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New England Seabirds

Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones


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Seabird Characteristics


What is a Seabird?

Groups of Seabirds

Cape Kidnappers New Zealand Gannet Colony
Colony of Gannets at Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand. Seabirds usually nest in colonies and obtain food outside of the colonial area.

What is a Seabird?
Seabirds do not comprise a taxonomic or evolutionary group of bird. Some birders consider a seabird to be any bird they have to go out on a boat trip to see. In this discussion, seabirds are birds that spend most of their life feeding and living on the open ocean coming to land only to breed. The Wandering Albatross spends 95% of its life at sea.

Despite a diverse evolution, seabirds share some similar characteristics. All birds evolved from land based animals and all seabirds must come to land to produce their young.

Many seabirds live in colonies near the sea. A seabird colony can be defined as a group of birds nesting in close proximity and finding their food outside the breeding area. The colony may consist of 10 pairs along a cliff ledge or thousands of pairs of birds in one area.

The picture above shows a large colony of Gannets nesting on the north island of New Zealand. Some of the birds that typically live in colonies mate for life and have elaborate mating rituals. Seabirds usually return to the natal site to breed and raise their young.

Which Groups of Birds Are Generally Included?

Penguins are seabirds who have given up the ability to fly in favor of swimming and diving to great depths. With the exception of the Galapagos Penguin they live and breed in the southern hemisphere although it is not true that they only live where it is very cold.

Alcids are seabirds who both fly and swim with their wings. Alcids are now confined to the northern hemisphere.

Tubenoses or Petrels - Order Procellariformes
This group is distinguished by having their nostrils enclosed in tubes on their bill. Four families of seabirds make up the order:

   Diomedeidae (Albatross)
   Procellariiade ( Fulmars, typical petrels, prions, shearwaters)
   Hydrobatidae (Storm-petrels)
   Pelecanoididae ( Diving-petrels).

Pelicans and Boobies - Order Pelecaniformes
The Pelecaniformes include: Gannets, Pelicans, boobies, Tropicbirds, Cormorant, and Frigatebirds. Some of these birds are of great interest to pelagic birders while others are more commonly viewed and studied from land.

Skuas and Jaegers Family Laridae
In the same family as the gulls and terns, the skuas and jaegers are colonial breeders and are fiercely territorial. The northern hemisphere jaegers breed on the arctic tundra and lay two eggs on the ground.

Gulls, Terns Family Laridae
Gulls and terns are also considered seabirds although many gulls have been lured inland and some live out their lives on large bodies of fresh water like the Great Lakes. This web page will include two gulls of special interest to pelagic birders and two terns usually seen
on pelagic trips.

Ducks, Loons, Grebes
Some of the ducks commonly called seaducks must also be mentioned and some authors include loons and grebes.


Phalaropes are actually shorebirds Family Charadriidae. Two birds: Red Phalarope, and Red-necked Phalarope breed on the tundra and winter on the open ocean usually close to shore. Since these birds are usually seen on pelagic trips they are included in this web page.

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