Hydrobates – Northern storm-petrels

These birds can walk better on the water than on the land

These diminutive birds are the smallest of seabirds, embodying a vast global presence spanning tropical and temperate oceans. Their plumage typically exhibits a mosaic of brown, black, and white hues, which can vary among species and provide camouflage against the open ocean and rocky shorelines where they often roost and nest.

Storm petrels are distinguished by their tubular nostrils, an adaptation that allows them to excrete excess salt due to their marine diet. They possess long, pointed wings that facilitate their characteristic flight pattern, described as fluttering or dancing over the water’s surface. This energy-efficient flight style allows them to cover great distances over the ocean with minimal effort.

These birds are pelagic, spending most of their lives at sea, exhibiting extraordinary adaptations to aquatic life. They rarely visit land and do so primarily during the breeding season when they require solid ground to nest. Storm petrels have a unique propensity for nesting on remote islands, which historically have been free of predators, providing a safe environment for their offspring.

Their diet primarily comprises planktonic crustaceans, small fish, and squid, which they often catch by skimming the ocean’s surface or picking from the water while in flight. They are also known to follow ships to feed on refuse. At times, they exhibit a behavior called “pattering,” where they appear to walk on water by tapping their feet rapidly on the surface while in flight, helping them to forage.

The legs and feet of storm petrels are indeed peculiar when compared to other birds. They are relatively weak, which is why these birds are not well adapted for walking on land. This makes them particularly vulnerable to introduced predators, such as rats and cats on nesting islands, which can have devastating effects on their populations.