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Fairy Terns and many others

I was always a lover of soft-winged things.{a}

One of our sea-birds is known as a ‘Seabird’. Confused? Read on…

SEE ALSO: Our other pages featuring birds are: ⋅ Birds ⋅ The Wirebird

Anyone interested in the birds of St Helena should obtain a copy of ‘A Guide to the Birds of St Helena and Ascension Island’, by Neil McCulloch, published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, ISBN 1 901930 46 7. Much of the material presented here is sourced from this book. The earlier book ‘The Birds of St Helena’, compiled by Beau Rowlands in 1998 is, apparently, also worth reading.

‘Fairy Terns’

Fairy Tern Stamp
Fairy Tern Stamp

‘Seabird’ in Jamestown
‘Seabird’ in Jamestown

Locally known as a ‘Seabird’ or a ‘Fairy Tern’, they are actually White Terns gygis alba. The true ’Fairy Tern’ is actually a different species, en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌Fairy‌_‌tern sternula nereis. However, some scientists now think that, due to many centuries of breeding here, the White Terns on St Helena may now have become a distinct sub-species - gygis alba sanctaehelenae.

The white tern is small with white plumage and a long black bill. With a wingspan of about 64cm, it ranges widely across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also nests in some Atlantic islands. The white tern feeds on small fish which it catches by plunge diving.

They are a beautiful sight. If you are walking away from the towns and come near a nest they will hover around you, not apparently in a threatening way but more as if they are curious about this strange creature. In a shaded wood their (mis)name as Fairy Terns becomes apparent. Out in the open they perform spectacular aerobatic displays in pairs or threes (adults and juvenile), making seemingly impossibly sharp turns in perfect synchronisation.

They nest both inland, in the quieter wooded valleys and also on the cliffs, even above the busy harbour in Jamestown, and also sometimes on buildings. Balanced precariously on a narrow rock ledge or the branch of a tree it can be a wonder that the egg survives to become a chick and that the chick itself manages to constrain its wanderings to its tiny platform. The newly hatched chicks have well developed feet with which to hang on.

Fairy Tern chicks have a tendency to fall out of their precarious nests, and in 2019 a charity was formed to rescue them, support and feed them until maturity and then release them back into the wild. If you find a stranded Fairy Tern chick you can contact the ‘Good Tern’ charity via its Facebook™ page (which is also how you contact them to offer a donation…)

Even more enchanting [than Wirebirds] are the fairy terns. They are most inquisitive and hover a few feet from your face, gazing at you with large liquid eyes. Three of these visit us from time to time.{b}

Other sea-birds

We also have nesting sites for several other sea-bird species. Here are some of the more common:

Below: Masked BoobiesStorm PetrelsTrophy/Tropic BirdsBrown/Black NoddiesIdentification chart

Masked Boobies

The Masked Booby sula dactylatra is a large seabird of the booby family, Sulidae. This species breeds on islands in tropical oceans, except in the eastern Atlantic. It is also called the masked gannet or the blue-faced booby.

Locally known as a ‘Gannett’ this is the largest of the booby family, at 74-91cm long, with a 137-165cm wingspan and weighing 1.2-2.35kg. Adults are white with pointed black wings, a pointed black tail, and a dark grey facemask. The sexes are similar, but the male has a yellow bill, and the female’s is greenish yellow; during the breeding season they have a patch of bare, bluish skin at the base of the bill. Juveniles are brownish on the head and upperparts, with a whitish rump and neck collar. The under-parts are white. Adult plumage is acquired over two years.

The masked booby is silent at sea, but has a reedy whistling greeting call at the nesting colonies. While on the breeding grounds, these birds display a wide range of hissing and quacking notes.

Can be seen on Speery Island, Shore Island, George Island and Lots Wife.

Storm Petrels

Storm Petrel
Storm Petrel

The grey-backed storm petrel garrodia nereis is a seabird in the Hydrobatidae family. Storm Petrels feed on planktonic crustaceans and small fish picked from the surface, typically while hovering. Their flight is fluttering and sometimes bat-like.

Storm petrels are the smallest of all the seabirds, ranging in size from 13-26cm in length. They have short wings, square tails and elongated skulls. The legs of all storm petrels are proportionally longer than others of its family (which include albatrosses and shearwaters), but they are very weak and unable to support the bird’s weight for more than a few steps.

Storm petrels live at sea and come to land only when breeding. Little is known of their behaviour and distribution at sea, where they can be hard to find and harder to identify. They are colonial nesters, returning consistently to their birth colonies and nesting sites. Most species nest in crevices or burrows and attend the breeding colonies nocturnally. Pairs form long-term monogamous bonds and share incubation and chick feeding duties. Nesting is highly protracted with incubation taking up to 50 days and fledging another 70 days after that.

The name ‘petrel’ is a diminutive form of ‘Peter’, a reference to the Christian Saint Peter; it was given to these birds because they sometimes appear to walk across the water’s surface. The more specific ‘storm petrel’ is a reference to their habit of hiding in the lee of ships during storms.

