Short-tailed bundle of fluff

The rather large bundle of fluff that I was lucky enough to see peeking out of its burrow had just been abandoned by its parents. They are winging their way to Alaska and their single nestling will follow in about two weeks, having fledged and without having eaten since they left. Short-tailed Shearwaters are one of the most remarkable species on the planet.

 Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris)
Canon 7D, 100-400mm L IS USM, 1/400, f/5.6, ISO 1600, focal length 340mm


Despite the vast distances that Short-tailed Shearwaters cover their arrival times are remarkably predictable. Each year they arrive on our shores around the 23 September, their single egg is laid on 28 November, the adult birds leave on 12 April and the juveniles follow two to three weeks later. I often pass their colony but this was the first time I’ve seen a juvenile. I took the photos quickly as I didn’t want to disturb the bird or draw attention to it.

Short-tailed Shearwaters construct or repair burrows to raise their single chick, returning to the same location each year. The burrows are 1m-2m long with a leaf-lined nesting chamber at the end. The male Short-tailed Shearwater incubates the egg for the first two weeks while the female feeds at sea. During this time the male does not eat. Then they swap places with the male feeding at sea and the female not eating. They have two shifts during which they do not leave the burrow.


Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris)
Canon 7D, 100-400mm L IS USM, 1/400, f/5.6, ISO 1600, focal length 340mm


Short-tailed Shearwaters start breeding as older adults; females at 5 years and males at 7 years. This means that each breeding female has flown to Alaska and back 5 times. That’s 160,000km before she lays her first egg. Males have flown 224,000km before his mate lays her first egg. Those figures make me extra sad to think that the single nestling that arises from all this effort can be legally taken from its burrow and ‘harvested’ for its meat, oil and feathers.

Short-tailed Shearwaters are also known as muttonbirds, a nickname they were given by early European settlers who thought they tasted like mutton.  Providence Petrels were also eaten by early settlers, they were wiped out by excessive ‘harvesting’ and by the impact of pigs trampling their Norfolk Island nests.

 Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris)
Canon 7D, 100-400mm L IS USM, 1/400, f/5.6, ISO 1600, focal length 180mm


Short-tailed Shearwaters are privately and commercially harvested each year. It seems criminal to take a nestling from its burrow, kill it by dislocating its neck and stick it in a bag with 24 others – something that each permit holder can do each day of the season. But this pales in comparison with the 200,000 that can be taken commercially each year. Add this to the death rate associated with the rigours of migration, oil spills, inclement weather and gillnet fishing lines and perhaps there will be a time when Short-tailed Shearwaters are no longer our most abundant seabird.

Further information on these fascinating birds can be found on the web including at the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Short-tailed Shearwaters page which ironically links to information about hunting and ‘humanely’ killing the chicks.

Happy birding, Kim





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