392.
Gantlett, S. 1995. Field separation of Fea’s, Zino’s and Soft-plumaged Petrels. Birding World 8: 256–260.
Harrop, A. H. J. 2004. The ‘soft-plumaged petrel’ complex: a review of the literature on taxonomy, identification and distribution. Brit. Birds 97: 6–15.
Rogers, M. J. and the Rarities Committee. 2005. Report on rare birds in Great Britain in 2004. Brit. Birds 98: 628–694.
Tove, M. 2001. Verification of suspected field identification differences in Fea’s and Zino’s Petrels. Birding World 14: 283–289.