WPA-New Zealand Prelude

Hauraki Gulf, Mercury Islands & the North Cape

Western Pacific Adventure

I arrived in Auckland on Feb and I was picked up by Brent Stephenson the next day for the 4 hour drive up to the North Cape for the annual Three Kings Pelagic Trip run by Brent and Sav Saville the owner/operators of Wrybill Birding Tours.

I want to thank Brent and Sav for their tremendous hospitality during the New Zealand portion of this venture. They went out of their way to be helpful and graciously facilitated key aspects of this adventure including pelagic day trips to the Mercury Islands and the Huaraki Gulf.

First Image Three Kings Pelagic/2013- L-R, Tim Barnard, Neil Robertson, Captain Tank Barker, Steve Wood, Sav Saville, Brent Stephenson, Phil Hammond


Wrybill Birding Tours has built a strong international reputation for their peerless knowledge of birding in New Zealand. This combined with flawless logistics, and a fun and enthusiastic approach make them the overwhelming first choice for birding tours in New Zealand .

First Image First Image First Image Parkinson's Petrel, off North Cape, NZ

Wrybill's now extremely popular (and often sold out)
“21 day tours” are undoubtedly the best way to see all the (possible) wonderful New Zealand endemics. This comprehensive tour includes a remarkable 4-5 pelagic trips and they regularly find 25-30sp. of tubenoses.

First Image First Image First Image Cook's Petrel, off North Cape, NZ


If you want to do some fantastic seabirding in New Zealand get in touch with Brent or Sav. They will go out of their way to make your birding experience in New Zealand a success.

First Image First Image First Image Flesh-footed Shearwaters, off the North Cape, NZ


We left Houhora on the good ship Demelza at dawn and after a few technical difficulties we headed towards the North Cape. It wasn’t long before we were joined by numbers of Flesh-footed, Buller’s Shearwaters and Parkinson’s Petrels.

First Image Buller's Shearwater, off the North Cape, NZ

First Image Buller's Shearwater chasing Flesh-footed Shearwater, off the North Cape, NZ

A few Cook’s Petrels whizzed by and then to my delight my first New Zealand Storm-Petrel. Shy Albatross ,New Zealand Albatrosses and White-faced Storm-petrels joined the action.

First Image First Image New Zealand Storm-petrel, off the North Cape, NZ

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White-faced Storm-petrel, off the North Cape, NZ


The next day we awoke at dawn off the North Cape and headed to the north east to some areas of very warn “tropical” water. It was a fantastic day starting with
Black-winged Petrel before even leaving sight of land.

First Image First Image First Image Black-winged Petrel, off the North Cape, NZ



We headed up to some warm water areas and after about an hour started chumming. It wasn't long before seabirds were everywhere. Hundred's of Flesh-footed Shearwaters vied for scraps with Buller's Shearwater's and Parkinson's Petrels.
It wasn't long before we were getting some nice close-up views of New Zealand Storm-petrels.

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New Zealand Storm-petrel, off the North Cape, NZ


White-necked Petrels started coming in quite close at times and often made several passes by the boat before moving on.

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White-necked Petrels, off the North Cape, NZ

Captain Tank was doing a superb job of chumming with the birds going crazy over tasty morsels of shark eggs and liver. The next big moment was they arrival of our first
Kermadec Petrel.

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Kermadec Petrel, off the North Cape, NZ

To complete the Pteredroma parade several Grey-faced Petrels attended with a couple actually landing at the back of the boat to partake in some shark liver.

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Grey-faced Petrel, off the North Cape, NZ

We had a small selection of albatrosses which all hung out for quite a while including a
Northern Buller's, Campbell and of course several New Zealand Albatrosses.

First Image Northern Buller's Albatross, off the North Cape, NZ

First Image Campbell Albatross, adult off the North Cape, NZ

First Image Campbell Albatross, near adult off the North Cape, NZ

First Image First Image New Zealand Albatrosses, probable one year old off the North Cape, NZ

We had a variety of of other seabirds including Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters and Wilson's and loads of White-faced Storm-petrels.

Several Long-tailed and a single Pomarine Jaeger along with a South-polar Skua were all new for my New Zealand list.

First Image Short-tailed Shearwater, off the North Cape, NZ

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Wilson's Storm-petrel, off the North Cape, NZ

It had been one great day of pelagic birding with a constant flow of petrels, albatross and other sea birds. We are all quite pleased as we headed back to the North Cape for a realaxing evening fishing and watching the sun go down.

First Image First Image Relaxing, fishing and watching the sunset off the North Cape, NZ

The next day found us heading back to the warm water areas north east of the cape 25km or so -hoping for some tropical species.

The first rarity came soaring in from the west and was totally off the radar- an adult
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross.

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Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, off the North Cape, NZ

This is quite a rarity in New Zealand. One would expect this species to be much more likely in the austral winter and then an immature bird would be typical. This was a new New Zealand bird for all but one participant so celebration ensued.

