Birding Without Borders

Day 355: Seabirds and Stunning Scenery

Noah braves rough seas and dark forests for New Zealand's most iconic birds.

December 21, 2015: Auckland, New Zealand — I touched down in Auckland just past 5 this morning, having slept an hour or two on the plane (after an exciting sprint across the Melbourne airport at 2 a.m.), and met a birder named Harry Boorman. We’ll spend the next three days on New Zealand’s north island, tracking down as many endemic birds as possible.

No rest for the weary. Straight from the airport, we drove north to catch a boat. Harry had organized an all-day pelagic trip into the Hauraki Gulf today with Chris Gaskin, a seabird expert. Several others showed up for the trip, from as far away as Scotland, and our group floated offshore with a bird-loving skipper named Brent.

The Hauraki Gulf is an especially scenic stretch of ocean, studded with green islands. It’s also full of seabirds! Most of these islands had rats and other introduced predators living on them, but eradication projects in the ‘90s left several islands rat-free and the seabirds have begun nesting again. As we left the mainland behind, we encountered large numbers of White-faced Storm-Petrels, Cook’s Petrels, Fluttering Shearwaters, and Buller’s Shearwaters, with smaller numbers of Flesh-footed Shearwaters, Parkinson’s Petrels, and Fairy Prions mixed in.

The real prize of any Hauraki Gulf pelagic trip is a small seabird called the New Zealand Storm-Petrel which was practically unknown until the early 2000s, when it was first photographed in the wild. They are now recognized to be uncommon in this area, and Chris has been studying the storm-petrel’s nesting habits. So it was no surprise when he spotted one flying past the boat, giving good-enough views to see the white rump and distinctively streaked underparts. Chris estimates there are more than a thousand pairs nesting in the area, but the New Zealand Storm-Petrel is still one of the world’s rarest seabirds and I was glad to see it!

A TV reporter and cameraman came with us to film a news segment about the seabird recovery efforts, and both of them spent most of the trip flat out on a bunk inside the boat’s cabin. It was admittedly a bit rough on the way back in, with wind and waves spraying right over the roof. They emerged when we stopped in a sheltered bay at Burgess Island, got their footage, and disappeared for the duration.

At Burgess, a tiny outcrop miles offshore without much more than a lighthouse and a few trees, a snorkeler appeared from nowhere and swam up to our boat. He turned out to be a Swedish graduate student named Martin who is studying Fluttering Shearwaters, and seemed happy to have some visitors at his remote study site. I mentioned my trip and he said, “Wait, that’s you? We are following your blog!”

Back ashore by dinnertime, Harry and I zoomed off to Tawharanui, a fenced, predator-free reserve near Auckland. After sunset, we walked Tawharanui’s forest trails to find a very special bird. Harry carried a flashlight with red cellophane taped over it, in order not to scare off our target, and we tiptoed through the dark forest. 

It didn’t take long. Harry heard something rustling in the dry leaves just off the trail, aimed the flashlight, and switched on its red beam. There, not 10 feet away, was New Zealand’s most iconic bird: A dumpy, shaggy, potato-shaped, little brown thing without obvious wings or tail, and a long beak sticking out front. It snuffled and shuffled in the leaves, poking around for insects. Harry turned with a big smile. “You can’t visit New Zealand without seeing a kiwi!”

New birds today: 28

Year list: 5936

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