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Painting by Sarah McBeath

NZ Storm Petrel News

Karen with Tring specimen NZSP August 2005

Karen with Tring specimen
August 2005

NZ storm petrel
NZ Storm Petrel
photographed by Bryan Thomas

NZ Storm Petrel photographed by David Stewart
NZ Storm Petrel
photographed by David Stewart

NZ Storm Petrel Nov 2005, Marcus Lawson photo
NZ Storm Petrel
photograph by Marcus Lawson
Oct 2005

NZ Storm Petrel, Marcus Lawson photo, Nov 2005
NZ Storm Petrel
photograph by Marcus Lawson
Oct 2005

Geordie with the NZ storm petrel that flew aboard his boat

Geordie with the NZ storm petrel
that flew onto his boat,
Nov 2005

A bird in the hand indeed

A bird in the hand -- taking
the measure of the NZ storm petrel

Download a reading list about
the NZ Storm Petrel

In search of the New Zealand Storm Petrel (Pealeornis maoriana)

The New Zealand storm petrel was described from three specimens: No.1895.2.1.11 (British Natural History Museum, Tring), which G.M. Mathews designated as the type of Pealeornis maoriana (Mathews 1932), collected by Steet in or just before 1895 "off Banks Peninsula, New Zealand" (Mathews 1932; Medway 2004; but see Bourne & Jouanin 2004); and two (Nos. 17 = 14393 and 18 = 14372 in Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris) collected off East Cape, North Island during the first cruise of the French corvette Astrolabe on 8 February 1827 (Quoy & Gaimard 1830; Bourne & Jouanin 2004; Medway 2004). Mathews' (1932) designation was disputed by Murphy & Snyder (1952) who concluded the specimens to be a pale morph (the "Pealea" phenomenon) of Wilson's storm petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) because they were considered similar in size and proportions, although differing in having longer tarsi and streaked underparts (Bourne & Jouanin 2004). Oliver (1955) disagreed and, while accepting Murphy & Snyder's generic disposition, treated the specimens as a separate species O. maorianus.

Subsequently the New Zealand storm petrel slid into obscurity, with no further records for over 100 years, although evidence for a former population in New Zealand surfaced when sub-fossil bones from two sites (Wheturau Quarry, eastern North Island and Te Ana Titi, South Island West Coast) were identified as most likely being of this taxon (Worthy 2000). Then on 25 January 2003 the sighting of a single black and white storm petrel off Coromandel Peninsula by Saville and Stephenson turned the spotlight on the species. Initially they identified the bird as a black-bellied storm petrel (Fregetta tropica), but subsequently suggested it might be the New Zealand storm petrel (Saville et al. 2003). This attention intensified when, on 17 November 2003, two British birdwatching enthusiasts B. Flood and B. Thomas (Flood 2003) observed, photographed and video-taped at least 10 similar storm petrels north of Little Barrier Island. They claimed these to be New Zealand storm petrel (Flood 2003), a claim subsequently not accepted by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand's Rare Birds Committee (Rare Birds Committee 2005). Their sighting followed a tantalising glimpse in rough weather of a small, black and white storm petrel two weeks previously in much the same area (C. Gaskin pers. obs.), during a pelagic bird-watching trip led by us.

Many sightings of these storm petrels have since followed and our study (to be published in the forthcoming December 2005 issue of NOTORNIS, the OSNZ journal) details our search for these birds. Observations have been made to attempt to establish their distribution and identity, and to gain insights into their biology. We observed black and white storm petrels on 31 seabird-watching trips to the outer Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand, November 2003 - November 2005. We studied their characteristics, behaviour and seasonal occurrence: the sightings were concentrated in the outer Hauraki Gulf from October to March and further offshore in April-May.

All sightings of New Zealand storm petrels in the Hauraki Gulf since 1 November 2003 have been plotted against trip routes, wind direction and strength, chumming locations and non-sightings while chumming. This data will be presented in full in our NOTORNIS paper. Seasonal behaviour and known breeding sites of White-faced storm petrel (Pelagodroma marina) are additional factors in this study. Further analysis of sightings will be carried out jointly with Department of Conservation and other interested parties to advance the search for New Zealand Storm Petrel breeding areas. This summer, (2005/2006) we have seen New Zealand storm petrels on all our pelagics since 9 October (29 October, 4, 5 & 14 November).

