Named for the shape of its tail, the wedge-tailed shearwaters have a nesting colony on the north side of the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, not far from the Kilauea Point Lighthouse. I spotted these chicks tucked under low-lying shrubs while walking to the Lighthouse. This bird lives in various places around the world.
Adults are fairly large birds at 17 inches long. Their diet is primarily fish, squid, and crustaceans, so the birds spend most of their life at sea. They are made for the sea with long wings (38″ wingspan) suitable for long stretches of gliding, and legs set far back on the body to aid in swimming.
It is only when they are breeding that you will see them on land. Here both parents dig burrows with their bills and feet. They lay one egg and share responsibilities in incubating the egg and feeding the chick.
Sea-faring birds are not always so capable on land, and the shearwater is a prime example. Puffinus pacificus are vulnerable on land because they cannot walk. Although they are masters of the sea soaring for long periods and snagging fish while in flight, their land skills are severely limited.
With legs set so far back on the body, the shearwater does not land effortlessly. They crash into things to stop their momentum and laboriously waddle away. They have no skills with lift-off either, can only take off if they are on a high ridge, utilizing gravity. I was on a bird walk once on an Australian island when a shearwater came crashing into a man in our group. Smacked the man really hard in the middle of his back; then the bird plopped to the ground and walked off.
To compensate for this awkward, sometimes comical deficit, the shearwaters will audibly signal to their chicks, to each other, and to ward off intruders. The sound is an eerie moan. Their Hawaiian name ‘ua’u kani, means moaning petrel (petrel is a type of seabird).
A moaning seabird that crashes into objects …ahhhh….aloha.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander