Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Sooty Shearwater - Ardenna grisea
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General Comments The Sooty Shearwater is one of the most abundant birds in the world, as it occurs nearly worldwide, breeding on many islands in the southern Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Hundreds of thousands can be seen on pelagic trips on the Pacific, but numbers in the Atlantic are much smaller. Unlike the Cory's, Great, and Audubon's shearwaters, which remain in our Gulf Stream waters all summer, the Sooty is almost strictly a northbound migrant, quickly passing up the coast, mostly within a few miles of shore, in May and early Jun, to forage off the Maritime Provinces. The southbound migration carries it down the eastern Atlantic and not off the United States coast; thus, it has a clockwise migration around the north Atlantic. As a result, to see this shearwater in North Carolina waters, one must either watch carefully from shore (especially after strong E winds) or take a pelagic trip, during the narrow, roughly 20-day period of regular occurrence. It is accidental inland.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank SZ
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Offshore visitor, though frequently seen from shore, especially at Cape Hatteras Point and elsewhere on the Outer Banks. Uncommon to fairly common, mid-May to early Jun; rare from mid-Jun to late Oct; very rare to rare in winter, scattered records from early Jan to mid-Mar, essentially all offshore at that season. One seen from shore at Fort Macon SP (Carteret), 9 Jan 2013 might be a first seen from land in winter. Also notable from shore in winter were singles seen in Dare at Jennette's Pier on 10 Feb 2021 and another (or the same?) seen at Cape Hatteras Point on 12-13 Feb 2021. Offshore, usually seen within several miles of the coast, not inhabiting the warm Gulf Stream waters, and usually seen in strong, northward flight. Peak counts from shore: 8,000, Bodie Island, 17 May 1972; 6.036, Cape Hatteras Point, 22 May 2021; 1,800, Cape Hatteras Point, 31 May 1970; 1,186, Cape Hatteras Point, 31 May 1996. Peak counts offshore: 166, off Hatteras, 20 May 2009; 152, off Manteo, 31 May 2005; 52, off Hatteras Inlet, 24 May 1992. No truly inland records.
Piedmont Accidental visitor, but with no confirmation as yet. One seen at Falls Lake (Wake/Durham) after Hurricane Fran, 6 Sep 1996 (Nat. Audubon Soc. Field Notes 51:40) was never reviewed by the NC BRC. Another reported at Lake Wylie (Mecklenburg) in 2018 following the passage of Hurricane Florence [Chat 83:30 link] was not accepted by the NC BRC [Chat 79:80 link].
Mountains Accidental visitor; one record, a specimen found at Twin Oaks, Alleghany, Aug 1939 (Auk 65:143).
Finding Tips To find this species, you must make a conscious effort to look for it within its one-month window. One hundred or more Sooties can be seen at times from Cape Hatteras point on light winds following one to several days of strong northeast or east winds, which clearly push the northbound migrants closer to shore. The birds "bump" into the south-facing beaches after such easterly winds and can be seen at fairly close range, at least during light winds. However, be patient. Be prepared to stand guard for one to several hours; any type of ocean-watching requires careful vigil! On pelagic trips, the species is seen more often than not from 15 May to 10 Jun, but it is certainly "miss-able". Numbers on trips are usually 20 birds or less, partly because the birds do not seem to linger in North Carolina waters and because they are rapidly moving northward to summer off New England and the Maritime provinces.
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Attribution LeGrand[2021-09-03], LeGrand[2021-05-17], LeGrand[2020-08-02]
NC Map
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