Exploring the Sanctuary header graphic
Exploring the Sanctuary subheader graphic

Seabirds & Shorebirds


Seabirds spend most of their time in the air or on the water.  Most have waterproof feathers, slim, pointed wings, and webbed feet.  They eat fish, squid, shellfish, or crustaceans like krill and crab.  Many seabirds mate for life and lay just one egg a year.

Young seabirds fly over the ocean for years before they return to land to nest.  Hawai‘i’s seabirds often nest in colonies on small islands off the main Hawaiian Islands, e.g., on Moku Manu off O‘ahu, or in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.  On the main Hawaiian Islands, mongooses and stray cats and dogs prevent successful nesting and restrict seabirds to offshore sea stacks and remote rocky cliffs.


The Laysan albatross and the black-footed albatross nest mainly in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.  Both have a wingspan of about 6 ft.  These magnificent birds mate for life and nest in the same spot year after year.  They feed on squid which rise to the ocean surface at night.

Paul Wong
Paul Wong

Petrels & Shearwaters

Petrels and shearwaters are medium-sized birds that use hooked bills to scoop up their prey.  “Petrel” may be a derivative of St. Peter since petrels are often seen “walking on water” (i.e., dipping their feet in water as they flutter their wings).  Petrels have better night vision than shearwaters, but both types are attracted to light.  Sometimes shearwaters are found sitting in streets at night confused by the lights.  If you spot an injured or downed seabird, please call the Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 587-0166 for instructions.  

Kevin Brammeres


Storm-petrels are the world’s smallest seabirds with a length of ~8 in. and a wingspan of ~18 in.  During storms, they may fly alongside ships to take refuge from the wind.



The white-tailed and the red-tailed tropicbirds nest in Hawai‘i.  Each of these birds has two long white or red tail-feathers called streamers.  Tropicbirds often plunge-dive – they fold their wings and dive beak first into the water for fish.

Red Tailed tropic bird
Christine Brammer


The brown booby, the red footed booby, and the masked booby nest in Hawai‘i. Like tropicbirds, they are plunge divers and can dive spectacularly from 30-50 ft. above the water.  The female red-footed booby lays one egg a year; brown and masked boobies usually lay two eggs, but only one chick survives. 

Booby bird
Kevin Brammer


Frigatebirds have long, slim black wings and forked tails. Because their legs are so weak, they cannot dive or sit on the ocean’s surface; instead they scoop up fish and squid as they fly over the water.  Frigatebirds feed by day and sleep, sometimes in the air, at night.  The Great Frigatebird nests in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. 

Terns & Noddies

Terns and noddies often feed in flocks, diving after schools of fish.  Noddies bow and nod during courtship.  Terns nest in dense colonies of up to two million birds.  Sooty terns, gray-backed terns, and white terns, along with black, brown, and blue-gray noddies, nest in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and on small islands off O‘ahu.

James Watt/NOAA



Although shorebirds spend most of their lives on land, they fly long distances over the ocean each time they migrate from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds.  There are about 35 shorebird species that can be found in Hawai‘i.  Only one of these, the endangered Hawaiian Stilt, does not migrate.

Shorebirds feed on a variety of creatures, including insects and small invertebrates, particularly crustaceans.  Larger shorebirds may also eat small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. 

Shorebirds breed in a variety of ways.  Some have a single mate and others have more than one made.  Some also breed in small colonies.

A Special Shorebird: Kolea

Every year, kolea (Hawaiian name for Pacific golden plover) embark on an amazing journey flying south from Alaska to places like Hawai‘i.  They fly up to 3,500 miles non-stop.  In Alaska, they breed and nest in diverse habitats such as tundra while feeding on insects and worms.  They begin their migration to warmer weather around August, with adults arriving first, followed by juveniles.  Here in Hawai‘i, you may see kolea on rooftops or feeding in grassy areas.  Beginning in late February, kolea molt and their golden winter plumage is replaced by darker summer breeding colors.

Kevin Brammer

For more information on seabirds and shorebirds, visit Ocean Encyclopedia

Check out the Seabird & Shorebird Activity Book!

Injured or Downed Seabirds

On O‘ahu, injured or downed seabirds may be taken to Sea Life Park.  On other islands, call the Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 587-0166 for instructions.

Injured Shorebirds 

On O‘ahu, injured wild birds may be taken to an authorized wild bird rehabilitator. Call the Division of Forestry and Wildlife Oahu baseyard at 973-9789 for a list of names and phone numbers. On other islands, call the Division of Forestry and Wildlife at 587-0166 for instructions.


Makapuu Lighthouse graphic side bar
NOAA logo