Shy Albatross is definitely the commonest mollymawk in this area in late summer. The official New Zealand checklist considers the NZ taxa T. (cauta) steadi distinct with the name White-capped Albatross. The Tasmanian breeding taxa T. (cauta) cauta retains the Shy Albatross moniker. This split isn't widely accepted and even the liberal IOC checklist retains these taxa as subspecies.

First Image Shy Albatross , off the North Cape

The New Zealand Checklist has recently lumped Antipodean and Gibson's Albatrosses back to
New Zealand Albatross - D. antipodensis antipodensis and gibsoni which conforms to IOC checklist and world opinion generally.

First Image First Image First Image New Zealand Albatross, off the North Cape, NZ

We didn't have as many pterodromas on this day but still a fair variety with Cook's, Black-winged, White-necked and Grey-faced Petrels.

The Black-winged Petrels showed considerable variation some having quite a prominent collar.

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Black-winged Petrel, collared appearing variation partially related to wear and bleaching, off the North Cape, NZ


First Image White-necked Petrel, North Cape specialty in New Zealand.

Late in the day I photographed a cookilaria that had several features in keeping with a Pycroft's Petrel including a very reduced supercillium and a prominent neck collar.
I contemplated it for quite a while but wasn't really convinced. Subsequently I was able to compare with near identical pictures of Pycroft's Petrel off the Mercury Islands.

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Cook's Petrel (off the North Cape) above as compared to Pycroft's Petrel (off the Mercury Islands)below

Note although the top bird has a very reduced supercillium and full collar its structure is very different from the bottom petrel which is a Pycroft's. The Cook's has a slimmer look with a longer neck, while the Pycroft's has a short bull neck. The Cook's bill is long and slim with the Pycroft's being shorter but thicker.
These differences in structure were a bit easier to appreciate for me at least than the longer wings and shorter tail of the Cook's.
The Cook's clearly shows a dark eye patch that is often absent in Pycroft's but along with the other plumage characteristics this is likely quite variable.

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Brent entertaining us with some scintillating conversation on the return from the North Cape

We headed back for anther relaxing night at the North Cape and then in the morning back to Houhora. We never made it to the Three Kings Island as the water conditions were far better to the east of the Islands.
I wasn't complaining it had been a fantastic trip with some really great opportunities to observe and photograph some excellent sea birds.
I was especially pleased to get such close looks and studies of at least 25 different
Black-winged Petrels.

First Image First Image Black-winged Petrels, off the North Cape, NZ

Brent graciously drove Neil and I back to Auckland.

The next day Alan Howatson picked me up and we drove up the Coromandel Peninsula to Whitianga for the first of two pelagic trips out to the Mercury Islands.


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Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

The Mercury Islands are quite well known for being the primary nesting location for the rare Pycroft's Petrel with Red Mercury having the largest colony.
There is a current project to translocate chicks to other areas such as Motuora Island in the Hauraki Gulf
Here is a link to
Seabirds of the Hauraki Gulf, Naturasl History, Research & Conservation by Chris Gaskin & Matt Rayner .

First Image Allan Howatson and Ian Clow on the Sapphire at Whitianga

We had made arrangements on the recommendation of Brent and Sav at
Wrybill Birding Tours to do two day trips out of Whitianga with Ian Clow on the Sapphire.
This ended up being as great choice the boat was perfect and large enough to manage the fairly rough weather and Ian knew his birds well and most importantly how to find and bring in
Pycroft's Petrel.

First Image Red Mercury Island home to the world's largest Pycroft's Petrel colony

We left Whitianga at about 1:00PM on March 7th and proceeded out towards the Mercury Islands. On the way out of Mercury Bay we had a couple Parasitic Jaegers.
The usual Hauraki Gulf sea birds were present in good numbers -
Fluttering, Flesh-footed and Buller's Shearwaters along with several Parkinson's Petrels.

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Flesh-footed Shearwater, off the Mercury Islands, NZ

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Buller's Shearwater, off the Mercury Islands, NZ

First Image Parkinson's Petrels, off the Mercury Islands, NZ

We positioned ourselves at about the 100 fathom line about 15km south east of Red Mercury Island and started chumming.
It wasn't long before our first
Pycroft's Petrel came into have a look.

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Pycroft's Petrels, off the Mercury Islands

We saw 15-20 cookilaria on the first day out and we thought probably most were Pycroft's with one being likely a Cook's. On day we used a similar strategy as day one but it was much calmer and we saw fewer Pycroft's intially. As we headed back a brisk off -shore breeze came up and we noted over 100 Pycroft's rafting up a couple of kilometers south of the island.

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Pycroft's Petrels, off the Mercury Islands

There is definitely quite a bit of variation in this species which is hard to get a handle on given its similarity to Cook's Petrel.
Below are a few cookilaria from the Mercury Islands that are somewhat atypical but I think are Pycroft's based on structure.

