WPA - New Caledonia S-p Expedition

investigating "new" storm-petrel species

New Caledonia Storm-petrel Expedition

On March 16th/13 Alan Howatson, Chris Collins and myself landed in Noumea, New Caledonia. We quickly met up with the other expedition members Dick Newell, Helena Jefferson and John Brown. Julien Baudat-Franceschi the local representative from Birdlife International representative was also joining us along with Nick Breurton from New Zealand who was instrumental in providing technical support. This expedition had been in the works for some time and was a joint venture lead by Chris Collins and Aaron Russ with the primary goal of capturing a "New Caledonia" Storm-petrel to obtain precise measurements and DNA with the hope of describing it as a new species.

First Image Julien Baudat-Franceschi, Alan Howatson, Dick Newell, Helena Jefferson, Nick Breurton, Chris Collins, John Brown, Kirk Zufelt -off New Caledonia

The history of the discovery of the "New Caledonia" Storm-petrel is known to many and to long to recount here. If you are unfamiliar with the tale it is covered nicely in Chris Collin's
review here. Although still controversial I believe that The "New Caledonia" Storm-petrel is a distinct species with relatively distinct morphological and plumage differences from the New Zealand Storm-petrel. The two historic specimens of "Streaky" Storm-petrels from Samoa and the Marquesas Islands suggest the possibility of this or other sibling species existing historically and possibly still today in other areas of the western Pacific.

First Image New Caledonia, Western Pacific Ocean

My personal belief is that the "New Caledonia" and New Zealand Storm-petrels are sibling species and remnants of what was likely a more wind-spread distribution of these and possibly other similar species that have been driven to extinction or the brink of extinction by introduced predators starting hundreds of years ago with the Polynesian Rat. If the Cahow can elude detection for 400 or so years off Bermuda then it isn't terribly shocking that the "New Caledonian" Storm-petrel has up until recently eluded attention of the birding world.

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

The sibling species concept has several precedents both in Storm-petrels (Band-rumped Storm-petrels in the Macronesian Islands) and in other seabird families of the western Pacific (Tahiti & Beck's Petrels / White-necked and Vanuatu Petrels). In all of theses examples the sibling species are very similar in plumage and often morphology. The differences between the "New Caledonian" Storm-petrel and the New Zealand Storm-petrel would appear to be consistent and more distinctive than the aforementioned examples of other generally accepted sibling species.

First Image Early morning outside Park Provincal de la Riviere Blue, New Caledonia

Prior to departing on the expedition we took the opportunity to visit the famous Park Provincal de la Riviere Blue. This is of course home to the legendary Kagu and a number of other New Caledonian endemics.

First Image First Image First Image Kagu hijinks, Park Provincal de la Riviere Blue, New Caledonia

We departed Noumea fully stocked with fish oil, chum and Rice Crispies. Before leaving the lagoon we saw lots of terns including Black-naped, Great crested and Bridled as well as a couple of hundred Black Noddies. In the early AM as we passed the reef we saw over a 1000 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and 100 plus Gould's Petrels streaming out to the open ocean south of the island. We headed south to the areas were the mystery storm-petrel had been spotted originally and tried are luck.

First Image Black Noddy, a common inshore species in New Caledonia

We chummed for several hours and a good selection of seabirds including Black-winged, White-necked, Gould's and Tahiti Petrels, a plethora of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and at least 5 Wilson's Storm-petrels. However there was no sign of our quarry.

First Image First Image First Image Black-winged Petrel, south of New Caledonia

The next day we started chumming early and once again we had a good variety of seabirds. at least 25 Tahiti Petrels enjoyed the oil slick and feasted on the oil soaked Rice-crispies. I suspect this is one of the best locations in the world for viewing this species. They nest in the mountainous regions of New Caledonia and were seen daily in numbers up to 50 or more individuals. They were readily attracted to the oil slicks and seemed to have a fondness for Rice-crispies

First Image First Image First Image Tahiti Petrel, south of New Caledonia

Finally after over three hours of patient waiting a "New Caledonia" Storm-petrel was spotted off the end of the slick. The team quickly mobilized, the Zodiac launched and the net gun readied. After about 20 minutes the bird headed right towards the team. The net gun was fired..... but alas a strong wind stopped the net just short of its quarry. Hopefully we would get more opportunities.

First Image The Team mobilizes

This is a good point to present my photos of the
"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel (NCSP) and to explain why I think this bird is distinct from New Zealand Storm-petrel (NZSP). Just prior to the New Caledonia expedition I had spent a couple weeks in New Zealand seabirding. I saw and photographed a number of different NZSPs off the North Cape, observed a single bird off the Mercury Island and had 15+ birds for most of the day following the boat in the Hauraki Gulf. This was important preliminary work for familiarizing myself with the NZSP.

So here goes-the key points differentiating NCSP from NZSP (all NZSP pictures were taken in NZ in March/13, all NCSP pictures taken off New Caledonia March/13)

NCSP has significantly less white on the underwing coverts -the white terminating at the end off the underwing arm and not proceeding up into the hand

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, showing white underwing coverts restricted to the arm

In the NZSP the white appears to extend well into the hand. This is very consistent in all the photos I had and all the photos on the net I studied.