With the capture of the bird on board Geordie Murman’s boat off Little Barrier on 4 November, Richard Griffiths (DOC) and Karen (Baird) were able to process it, taking measurements and photos and confirming it to be one of the black and white storm petrels we'd been seeing in the Hauraki Gulf since November 2003 during summer months. The bird was also banded with an aluminium band on the right leg tarsus. Feathers were taken for DNA analysis, along with a feather louse. The bird was later released, and flew off strongly.

In light of the material now at hand we now regard these birds as the New Zealand storm petrel Pealeornis maoriana. However formal taxonomic identification has yet to be completed, likewise ratification by the NZ Rare Birds Committee (Nov 05).

Why the resurgence of New Zealand storm petrels?

Why the hiatus in observations or identifications of this species from c.1890 to 2003? Possible reasons include: (1) New Zealand storm petrels were seen but identified as something else e.g., identifications were made based on known extant species, or white on the belly not being seen because of poor ventral views or deep shadow cast across the underparts; (2) relatively few expert bird observers were on the many boats that ply Hauraki Gulf waters every summer; (3) relatively few boats visit the outer Hauraki Gulf; (4) dedicated seabird-viewing trips with groups of people actively looking for seabirds is a recent phenomenon; (5) small storm petrels are hard to see while cruising in conditions other than light breezes with calm to little sea, unless they are within 30-50 m of the boat; (6) chumming as a technique to attract seabirds close to boats was not used in the Hauraki Gulf prior to November 2003; (7) greater use of photography (especially digital photography) has permitted identification of these birds; and (8) New Zealand storm petrels may represent a formerly near-extinct species, which has been released from predation pressure and has now increased to the point where it is more easily detectable.

The Mokohinau Islands, comprising four islands and 12 islets/stacks, are at the heart of the sightings distribution, they are attractive to small breeding seabirds because of their generally shallow soils and their proximity to the edge of the continental shelf, they include a few stacks and islets that have always been rat-free, Today the Mokohinau Islands offer excellent, rat-free breeding habitat for a small storm petrel, whether burrowing, amongst dense vegetation or in rock crevices. The spread of white-faced storm petrels to Burgess Island (formerly heavily-grazed, rat-infested and inhabited) from Lizard Islet (where they remain), and perhaps elsewhere, within 15 years illustrates this dramatically.

Mokohinau Islands Mokohinaus, Bird and Groper Roccks Mokohinaus with Little barrier Island in distance

A working group coordinating and facilitating research into the New Zealand Storm Petrel has been set up - go to NZ Storm Petrel Working Group for more information.

Previous NZ Storm Petrel sightings

October 2005


NZ Storm PetrelPhotographed by Ian Southey Oct 2005On our 9 October Hauraki Gulf pelagic two, probably three separate black and white storm petrels were seen at a location in the outer Hauraki Gulf. These were three separate sightings spaced between fifteen and forty minutes apart. Behaviour, plumage characteristics, proportions and size confirmed these birds to the be same species of storm petrel that we have described for the Hauraki Gulf during the previous two summers, namely the New Zealand storm petrel (Pealeornis maoriana). Other birds seen at this location were white-faced storm petrel; fairy prion; Cook's petrel; Buller's, fluttering and flesh-footed shearwaters; common diving petrel; and blue penguin (all summer breeders in the Hauraki Gulf), also grey-faced petrel and little shearwater (both winter/spring breeders in the Hauraki Gulf). Two New Zealand white-capped albatrosses were also seen, these birds are visitors to Gulf waters.

March 2005

In February and early March, NZ Storm Petrels seemed to be much harder to locate than last year, although bad weather or flat calm conditions conspired to make pelagic birding difficult through this period. NZSP had been seen on the 3 and 13 February. However none were seen on two subsequent trips – 19 February and 5 March. So, for the 19 March pelagic we decided to adopt a different approach and fortunately the weather was in our favour. We had amongst the birders on board some who’d missed seeing NZSP or had a trip cancelled because of bad weather. Everyone was very keen.

Armed with recent SST mapping and working on the notion that our key target (NZ Storm Petrel) stays in NZ waters (or at least along the East Auckland Current) outside their breeding season we plotted a position '+' on the Nav system and went for it. We’d seen very few birds on the way out to the Mokohinaus although some on board were happy with what they’d been seeing. Out beyond the Mokes it was still quite quiet although numbers of birds picked up when the water temps started climbing. We hit our spot early afternoon in great conditions with 10kns SW and light chop/long swell. Within a minute or two we had a NZSP (just enough time to get the sea anchor out and a drop a bit of oil in the water) but it must have been close by. It seemed as though it had been conjured out of nothing!

