Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hauraki Gulf Pelagic

As many of you know I spent most of 2008 living in New Zealand as part of a university exchange. I was mostly stationed way down in Dunedin (University of Otago) near the south end of the South Island. It was a fantastic year and I saw plenty of seabirds but since I never managed to get out on a North Island pelagic, that was one of the avian gaps I was hoping to fill during this chapter of my Kiwi Life.

Well it didn't take long to get out as Lisa surprised me with a wonderful early birthday gift--2 tickets to the Hauraki Gulf with Wrybill Tours! What does that mean exactly? Well, the Hauraki Gulf is the large bay NE of Auckland (Auckland is in the bottom left corner of the map). Out toward the northern edge of the gulf are several islands that represent some of the most important seabird nesting sites in the SW Pacific. Especially the large red one (Little Barrier Island), and the smaller red ones in the top left corner (Hen & Chickens). The former site hosts the largest Cook's Petrel colony in the world with ~286,000 pairs calling it home, while the latter is where 100% of the World's Buller's Shearwaters nest. Needless to say, if you take a boat out around these islands in the Austral summer, you're bound to see a couple seabirds, with the #1 target being NZ Storm-Petrel. Before 2003, this species was only known from 3 specimens collected in the 1800's (allegedly near Christchurch which is odd in hindsight). Therefore it caused a bit of a sensation when several parties of pelagic birders photographed odd storm petrels with streaked bellies in 2003. They were soon confirmed as the previously presumed extinct New Zealand Storm Petrel, then the race was on to figure out where these birds nested. Sightings further north close to New Caledonia and other areas concerned some Kiwis as perhaps it didn't even nest in the country at all! Thankfully, in 2013, the first nest and egg were located on yes---Little Barrier Island, and after several decades of mammalian predator control on this island and others in the gulf, this species seems to be increasing in numbers and is now fairly easy to find in summer on the Hauraki Gulf. So did I get it? Scroll down to find out!

YAY! There it is (on the left), with a White-faced Storm Petrel for comparison.
A rather serious group looks on
Getting good photos of birds with a point-and-shoot can be tricky, but I've done my best to get a few of the common species. This one is a Flesh-footed Shearwater (13,000 pairs locally). Always great to see some of the birds that make it all the way up to Canada.
NZ Stormy doing a little jig. Note the streaky underparts.
I never get tired of large numbers of storm petrels. Here comes a happy gang of White-faces
Bit of a unique shot--I think Lisa snapped this one. Flesh-foot in the foreground with a molting Fluttering Sheawater swimming away and a White-faced Storm Petrel in behind.
Out toward the northern edge of the Hauraki Gulf is a small set of rocky islets known as the Mokohinau Islands. A small gannetry has been established as you can see.
On this particular stack was a number of birds completely new to me: Grey Ternlets or "Gray Noddy" as they are more commonly known (AKA Blue Noddy I believe). In Kiwiland everything has a different name.
A Grey Ternlet/Noddy and several years of sewage.
It wouldn't be a pelagic without a bit of chumming. Fortunately no humans seemed involuntarily contributed to the burly today but the skipper was able to keep many Flesh-foots happy. Also in this photo are Parkinson's (Black) Petrel, NZ Storm Petrel, White-faced Storm Petrel, Fairy Prion, and Cook's Petrel. I'll let you try and find them yourself ;)
Nice comparison of two local seabirds that are similar but different: Parkinson's Petrel (front with dark legs, yellowish bill, and blackish plumage), and Flesh-footed Shearwater (Pink legs and bill, with brownish cast to body).
Lisa managed this wonderful capture of a Fairy Prion floating away. Very similar to our (BC's) Fork-tailed Storm Petrel in some ways. Unfortunately I never got a presentable shot of a Cook's Petrel despite seeing hundreds today. Too dang fast and arc-y.
Toward the end of the day we stopped in at Little Barrier Island. The public is not permitted to land, but anchoring close to it can give you a chance at some forest bird endemics that are abundant on the now predator-free island. Given its importance to seabirds and other species, it was a supreme honour to be this close to such a fantastic conservation story.
Virtually all of mainland NZ and much of its nearshore islands were overrun with rats, rabbits, cats, and in many places weasels and stoats. This (along with forest clearance for farming) devastated the birdlife of NZ which had evolved without mammalian or marsupial predators. Little Barrier's saving grace was a combination of its remoteness but more-so its steep and rugged landscape, making for difficult boat-landings, and even harder farming. As a result this island remained a safe-haven for many species of native birds, plants, reptiles, and insects. In addition to the NZ Storm Petrel, the most notable was the Stitchbird (Hihi) since at one point, the entire world population was on this island--until captive breeding programs and predator control on other islands were able to establish colonies elsewhere. Similarly, the North Island Saddleback was reduced to a small colony on Hen Island (remember? Top left corner of map above). Now saddlebacks are common in most predator-free sanctuaries including Little Barrier (pictured above). We also saw Red-crowned Parakeets and Kaka (parrot) flying high over the canopy, along with NZ Pigeon, and a few other birds. A great way to end a great day!


  1. WOW !! What a great birthday present Russ! What a nice girlfriend!!!

    Congrats on an awesome pelagic. We all miss you here ! keep on having fun and thanks for updating us!!


  2. BlueHost is definitely one of the best hosting provider for any hosting plans you might need.