This year's poster-child is the European Storm Petrel. This small seabird has a fluttering, bat-like flight, and spends most of its life at sea, only coming to land to breed. In Autumn, European Storm Petrels can be seen off the coast of Sagres, waiting on the surface for the right wind or, when it blows, heading towards the southern seas.
Between its size – it’s not much bigger than a sparrow – and its wavering flight, this seabird has an almost ethereal air about it, but in fact it’s a force of nature. European Storm Petrels can cover over 200km in 2 or 3 days of foraging, and they embark on epic journeys from Northeast Europe to southern Africa. During this migration from their nesting grounds in the UK, Iceland and the Faroe Islands to their wintering grounds in the South Atlantic, most of them likely fly over Portuguese waters.
To see a European Storm Petrel in Portugal, the best option is to head out to sea. Watch for them feeding with their wings held in a “V” shape that shows off the white stripe on their underwing, while their feet patter on the surface. As they glide over the water, they pick up small fish, squid, jellyfish and crustaceans just under the surface.
The only time this bird comes to land is in May and June, when it seeks shelter on islands and islets in northern Europe (including around the UK). There, it uses its beak to dig out the soil, pushing it away with its feet to make a nesting burrow. Alternately, it may make use of a burrow dug by rabbits or by larger birds like puffins. In those cases, the petrel digs a small side burrow that its larger neighbours can’t get into. Sometimes, this approach can go wrong, and the European Storm Petrels get crushed by their neighbours. But if all goes well, after a month or two of taking turns to incubate the egg, the parents are rewarded with a little grey ball of down, which they feed for a few months. Once it’s all grown up, the chick heads out to sea. With any luck, it’ll live for a decade, travelling thousands of miles – and will regularly fly past Sagres.