NZ storm petrel oct 2004During Easter last year (7 April) we’d pushed out to a similar location and found NZSP, even though they had long gone from the Hauraki Gulf itself. This time we saw at least 4 NZSP, probably about 8 and possibly as many as 12, although it is very hard to get an accurate count over two hours with birds coming through at widely spaced intervals either singly or in pairs (on two occasions). The NZSP were very flighty with only the occasional dabbling. Looking very sharp. Worth noting that we didn't see any White-faced Stormies throughout the day which would indicate they have departed Hauraki Gulf waters.

Chris Gaskin
Pterodroma Pelagics

November 2004

NZ Storm Petrels Return to the Hauraki Gulf

It is exciting to report that NZ Storm Petrels were seen out on the Hauraki Gulf last weekend (30 October 2004) on one of our trips, and subsequently on more recent trips. These sightings (and their return) certainly lends weight to the argument that they have returned to northern NZ waters to commence breeding; like other summer breeders.

NZ stormrm petrel Karen reports: "up to six NZ Storm Petrels were seen at one location in the vicinity of Little Barrier until conditions forced a return towards the mainland. Cook's Petrels were also showing well coming in close behind the boat while we chummed. Flesh-footed Shearwater were the main players with a few of each of Buller's Shearwater, Black Petrel, and Fluttering Shearwater. As we left hundred's of diving petrels were exploding around us. Others seen today included Grey-faced Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Blue Penguin, Little Shearwater, Australasian Gannet and White-fronted Tern."

For a full report go to our 30 October Trip Report. More recent trip reports and sightings will be posted throughout the season.

Sea Surface Temp (SST) mapping has been showing the boundary of the warm East Auckland Current (EAUC) moving closer inshore and 'breaking up' or spreading across the continental shelf into the Gulf over the last three weeks. This appears to match an influx of visible plankton slicks in the Outer Gulf. There has been a lot of fish and associated bird/whale activity as well.

26 August 2004
8 October 2004
29 October 2004

Maps courtesy of NIWA

NZ storm petrel Oct 2004Also noticeable lately has been the rapid increase in birds such as Cook's Petrels and Flesh-footed Shearwaters in a very short space of time. White-faced Stormies have been back since late August which appeared to be very early. Buller's Shearwaters and Fairy Prions have been back for about a month and numbers seemed to have plateaued out. When Mike Imber (DOC), Brent Stephenson, Halema Jamieson (DOC) and Chris Gaskin (from Pterodroma Pelagics) spent a week on the Mokohinaus (11-17 Oct) Buller's were streaming around the islands in a seemingly endless procession most days. Diving Petrels, Fluttering and Little Shearwaters and Blue Penguins (essentially resident through the year in the HG) were all coming in to burrows on the Mokes at night and the former two are very noticeable in the Outer Gulf at the moment.

Exactly when NZSPs have turned up again is anyone's guess, although it is likely they have only just arrived. We have made a few attempts this month to get out but the conditions have been - well - appalling for birdwatching. No NZ Storm Petrels were seen. Early this week we received up a report from a local crayfisherman (Geordie Merman) who saw some very dark small stormies amongst the other birds he'd been seeing close to Simpson's Rock (between Little Barrier and the Mokohinaus). Chris went out on a fishing charter Wednesday/Thursday this week and while the focus was fishing (great snapper!) saw a lot of birds. But no NZ Storm Petrels while steaming between fishing locations.

-- Chris Gaskin & Karen Baird


A working group of interested parties has been set up primarily to coordinate and facilitate research into the New Zealand Storm Petrel. Our aim - to unravel the mysteries surrounding our rediscovered storm petrel. We have set up an email address as a point of contact for people (outside the group) who would like to share ideas about these fascinating birds, would like to receive information, and to report sightings.

The working group comprises: Karen Baird, Bob Flood, Chris Gaskin, Mike Imber, Ian (Sav) Saville, Ian Southey & Brent Stephenson. The group will liaise closely with DOC biodiversity staff in the Northern Region: Auckland, Waikato and Northland Conservancies; and DOC Science & Research, Wellington.

Members of the team spent six nights on the Mokohinau Islands - click here for a brief report and photos

NZ Storm Petrel photo by Brian Thomas
NZ Storm Petrel
Photograph by Bryan Thomas

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