Small as a swallow, the storm petrel, or ‘stormie’ to its fans, is able to ride-out the worst of gales off Scotland’s ocean edge. Look for it by day from ferries in the Hebrides and North Isles, or - if you’re lucky - visit one its few breeding colonies.
What to look for
If you’re out to sea and notice a swallow-sized bird fluttering close to the waves or almost dancing its feet across the water, there’s a fair chance that you’re watching a stormie. Generally dark plumage and a curved (not forked) tail will help to distinguish it from the slightly larger Leach’s petrel. At night in an island colony, the churring calls in burrows and crevices can be remarkable.
The storm petrel comes ashore to its colonies at night (except for the birds that are incubating eggs, which stay put). That’s part of its magic from a human perspective. Another part is that most colonies are on islands that need quite a bit of effort to reach. The storm petrel is a relative of the albatross. Like them, it has obvious nostril tracks along its upper beak and can be fairly long lived for a bird (decades, rather than a handful of years).
When and where to see
Pretty much the only sure-fire way to see a stormy is to go on an organised trip to a colony. But keep a lookout from ferries, such as between Skye and the Outer Hebrides or between different North Isles, in summer and autumn.
Most colonies are remote, but Mousa, off the south mainland of Shetland, is an accessible exception. A midnight trip to experience the island stormies swirling around the ancient Pictish broch ranks among Scotland’s top wildlife-viewing experiences.
For more information see the RSPB's storm-petrel page.