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Seabird Species

Fleshfooted Shearwater

Les Underhill
Animal Demography Unit

  Fleshfooted Shearwater head
Photo Les Underhill
The head of the Fleshfooted Shearwater. The holder of the bird is of the opinion that the species should be renamed the Flesh-eating Shearwater

The nearest Fleshfooted Shearwater breeding colony to South Africa is at St Paul Island, which lies in the southern Indian Ocean more than halfway from South Africa to Australia. There are more colonies farther east, on islands off Australia and the North Island of New Zealand. Nonbreeding birds spread out across much of the Indian Ocean where it is common over the Arabian Sea, and across the western Pacific Ocean, especially off Korea and Japan with a few farther east off Alaska.

It is a fairly common visitor to South African waters, sometimes following ships at sea. Most records are on the east coast, there are fewer along the south coast and it is rare along the west coast. This is not surprising, given that the KwaZulu-Natal coast is closest to the breeding grounds and that the birds fanning out from St Paul Island do so mainly in a northward direction, towards the northern Indian Ocean. Although there are records in South African waters throughout the year, it is more abundant in winter than in summer; the breeding season is from about September to February, so that it would be mostly pre-breeding birds at sea during this summer period. Most sightings are from beyond the continental shelf, well offshore in the Agulhas Current. Fleshfooted Shearwaters have only being seen from land on one occasion; on 2 April 1990, Mike Fraser saw two close to the shore in False Bay at Glencairn.

This bird was found by Michelle du Toit on Dyer Island, close to midnight on the night of 18-19 September 2001. It was a very dark moonless night with 100% cloud cover; it was quite misty, with some occasional light drizzle. The shearwater was on the ground immediately underneath a mist net. We thought it was likely that it had flown into the mist net, but was too large to get trapped within the net, and that Michelle had found it before it was able to take off. It was ringed, and is the first Fleshfooted Shearwater in the records of SAFRING, which stretch back to 1948, when ringing started in South Africa. Soon after release it flew off.

This is not the first Fleshfooted Shearwater to be recorded on the ground on Dyer Island. At 0010 on 9 October 1999, Phil Whittington saw one sitting on the ground in almost exactly the same spot in the "yard" on Dyer Island as Michelle found her bird. Phil's bird was seen by torchlight, and allowed him to get within a metre of it. Phil thought that it must have flown into a building and stunned itself. But when he returned to the spot where he had found it, the bird had disappeared. He searched the compound throroughly, but could not find it, and decided that the bird must have flown away.

The world population of the species is thought to be of the order of several hundred thousand birds. It is not considered to be threatened.

Fleshfooted Shearwater feet
Photo Les Underhill
The appropriately-coloured feet of the Fleshfooted Shearwater
 
Fleshfooted Shearwater 4 hands
Photo Les Underhill
It takes four hands to look after a Fleshfooted Shearwater