In March 2011 a group of keen bird-watchers boarded a vessel at Houhora in New Zealand’s Far North and set off on a multi-day pelagic seabirding trip. Their quest was rare seabirds that may have strayed south from tropical seas, and their dreams were exceeded with the discovery of a new bird for New Zealand.
But why did it take eight years for their sighting to be accepted? Te Papa curator Colin Miskelly tells the story of New Zealand’s first collared petrel.
Bird-watching is an activity that covers a wide range of interests, skill, dedication, and commitment. In its broadest sense, it is something that anyone can do almost anywhere, including in your own backyard or on a family outing. But when the interest becomes a career or an obsession, ‘bird-watcher’ falls from favour as a moniker.
Those employed to study birds used to be known as ‘ornithologists’, but these days are more likely to be referred to as bird scientists, conservation ecologists, or in my own case ‘vertebrate curator’. And those who spend most of their discretionary time seeking out rare birds or undertaking regular surveys tend to refer to each other by the more active term ‘birder’ (though in New Zealand this same term is also used as an abbreviation of ‘muttonbirder’, referring to the harvest of young sooty shearwaters and grey-faced petrels).
A subset of birders are those whose primary (or intermittent) passion is seeking rare vagrant birds to add to their life list or New Zealand list. And this was the reason that Brent Stephenson, Sav Saville, Steve Wood, Matt Jones, Detlef Davies, Ian Smith, and Igor Debski assembled in Houhora early on 2 March 2011. They planned to spend the next four days living on board the charter vessel Demelza, and travelling as far as the Three Kings Islands (55 km north-west of Cape Reinga).
While there was the usual pre-trip excitement about hoped-for rarities, it is an understatement to say that what they saw during the trip exceeded all expectations.
Details of the trip can be viewed in Sav Saville’s trip report on the Wrybill Birding Tours website, which is the source of the following summary.
Within two hours of leaving the wharf, they were already encountering rare birds, including a white-naped petrel, four New Zealand storm-petrels and five long-tailed skuas. During pelagic seabirding trips, it is common practice to stop occasionally for a chumming session – using pieces of fish and/or a slurry of fish guts to attract seabirds closer to the boat. The team had their first “mega-rarity” at the first chumming stop, when a wedge-tailed shearwater joined the throng of similar-looking flesh-footed shearwaters and black petrels. By the time they reached North Cape they had amassed a total of 15 reportable rarities, including two Kermadec petrels.
But this was only a taster for what was to come…
Day two had the team steaming towards the Three Kings Islands, picking up additional reportable species including two grey noddies, four white terns, a Wilson’s storm petrel, and a Tahiti petrel, along with occasional Kermadec petrels and long-tailed skuas among the almost continuous sightings of black-winged petrels and white-naped petrels.
But it was early on day three (4 March) that they found the bird of the trip:
“Then a Pterodroma came past that was just so different to anything else I had seen. I shouted to Brent and Steve to photograph it and the results were more than a little surprising – it appears to be a COLLARED PETREL (a potential first for NZ).” – Sav Saville
The collared petrel is a little-known tropical gadfly petrel that has been seen at sea from the Solomon Islands in the west to the Galapagos Islands in the east. The few confirmed breeding sites are under forest near the summits of small islands in the Fiji and Vanuatu island groups.
And still the rarities kept coming, including a beautiful adult sooty tern, a pomarine skua, and, on the last day, a great view of a Gould’s petrel. This last bird was an invaluable comparison with the collared petrel, as the two species can appear very similar. (Collared petrels can vary from almost all dark to white underneath, with the palest birds resembling Gould’s petrels.)
Eight years later
In order for a new bird species to be added to the New Zealand list, it must be submitted as an Unusual Bird Report to the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee, and for the five members of the committee to unanimously accept the record.
But why did it take eight years for the collared petrel record to be submitted for assessment?
Sometimes life gets in the way of best intentions, but the threat of being gazumped was the trigger for the UBR being submitted. A group of birders reported another possible sighting of a collared petrel north of the Three Kings Islands in March 2019. There are kudos in receiving official recognition for the first sighting of a species in New Zealand, and the 2019 sighting was the impetus that finally prompted Brent Stephenson to submit the 2011 sighting.
The Records Appraisal Committee unanimously accepted the 2011 collared petrel record in early July 2019.
Congratulations Brent and team for this latest addition to the New Zealand list!
- Over-looked for a century: Macquarie Island shag added to the New Zealand list
- A new bird for New Zealand – Cox’s sandpiper
- A new bird for New Zealand – laughing gull
- Two new birds for New Zealand – Herald petrel and red-footed booby
- A new bird for New Zealand – northern fulmar
- A new bird for New Zealand – magpie-lark
- A new bird for New Zealand – dusky woodswallow
- A new bird for New Zealand – buff-breasted sandpiper