Birdwatch: Petrel stations itself away from observers

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THE storm petrel is one of the commoner birds breeding in the British Isles – and also one of the least known and hardest to observe. It is the smallest seabird in the Atlantic, weighing in at just one ounce and, with its white rump, resembles a house martin.

Storm petrels mainly nest on small, often inaccessible, offshore islands laying a single egg in a rocky crevice, drystone wall or a rabbit burrow where they will construct a tiny side passage away from the other occupants.

The population in Britain and Ireland is estimated at about 160,000 pairs.

In June, there was encouraging news from RSPB Scotland who released figures of a survey carried out by RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage researchers on the island of Mousa, Shetland.

Numbers there have doubled from an estimated 5,400 pairs in 1996 to 11,800 pairs in 2008.

Because of their diminutive size, storm petrels seldom venture close inshore during daylight as they risk being eaten by gulls, although one or two have been seen recently during Yorkshire seawatching sessions. Closer to the Scottish breeding sites, large numbers can be seen far offshore, fluttering above the sea with their legs dangling as they look for food,. They are also often encountered following in the wake of ships and in earlier times were the subject of many legends among seagoers who believed they were the spirits of dead sailors or wicked captains.

Storm petrels start to leave their breeding sites this month to migrate south, probably across Biscay to appear off the West African coast from mid-November onwards and the next few weeks can provide the best opportunity for east coast birdwatchers to see one at close quarters at one of the petrel ringing sessions organised by various groups.

Mist nets are set up at dusk, usually at the foot of a cliff, and tapes of storm petrel calls are played the sounds echoing off the cliff and out to sea. The hope is that any passing storm petrels will come inshore to investigate so they can be caught in the nets.

They are then ringed by licenced British Trust for Ornithology ringers, weighed and their wings measured before they are released again.

I attended a petrel ringing session at Tynemouth and was fortunate to be allowed to release one of the petrels after it had been ringed, the small musky smelling bird nestling in the palm of my hand for a few moments before fluttering off into the darkness.

In the past week or two, sessions have been held at Long Nab, Burniston and Spurn where four petrels were caught. But attending such sessions are not for the impatient as they can continue, without any results, until the early hours and, even worse, can be cancelled at very short notice because weather conditions are no longer suitable. Indeed, a ringing session organised by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, East Yorkshire Ringing Group and Flamborough Bird Observatory last Saturday night had to be cancelled.

The first early signs of autumn migration are started to be noticed on land with one or two wheatears and pied flycatchers moving away from breeding sites and an Icterine warbler seen in a hedge near Flamborough lighthouse.

A common crane has continued to be seen at the Nosterfield Nature Reserve, North Yorkshire where two black terns called in at the weekend.

A Slavonian grebe and osprey were both seen at Scaling Dam, Cleveland while black-necked grebes were at |Tophill Low and Blackmoorfoot reservoir, West Yorkshire.

The latest Hull Valley Wildlife report covering 2010 and with reports of birds, mammals, moths, butterflies and dragonflies is now available price £6 from the Tophill Low reserve or by post (plus £1 p and p) from the group’s secretary or membership secretary. For contact details visit