13 December 2003
Weather - fine; very light NE, building to about 10knots by the end of the day; little swell in outer Gulf; and great visibility. 17 on board plus skipper & crew
General route: Left Gulf Harbour at 9AM headed out through the Tiri Channel to Little Barrier -> landed on Little Barrier and spent three hours ashore -> headed to locations north of Little Barrier -> back to Gulf Harbour at nightfall (12 hours)
Gulf Harbour to Little Barrier
Through the early stages of the run to Little Barrier we started to think the Gulf had emptied out - no birds! Quite flat conditions with only a very light breeze. It was only off Kawau and Takatu Point we started to pick up birds in any sort of numbers.
Blue Penguin 5
Pied Shag 2
A Gannets 10s - individuals, flying and occasionally diving; then a group of 10+ circling with one or two diving
Buller's Shearwater 4
Fluttering Shearwater Group of 12, then 1 resting, 1 more flying
Cook's Petrels - started picking up individuals at first then more frequently in twos and threes; closer to Little Barrier we got onto good numbers 100-200 in groups (great viewing as they were on the water and would lift off right in front of us as we drifted in close). Picked some Pycrofts amongst them - good to see them together.
Flesh-footed Shearwaters - a group of 8 crossed the wake at one stage
We landed on the island in perfect conditions (Note a permit is required and an accredited supervisor must accompany groups). Once ashore we split into two groups and did a Thumb Track and Waipawa Track circuit.
Kokako (pair) in a kauri tree high on Thumb Track; Stitchbird; Saddleback; Long-tailed Cuckoo; Kaka; Red-crowned Parakeet; A Harrier; Tui; Bellbird; NZ Pigeon; Whitehead; Grey Warbler; Tomtit; Robin; Fantail; Rifleman; Welcome Swallow; Chaffinch; Yellowhammer; Myna; Pied Shag; Black-backed Gull; Red-billed Gull
White-fronted Tern; Also, 1 dead Fluttering Shearwater close to the Thumb/Waipawa Track junction (Alan E has taken the head back to compare (and add) to his collection of bird wrecks) and Brown Kiwi sign on tracks.
Once back at the boat had a quick brew-up and late lunch. Then headed round to north side of Little Barrier into a freshening breeze. Precious few birds until we got about a third the way to the Mokohinaus.
Little Barrier to Mokohinaus
While underway heading north:
Fluttering Shearwaters 2
Cooks Petrel 1s & 2s, then groups of birds on the water
Pycrofts - a few individuals amongst the Cook's
Flesh-footed Shearwater - 1s and 2s
Once we started chumming at a point about halfway to Mokohinaus:
Flesh-footed Shearwaters came in very close and diving for chunks of fish below the surface 30+
Black Petrels in close (also diving underwater) 30+
Cook's Petrels - while not landing amongst the birds off the back of the boat, they would overfly very close (individuals or in pairs)
Pycroft's - a couple that were called
Fluttering Shearwater - 3
After about twenty minutes White-faced Storm-Petrels individually or in little groups worked their way upwind to where we were, then sallied past us (mostly about 30 metres distant, sometimes very close) and moved upwind of us to feed. With the boat drifting slowly downwind we noticed we were leaving a bit of a fish-oily slick and no doubt fragments of fish/mush close to the surface.
In time the first of the "problem" birds turned up. We had on board - Rob Leslie and Barrie Rose (highly experienced pelagic birders from South Africa who are familiar with Storm-Petrels incl. Black-bellied and White-bellied), Peter Roberts (from the UK, who leads for Victor Emmanuel and is familiar with Wilson's and others) and Alasdair Hunter (a Canadian birder fresh from a Heritage Expeditions trip to the Subs who'd seen Black-bellied a week or so before) - plus other very experienced birders -US, UK and local.
Our first B/W bird danced through side by side with a White-faced Stormie. The immediate observation was a marked size difference. The black/white bird was smaller and appeared to have more pointed than round wings. It had GREY coverts with the rest of the upperwing black. It was white-bellied and white-rumped. A clean-looking dainty bird.
It was followed soon after by more White-faced Storm-Petrels with at least five more Black/White Storm-Petrels coming through over the space of an hour. One came close enough for everyone to ID it clearly as a Black-bellied Storm Petrel. Its central black belly stripe very marked indeed. For Barrie and Rob there was no doubt.
Others of these birds however were confusing with black streaking through the white underparts. With most of these birds the feet appeared to extend past the tail. It was noted that the wing shape of these birds was rounded. All were white-rumped. One of these birds with variable plumage showed very clean white central under-wing bordered by thick black. In terms of size, these birds appeared to be smaller than White-faced Storm-Petrels but comparison wasn't always easy.
The first bird we saw with its distinctive grey coverts and white belly & rump made us lean towards White-bellied (although the marked difference in size to White-faced leaves a big question mark). Of the others, one Black-bellied Storm Petrel was positively identified. Other birds were felt to be Black-bellied. Barrie commented that although he believed these birds were Black-bellied they were still different to what they've seen off South Africa and MAYBE the ones we were seeing were a different race? But discussion was not conclusive enough to rule out something else. No-one on this trip would be prepared to close the door on this and we only saw a handful of birds. And we didn't see a bird that matched one of the birds that Bryan Thomas photographed (see latest issue of Birding World).
Please note: these comments here are based on the discussion on the boat. With a number of people flying out this morning we haven't had a chance to run this brief report past folks for further comments. Photos were taken - mostly transparency. There was some video and some digital photography. We'd have to add we lacked the digital firepower of previous trips (esp. Bryan Thomas's gear and skill). We'll work on collating this material in the New Year.
Does the NZ Storm Petrel exist? Oh boy. For our part we are happy to take the role of facilitators in getting people out to see seabirds in the Hauraki Gulf and promoting an ongoing programme for seabird observation. We are always learning!
The way home
After about an hour and a half we packed up for the long run back to Gulf Harbour.
On the way back we were treated to absolutely stunning sights of good numbers of Cook's Petrels lifting off the water and catching the evening sunlight - all against a backdrop of Little Barrier. Superb. It is hard to fathom that there are people who'd argue that kiore should remain on Little Barrier. Recruitment of Cook's Petrels has continued to fall alarmingly - DoC needs every support to get rid of kiore (the scourge of Cook's Petrels) once and for all!
Birds seen on this leg:
Cook's Petrels - 100s
Pycroft's Petrels - some were called
Short-tailed Shearwater 2+
Buller's Shearwaters 20+
White-faced Storm Petrel 1
One final comment on the day
Where were all the Fluttering Shearwaters, Buller's Shearwaters, Fairy Prions and Diving Petrels we'd seen on earlier trips? Also, we only saw Storm-Petrels (30-40) when we chummed. Nothing compared to the 100s seen on some trips without chumming. Obviously wind direction and strength as well as sea conditions play a big part and our logging each trip is enabling us to draw up something of pattern (general or otherwise) for bird distribution and hotspots in the outer Gulf. It takes time and many trips. Our next scheduled trip is on 2 January 2004.
--Chris Gaskin & Karen Baird
Pterodroma Pelagics - Hauraki Gulf Seabird Tours