Little Shearwater (Puffinus assimilis)


Taxonomy complex and poorly understood (see comments for Audubon's Shearwater).

Pacific Ocean
P. a. assimilis - Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island.
P. a. kermadecensis - Kermadec Island.
P. a. haurakiensis - Islets off eastern coast off the North Island of New Zealand.
P. a. myrtae - Rapa Island in the Austral Group (and possibly elsewhere).
*P. a. elegans - Antipodes and Chatham Islands off New Zealand. Possibly also St Paul and Roche Quille.

Atlantic Ocean
*P. a. elegans - Tristan da Cunha Gp including Gough Is.; Antipodes and Chatham Islands of New Zealand. Possibly also St Paul and Roche Quille.
P. a. baroli - Macronesia (Azores, Madeira, Desertas, Salvages and Canary Islands).
P. a. boydi - Cape Verde Islands (also known as Boyd's Shearwater).

Indian Ocean
P. a. tunneyi - Amsterdam and St Paul Islands, as well as the Abrolhos Group and other islands off western Australia (in Leeuwin Current).
*P. a. elegans - Possibly also St Paul and Roche Quille.


Most likely confusion is with Audubon's Shearwater, however, elimination of other 'black-and-white' shearwaters can be problematic.These include: Manx Shearwater, Townsend's Shearwater, Newell's Shearwater, Black-vented Shearwater, Fluttering Shearwater and Hutton's Shearwater.  At sea, even diving petrels could be a source of confusion! Some of the larger subspeces (e.g. haurakiensis) present the greatest problems due to their dark heads, lack of white surrounding the eye.

Little Shearwater (P. a. kermadecensis) photographed in July 2002 on Cheeseman Island in the Southern Kermadecs. Notice the blue legs and pink webs. The eye is surrounded by grey rather than black feathering. The wing appears compact and rounded with a silvery grey wash to the undersides of the primaries and secondaries. This creates a very pale underside in flight. Photos copyright of Paul Scofield© 2002.

Two different Little Shearwaters from the Desertas. Photos copyright of Bernie Zonfrillo© 2002.

A Little Shearwater from the Azores, note  the narrow white line over the eye and blue legs. Photo copyright of Bernie Zonfrillo© 2002.

For more discussion of the boydi subspecies (taxonomic status and field identification) click here.

Where and When

Broadly distributed across subtropical and subantarctic waters of the Atlantic (north and south), Indian Ocean and South Pacific. Movements and range of some populations poorly known. Different populations probably show different degrees of dispersal, although most subspecies probably remain close to nesting islands. Enticott and Tipling mention that elegans from the Antipodes islands south of New Zealand have reached Chile.

Status in North America: Only confirmed Canadian record (attributed to subspecies baroli), was a beach cast specimen from Sable Island, found on 1 September 1896 by Superintendent R.J. Bouteillier (Dwight 1897). Robie Tufts' in his "Birds of Nova Scotia" (1961), mentions records of small black-and-white shearwaters thought to be either this species or Audubon's Shearwaters that were seen off Sable Island on 27-28 August 1978 (A. Sheppard) and off eastern Cape Breton Island on 29 July 1982 (two birds, S. Zendeh). The birds off Cape Breton Island were evidently blown into Nova Scotian waters by a storm. According to Tufts, the description suggests Little Shearwaters rather than Audubon's Shearwaters.

Status in Europe: Recorded infrequently away from breeding islands. Status confused by lack of documentation (e.g. photographs). Most often seen from seawatches or in the Bay of Biscay from ferries.

The Rare birds in Belgium web site lists two accepted records both singles: Oostende on 19 September 1990 and Zeebrugge on 25 September 1990. There are two additional reports awaiting review both from Oostende (11 September 1998 and 3 October 1999).

Ireland: Single birds were reported off Brandon Head, Kerry on the evening of 14th Aug 99; Cape Clear, Cork on 3rd Sept 99 and off Brandon Head, Kerry on 6th Sept 99 (Birds of Ireland News Service).


David Lee (1988) The Little Shearwater in the western North Atlantic. American Birds; 42 (2): 213-220.

Anthony McGeehan (1995) 'A Little help'. Birdwatch; September 1995: 38-42.

Many thanks to Paul Scofield and Bernie Zonfrillo for generously allowing me to use their photos.

Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved. Angus Wilson
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