Trophy/Tropic Birds

What we know as the ‘Trophy Bird’ is actually a Red-billed Tropic Bird phaethon aethereus. It is also known (elsewhere) as the Boatswain Bird.

The adult is a slender, mainly white bird, 48cm long, excluding the central tail feathers which double the total length, and a one metre wingspan. The long wings have black markings on the flight feathers. There is black through the eye. The bill is red. Sexes are similar, although males average longer tails. Juveniles lack the tail streamers, are greyer-backed, and have a yellow bill. Its wings are made up of very large feather coat.

Brown/Black Noddies

The Brown Noddy anous stolidus is, obviously, brown, and inhabits the various small islands that cluster our coast - especially Egg Island. Its wing beats are powerful and deliberate, the wings are fairly broad, the tail is quite long and there is always a paler area visible on the mid-wing. The Brown Noddy is sometimes described as like a dwarfed Brown Booby.

It should not be mistaken for the Black Noddy anous minutus, which is darker (though not quite black), smaller, flies with a higher wing beat frequency, has narrower wings without any paler panel and shows a shorter tail.

Nests on Egg Island, George Island, Shore Island, Peaked Island, Speery Island and various cliffs along the coast.

Identification chart

This chart may help identify seabirds you might see around St Helena:

Seeing our sea-birds

You can see many of our sea-birds from the land. Fairy Terns are common in Jamestown, as are Trophy/Tropic Birds, though the latter normally fly at a great height.

Fairy Terns can also be seen in woodland areas.

Exploring our rocky coast you will have the opportunity to see sea-birds (through binoculars) on most of the islands around our coast. Or why not take a Dolphin Watching trip - these usually call at the appropriately-named ‘Egg Island’, which is such a common sea-bird nesting site it is actually mostly white (with Guano).

St Helena’s birds (both Birds and Seabirds) were shown on the following 2017 stamp issue:

Rats and feral cats are a problem for seabirds nesting on land, which is why the island’s surrounding islands are popular for nesting sites.


Speery Island is white…
Speery Island is white…

Guano is the name given to accumulated bird ‘poo’. Where birds concentrate it can form into deep deposits, distinguised by its near-white colour and, downwind, a strong smell! It is a valuable source of fertliser and before chemical fertilisers became available (and in parts of the world where chemical fertilisers are unaffordable today) it was one of the primary sources of fertiliser for agricultural use.

On St Helena the primary source of Guano is on the islands near to the coast where the seabirds nest; notably Egg Island, George Island and Speery Island. In the ‘Before Days’ it was actively collected. You can read a story about one such expedition on our page Memories of St Helena.

There is also an amusing story about the discovery of Speery Island:

As mentioned on our page Industries, in 1907 a concession was granted to James Morrison & Co. to work manganese and Guano deposits, but it seems nothing much became of the venture.

Today nobody collects the Guano. It doesn’t exactly go to waste - it just accumulates there for future use, perhaps when the production of chemical fertilisers becomes uneconomic or is banned for environmental reasons…

Read More

Below: Article: A Trophy-less Future?Article: St Helena’s Booby Boomers

Article: A Trophy-less Future?

By Liam Yon, South Atlantic Media Services Ltd. (SAMS), published in The Sentinel, 25th May 2023{1}

Tropic/Trophy Bird

A Seabird Monitoring Programme has indentified that Red-billed Tropicbirds, or Trophys, as they are more commonly known on St Helena, is a species under threat.

The sound of Trophies, otherwise known as Red-billed Tropicbirds, screeching in the afternoon as they fly around the hillsides in Jamestown is a daily occurrence, yet did you realise this may one day come to an end?, stated the Environmental Management Division (EMD) of Government of St Helena.

The seabirds, which are easily identifiable due to their long tail streamers and - as their name suggests - red bills, were the focus of research led by St Helena Government spanning over 13 years between 2004 and 2017.

The findings of this research have recently been published which identifies exceptionally low breeding success and significant threats to the resident population, explained SHG. They are very faithful to their partners and nest sites which make them vulnerable to disturbance whilst breeding, especially mammalian predators such as rats, cats and even free roaming dogs.

With trophies being a much-loved species to St Helena, EMD hopes that this study will help highlight the species’ importance, both locally and internationally, to aid their long term conservation.

Article: St Helena’s Booby Boomers

By Simon Pipe, 3rd May 2013{1}

A thriving colony of masked boobies has changed the landscape on southern St Helena - by turning the ridges white around Lot’s Wife rock.

Masked Booby

Annalea Beard, of the environment directorate, said: Amazingly this species has re-established itself even though introduced predators such as feral cats and rats are also known to occupy the area.

The colony was of global interest as a result, she said.

A few birds were observed nesting below Lot’s Wife, on the barren southern coast of the island, in 2009. A recent count showed 203 adults in the colony, which has turned the ridges white with Guano. The reasons behind their re-colonisation and their ability to succeed remain unclear, said Annalea. Monitoring is essential to make sure the colony continues to be successful.

P.S. don’t forget the famous St Helena Wirebird


{a} Victor Hugo{b} W G Tatham in ‘Emigrants to St Helena’, 1966{1}


{1} @@RepDis@@