First Image First Image First Image Atypical but probable Pycroft's Petrels, off the Mercury Islands

We spent a great two days off the Mercury Islands and Ian did a fantastic job of showing us around. We had lots of other seabirds including the third local record (the first being the Jan.2003 sighting/pictures on a Wrybill pelagic) of New Zealand Storm-petrel, White-faced and Wilson's Storm-petrel, Fairy Prion, Common Diving Petrel and the regulars mentioned above.

First Image Scenic rocks as the sunsets upon Mercury Bay

This is really a nice area from all perspectives. The town is tidy and has some nice accommodations and restaurants. The offshore area is peppered with a vast assortment of interesting islets and is very scenic.
Ian was the perfect host even supplying us with his wife's tasty shortbread. We left quite satisfied that we had experienced Pycroft's Petrel in its home environment.

We had a couple of days before are Hauraki Gulf trip so we checked out a couple spots north of Auckland including the Muriwai Beach,
Australasian Gannet colony.

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Australasian Gannet colony, Muriwai, NZ

We arrived to witness a large chic slip over the edge of the cliff to near certain death before being rescued by mother at the very last minute

First Image Australasian Gannet chic rescued at last moment, Muriwai, NZ

It was very hot and the light was extremely harsh but we managed a few decent photos.

First Image First Image First Image Australasian Gannets, Muriwai, NZ

White-fronted Terns and Kelp Gulls soared along the cliff edges

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Kelp Gull, juvenile, Muriwai, NZ
The next day we went up to Waipu specifically to look for Fairy Tern. Apparently this is New Zealand's most endagered bird with less than 40 individuals and a mere 9 breeding pairs.

First Image Fairy Tern, Waipu, NZ

We were lucky to find a single Fairy Tern resting on the beach. Variable Oystercatchers were present in good numbers along with a few New Zealand Dotterels.

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Variable Oystercatcher, Waipu, NZ

I had to wonder if the white bellies on the Variable Oystercatchers were more to do with introgression with South Island Oystercatchers than actual variation within the species.
We spent the night at Warkworth and on the morning of March 11th we were at the dock at Sandspit eager for a day of pelagic birding on the Hauraki Gulf.
Several
Banded Rails and a large flock of South Island Oystercatches joined us in the parking lot of the marina.

First Image South Island Oystercatcher, Sandspit, NZ

Brett Rathe picked us up in the Assassin at 0800 as planned. Brett has been right there from the start taking Bob Flood and Bryan Thomas out on the famous pelagic of Nov. 17/2003 were they photographed numerous New Zealand Storm-petrels resurrecting the species from extinction.
Brett has subsequently been involved in capturing and tracking this species to its breeding grounds on Little Barrier Island. Brett states proudly that he has seen more New Zealand Storm-petrels "than any other living person".

First Image First Image First Image Fluttering Shearwaters, Kawau Bay, NZ

As we left Sandspit and entered Kawau Bay we came across a massive flock of 1000s of rafting
Fluttering Shearwaters.

The usual Hauraki sea birds including
Flesh-footed and Buller's Shearwaters and Parkinson's Petrels were quickly noted as we entered the Gulf.
A
Cook's Petrel made a quick pass by the boat.

First Image First Image Cook's Petrel, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

Brett was true to his word and it wasn't long before we had a steady following of
New Zealand Storm-petrels behind the Assassin.
It was incredibly bright with not a cloud in the sky, this and the very erratic fight of the Storm-petrels made photography very challenging.

First Image First Image First Image New Zealand Storm-petrels, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

The White-faced Storm-petrels were considerably easier to follow having a much more predictable course than the ultra-erratic New Zealand Storm-petrels.

First Image White-faced Storm-petrel, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

A lone Fairy Prion joined the Storm-petrels off the back of the boat for a few minutes. We saw but a few of these birds apparently they tend to raft up in huge flocks so you tend to see a thousand or none depending on your luck.

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Fairy Prion, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

Pterodromas seemed quite scarce and Brett felt that a large number of Cook's Petrels had likely dispersed out of the Gulf post-breeding.

First Image First Image Cook's Petrels, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

We had a great experience with New Zealand Storm-petrel which was really the reason we were out. We had fifteen or more birds behind the boat for hours thanks to Brett's masterful chumming.
We were in sight of
Little Barrier Island the sole breeding sight for this enigmatic species for most of what was a fantastic day.

First Image First Image First Image New Zealand Storm-petrels, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

We returned to Sandspit fully satisfied. It had been another great day at sea. I was really impressed by Brett Rathe and his knowledge and professionalism. The same could be said for Ian Clow and of course Brett and Sav at Wrybill.

It seems that the New Zealanders have got this seabirding thing down to an art form.

First Image New Zealand Storm-petrels, Hauraki Gulf, NZ

We had a couple days left in New Zealand at the
Miranda Shorebird Centre which is a a world class birding site and an essential stop on any tour of new Zealand. The on-site accommodations are great and a bargain.
After a couple of days relaxing at Miranda we were off on the next part of the Western Pacific Adventure for a week on a catamaran off New Caledonia. Stay tuned.

Kirk Zufelt
World Pelagic Birding Headquarters
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Canada