Recent sightings in NZ - soft-plumaged petrel

To: "'Birding Aus'" <>
Subject: Recent sightings in NZ - soft-plumaged petrel
From: "Brent Stephenson" <>
Date: Tue, 28 May 2002 16:28:18 +1200
Hi all,

I spent the weekend in Auckland and managed to tick kookaburra (we have
a small population just north of Auckland in the Warkworth area) and
sanderling (quite rare in NZ and remarkably over-wintering), but missed
on the black kite that has been seen in the Mercer area just south of
Auckland (I think the 4th record for NZ).

Sav Saville was at Foxton Estuary on the Sunday and sent the following
email to BIRDING-NZ ( ?


At the Estuary today: Terek Sand, 29 Wrybill, 2 Little Tern, 23 Barwits.
Still lots of Shoveler and Grey Teal, but no sign of the Chestnut Teal.
The tide was hugely high (and I was a little late getting there), the
ducks were well spread and hiding amongst vegetation to get out of the
ferocious wind - so it is just as likely that the Chestnut Teal was
somewhere around.
On the coast: Very strong westerly winds. Masses of seabirds moving and
some outstanding highlights for here. 2 Mottled Petrels flying together
and rather leisurely making their way northwards (first record for
Foxton Beach). A Storm Petrel, probably a Wilson's, but only seen
fleetingly between waves (the only SPs ever seen here before have been
White-faced). A Broad-billed Prion right over the beach (BBPrions fairly
regularly beachcast here - no sight records for many years except Nikki
MacArthur saw one at Himatangi Beach on the exact same date last year).
11 Giant Petrels. 8 Mollymawks, all apparently White-capped except one
which was probably a Black-browed. Several hundred Fluttering
Shearwaters. And scores of other unidentified Shearwaters and/or


So I then sent the following after a visit to Foxton on Monday morning ?


Well as usual Sav had to report a great days birding at Foxton Beach,
just to match my birding in Auckland!  Having seen two species which
would have been new birds for NZ (and one a lifer!) I decided to head
out there this morning.

In the mean-time Sav had again been out there early this morning and
seen more giant petrels, a few mollys and several unidentified petrels,
including a small dark one, and several other gadfly type petrels.  A
cape petrel also flew past.

Rebecca Boulton came along with me and we got to Foxton Beach at about
1130, and watched till about 1315.  The wind was very strong, directly
from the west and several showers passed through in the time we were
there.   Shortly after arriving a prion flew along the beach heading
south, and although we didn?t identify it, it was probably a
broad-billed, being larger and darker than a fairy (not ticked!!).
Following this we were tantalised further by more prions heading south,
but out further, again evading identification.

We then picked up two medium sized petrels with all dark upper surfaces
and light breast and belly, but with dark under-wings.  They both had to
be soft-plumaged petrels and were flying south about 100m off the beach
(in good light).  At one stage I picked up the grey chest band on one of
the birds, but this was not evident most of the time.  About 20-30
minutes later another bird passed by even closer, and this gave good
views of the chest band.  We saw several more a lot further out and so
in total probably saw at lest 6-7.  Looking in HANZAB this is quite a
significant record (another rarebirds report coming your way David M.),
being one of very few records of this species seen alive off mainland

Several other petrels of similar size were seen, but further out, and
may well have been mottled petrels, but were not positively identified.
There were no giant petrels and only two mollymawks seen, with at least
one being a probable white-capped.

Birds seen ?

Prion sp. 10+
Black-backed gull
Red-billed gull
Black shag
South Island pied oystercatcher 3
Soft-plumaged petrel 6-7
Other unid petrels c.20
White-fronted tern 2
Mollymawks 2 (one a probable white-capped)

A quick scan of the estuary on the way home didn?t locate the chestnut
teal, but as with yesterday the ducks were taking refuge among the
scattered veg so it could well have been there.


So this weather is certainly doing good things for the Pelagic birding
off New Zealand?s west coast.  There have been several other reports
from the Taranaki region outlining large groups of fluttering
shearwaters and giant petrels.

Sav again visited Foxton Beach this morning and saw at least one
confirmed soft-plumaged petrel and probably another three.  Also a
wandering alb and more giant petrels, with huge numbers of flutterers
passing by also.  No prions however.

Now for those sceptics out there, we are sure these birds are not
white-headed petrels.  The birds are just too dark on the upper-surface,
with dark head and tail.  There is no obvious dark eye-patch, supporting
the fact that the head is very dark showing no obvious contrast.  This
is obviously a very significant record, and I think the second live
record of SPP off NZ mainland ? all of the older records in HANZAB I
think are of beach-cast birds?  However, it is not entirely out of the
question as according to the Action Plan for Seabird Conservation in NZ
they are going through a large population increase on the Antipodes Is.
The figures quoted in HANZAB are out of date.  According to surveys done
on the Antipodes in 1995, three colonies were located, with an estimate
of several thousand pairs.  So that was from 50-100 in 1978 to several
thousand pairs in 1995.  Potentially the population could be close to or
above 5000 pairs presently.  So from that point of view they could be
increasingly more common in NZ than in Australia ? the Antipodes is not
that far away!

As far as I can work out from HANZAB there aren?t actually any records
of live white-headed petrels from NZ either (although there should be),
so from that point of view, if this was a case of miss-id (which it
isn?t!!) it would still be an extraordinary record ? and just shows the
complete lack of pelagic birders in NZ.  I guess the clinching factor
for those sceptics still out there will be the finding of beach-cast SPP
over the next month or so.......I?m off out there again in the morning!

Brent Stephenson MSc (Hons)
PhD Candidate (Zoology)
Ecology Group - 624, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston
North, New Zealand.
Phone   + 64 (06) 350 5799 ext 2139
Cell            + 64 (0274) GANNET (426638)
Courier: Ecology Building - 624, Corner of University Ave/Orchard Road,
Turitea Campus, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.
"That an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not
utterly absurd."
                               - Bertrand Russell

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