The latest addition to the New Zealand bird list is not a species that anyone expected – and it very nearly got over-looked. Dunedin-based Leon Berard was working as a Ministry for Primary Industries fisheries observer in February 2014, when he photographed a bird that he did not recognise. He was on a squid trawler east of the Snares Islands (south of Stewart Island) taking photographs of white-capped and Buller’s mollymawks and southern royal albatrosses late on 9 February, when a smaller bird swimming beside the boat caught his attention. He intended to identify the bird from the single photograph taken when back on land, but after loading the image on to his laptop he forgot about it.
In October 2015, Leon was assisting Swedish MSc student Martin Berg researching fluttering shearwaters on the Mokohinau Islands in the outer Hauraki Gulf. While looking at some of Leon’s photographs, they chanced on the image of the mystery seabird taken 20 months earlier. Martin recognised the bird as a fulmar, and they presumed that it would be an Antarctic fulmar, a species that regularly reaches New Zealand waters, and has been seen near the Snares Islands on numerous occasions.
Leon has been a contributing photographer to New Zealand Birds Online since June 2014, and loaded the image on the website as an ‘Antarctic fulmar, Adult in worn plumage at sea’. Images loaded on to New Zealand Birds Online sit in an offline repository until assessed by one of the two image administrators, who decide whether to publish the image, and whether the caption needs editing. I was working through a batch of contributed images one weekend last October when I saw Leon’s image, and wondered whether he was pulling my leg, or had made a mistake with where he had taken the image. The bird was clearly a northern fulmar, a species not previously recorded from the Southern Hemisphere. It differs from an Antarctic fulmar in having a greyish bill with a yellow tip (cf. pink bill with blue nostril tubes and a black tip in Antarctic fulmar). Leon’s bird also had darker plumage than is ever seen in Antarctic fulmars – northern fulmars are highly variable in plumage, occurring in dark, pale and intermediate morphs.
Leon was pretty sure that it was the only image of the bird he had taken, but we had to wait several weeks before he was back home to confirm this, and to provide the adjacent images in the series (with their EXIF data proving that the fulmar image was taken in New Zealand). The image and details of where it was taken were circulated to Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee members in January 2016, and they had unanimously accepted the record when their comments were collated in mid-March. UK-based seabird expert Robert Flood provided comment on Leon’s photograph, and suggested that the relatively small head and slim bill of the New Zealand bird indicated that it came from the North Pacific population rather than from the North Atlantic.
While this is an exceptional record, it is not unprecedented. There are two albatross species from the North Pacific that have both reached New Zealand on single occasions (black-footed albatross in 1884, and Laysan albatross in 1995). Several New Zealand petrel species migrate to the North Pacific each year (including Buller’s shearwater, flesh-footed shearwater, sooty shearwater and mottled petrel), and it is possible that the northern fulmar ended up among the wrong crowd, and crossed the equator among a flock returning to New Zealand. Congratulations Leon – the only birdwatcher who has seen a northern fulmar in the Southern Hemisphere!
With thanks to Leon Berard and the Ministry for Primary Industries for agreeing to this information being published, and to Andrew Cleave, Duncan Watson, Kyle Morrison and Paul Sterry for their beautiful images.