Finding a new bird species for their country of residence is the holy grail for many birdwatchers – and a thrill that few get to experience. Over the last decade, new species have been detected in New Zealand at an average rate of one every 15 months. The finding of two new bird species within 2 days by the same team of observers was unprecedented – but that is what happened about 6 months ago.
On 27 March 2016 a Heritage Expeditions cruise departed Tauranga heading to the Kermadec Islands, about 1000 km north-east of mainland New Zealand. This volcanic island chain includes the northernmost part of New Zealand (Nugent Rock), and is currently the focus of heated political debate over the process for creating a marine reserve proposed to surround the islands. On board the vessel were several of New Zealand’s keenest birders, including Steve Wood, Tim Barnard, Phil Hammond and Bob Atkinson. They had high hopes of seeing all the local rarities known from the islands, and perhaps a few tropical vagrants as well. It did not take long for their first exciting discovery.
The expedition reached Raoul Island, the main island of the group, on 29 March, and hove-to among the Herald Islets off the north-east coast of Raoul Island. There were numerous Kermadec petrels flying around the ship, and Steve and Tim noticed one that looked a bit different as they were preparing to go for a snorkel. Fortunately Steve was able to snap a couple of photographs before the bird drifted away as quickly as it had appeared. It wasn’t till that evening, when Steve was editing the day’s images, that it become clear that it wasn’t a Kermadec petrel at all. In addition to the bird having dark shafts to the main flight feathers (in contrast to the pale primary shafts characteristic of Kermadec petrels), it had a more slender build and relatively longer tail. It could only be a Herald petrel!
Herald petrels are little-known gadfly petrels of the tropical Pacific. In an ironic twist, the bird was named after the same vessel as the islands where it was seen. HMS Herald under Captain Henry Mangles Denham surveyed around Raoul Island in July 1854, and 5 years later was at Chesterfield Reef (west of New Caledonia), the type locality for the Herald petrel.
Only 2 days later there was further excitement when Heritage Expeditions staff member (and keen birder) Chris Collins identified and photographed a red-footed booby flying over nearby Napier Islet, while he was leading a zodiac cruise. This gannet-relative occurs throughout the tropical Pacific, Indian and western Atlantic Oceans, including breeding in the southern Tongan group, only 780 km north-east of Napier Islet.
Steve and Tim were hiking on Raoul Island at the time and were a little deflated (to say the least) when they heard the booby news. But expedition leader (and company owner) Rodney Russ offered an additional zodiac cruise, and a few hours later all the birders on the trip were able to see and photograph two red-footed boobies perched in a Kermadec pohutukawa on the summit ridge of Napier Islet. The birds were roosting alongside a female great frigatebird (another tropical vagrant) and several grey ternlets. A third visit was made to Napier Islet 2 days later, when two red-footed boobies were again present.
Finding and photographing the birds was only the first step in getting the two species added to the New Zealand list. Fortunately Steve, Tim and Chris took the next step of submitting Unusual Bird Reports (including images and detailed descriptions) to the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee. The five RAC members individually assess submitted Unusual Bird Reports. For most sightings, majority support is required for a record to be accepted. However, for new species to be added to the New Zealand list, unanimous support is required.
I am delighted to report that this standard has been met for both records. Congratulations Steve, Tim and Chris on finding these great birds and getting your records accepted!
PS Acceptance of these two records has pushed Steve Wood’s New Zealand bird list out to an astonishing 287 species. He is now in clear first place, four ahead of runner-up Brent Stephenson.