Birdwatch: Leach’s petrel, a storm-driven visitor wrecked on our shore

The sooty-black seabird should have been far out in the North Atlantic at this time of year

A Leach’s petrel
A Leach’s petrel. The bird is a rare visitor to Somerset, and always after storms. Photograph: Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy
A Leach’s petrel. The bird is a rare visitor to Somerset, and always after storms. Photograph: Nature Photographers Ltd/Alamy
Wed 14 Apr 2021 01.00 EDT

The wind had dropped a little, but still made my eyes water, and I was finding it hard to hold my binoculars steady. Gulls strained to stop themselves being blown backwards, while flocks of wigeon hunkered down on the river’s surface.

And then we caught sight of it. A sooty-black bird with a white rump, fluttering over the waves like an oversized house martin, occasionally dipping down to snatch a morsel of food. Nearby, ominously, huge herring gulls hassled this stranger in their midst.

It was a Leach’s petrel, a true ocean-going seabird. At this time of year – early spring – it should have been way out in the North Atlantic; but the previous night’s westerly gales had swept it into the mouth of the estuary.

It was the first Leach’s I’ve ever seen in Somerset, having previously missed them here in autumn, when they are rare but regular visitors, always after storms.

The next day I bumped into a local birder, who’d been watching the petrel from the other side of the River Brue, at Burnham-on-Sea. He’d seen it settle exhausted on the saltmarsh, where it probably died. Such is the usual fate of these wrecked seabirds, on the few occasions when they are driven towards the land.

Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring, by Stephen Moss, is published by Saraband (£12.99)

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