Date: 25 June 2012
Finding breeding sites for seabirds can be challenging, especially in the case of an extremely rare, small seabird not much bigger than a sparrow. However, on 22 May 2012, Chris Gaskin, along with Keith Hawkins and Marie Jordan from the Department of Conservation Whangarei set out to do just that. The team sailed from Whangarei Harbour and headed out for the waters around the Hen and Chickens Islands where they planned to spend the night, looking for the elusive New Zealand storm petrel.
New Zealand storm petrel in flight
For many years very little was known about the New Zealand storm petrel. Three specimens, collected in the 1800s, found their way into museums in the UK and France. Since then nothing else of the bird existed, and the New Zealand storm petrel was thought to be extinct.
In 2003, one storm petrel was unexpectedly spotted off the Coromandel Peninsula, and the bird was revived from its extinct status. Today it is rated as critically endangered and there is still so much to discover about it.
“The New Zealand storm petrel is a very enigmatic wee bird, and seems to attract mysteries,” says Chris Gaskin, a Leigh-based independent seabird researcher who has helped coordinate this current season’s work on the bird. “We see them quite regularly in the Hauraki Gulf, from September to June, but only at sea. We don’t know where they breed so all introduced predator-free islands, especially those that have always been rat-free, have to be considered as possible breeding sites. Despite only two day-time sightings a few kilometres east of the Hen and Chickens Islands in recent times we still felt it worthwhile to do some night-time searching there.”
Storm petrel are active close to islands at dusk or during night-time. So, through the night, the team worked their way around the islands in the group using a spotlight to identify birds sighted. They were looking for a small black and white bird with a fluttery flight and after two hours searching the team made two brief sightings of such a bird before it moved back into the darkness of the night sky.
Chris states that “Having seen them at night on a number of occasions elsewhere in the Hauraki Gulf and recognising its distinctive behaviour at night I am confident that what we saw was a New Zealand storm petrel”. But exactly where they breed remains a mystery still to be resolved by the team.