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New Zealand Storm-petrel consistently showing white underwing coverts well into the hand

Although a bit less definable the NCSP appears to have extensive thick streaking especially on the flanks. This seems to be consistent in the relatively small number of birds seen since 2008.

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, showing heavy dense streaking & restricted white underwing coverts

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New Zealand Storm-petrel, tends to have less dense and finer streaking but this is variable, note extensive white underwing coverts

Even more convincing in my mind were the structural features that separate NCSP from NZ. Overall the NCSP seems slimmer, longer and lankier with significantly longer wings, tail and head projection. To my eye after examining all the pictures we took and those available I am convinced that this a real and relatively obvious difference.

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, showing its slim and lanky jizz

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New Zealand Storm-petrel, showing stubby and stout look, shorter wings,tail and head projection

In the pictures it became quite obvious that the NCSP had what appeared to be a longer tail in comparison with the rump patch, and a longer caudal projection.

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, tail at least twice as long as width of rump patch, with slim-headed look

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New Zealand Storm-petrel, tail less than 1.5 x as long as width of rump patch, with bull-headed look

One more set of comparative views

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, above- New Zealand Strom Petrel, below- similar but different

One last NCSP picture. This shows that the wing coverts are quite worn and this realistically eliminates the possibility that this is a juvenile NZSP an explanation suggested by some.

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, showing worn coverts making this most unlikely to be a juvenile NZSP

We were pleased to have seen the NCSP and disappointed that we were unable to capture it despite a decent opportunity.
We decided to move further a field hoping to find the "mother-load" of NCSPs. We opted to go to the southeast of the island and tried our luck at several spots southeast of the Isle of Pines.
The usual birds were present including of course good numbers of
Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

First Image First Image First Image Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, off New Caledonia

On March 19th the bird of the day was a very cooperative Providence Petrel that stayed with the slick for at least 30 minutes allowing careful study as it feasted on Rice-crispies a la tuna oil.

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Providence Petrel, off New Caledonia
and White-necked Petrels were seen and we had a brief encounter with a Herald Petrel.
The New Caledonian
Gould's Petrels, Pterodroma leucoptera caledonica , breeds only in the mountains of Grand Terre, New Caledonia. This taxa has a very complex pelagic distribution which is just currently being fully elucidated by geolocator studies.

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Gould's Petrel, off New Caledonia

Despite intensive scrutiny we never did see a Collared Petrel on the trip which was a bit of a surprise but in fact they appeared to be very few and far between in 2013 with very few being seen on the subsequent WPO.
Along with the tubenoses we had a lot of other seabirds including
Great and Lesser Frigatebirds, White and Bridled Tern and Brown and Red-footed Boobies.

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Red-footed Booby, "Gold Morph"-stunning bird, off New Caledonia

After two full days of chumming and intensive scrutiny we had not seen a single NCSP to the southwest of the island and with only a couple days remaining we decided to return to our previous location.
On the way back we stopped for a few hours for a"field trip" to Koko Island.

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The Catamaran and Koko Island above, off New Caledonia
There is a large colony of Red-footed Boobies on the island along with lots of Black Noddies but the most common inhabitant seemed to be the New Caledonian Sea Snake.

First Image First Image New Caledonian Sea Snake, Koko Island

This species endemic to New Caledonia is from the sea krait family and is venomous to the very extreme (venom more toxic than a cobra). Rumoured to be quite placid the one pictured below flew out of the sand a good five feet into the air directly at Alan Howatson's head.

First Image New Caledonian Sea Snake after vanquishing Alan to the distant side of the island, Koko Island

We hiked around the island and the Red-footed Boobies were most interested in our activities.

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John Brown, giving a Booby directions to Fiji, Koko Island

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Dick Newell sporting a daring new look in headwear, Chris Collins looking on enviously, Koko Island

First Image First Image Red-footed Booby, white morph adult, Koko Island

Along with Silver Gulls there were Great-Crested and Bridled Terns and numerous breeding Black Noddies.

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Silver Gulls, hanging on the beach, New Caledonia

First Image First Image Black Noddies, Koko Island

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Black Noddy on nest , Koko Island

First Image First Image Bridled Tern, Koko Island

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Brown Booby, off Koko Island

The next day we returned to the original sighting area but unfortunately a brisk wind had risen and the sea conditions were such that launching the small Zodiac was not an option.
Of course we had a NCSP in the slick for well over an hour with lots of opportunity to study the bird. It was certainly wary never coming in close to the boat.

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"New Caledonia" Storm-petrel, off New Caledonia

With the brisk wind It was a good day for seabirds with lots of Tahiti Petrels. Pteredromas included Gould's, White-necked and Black-winged Petrels. Wedge-tailed Shearwaters escorted us back through the reef towards Noumea.

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White-necked Petrel, off New Caledonia

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Gould's Petrel, off New Caledonia

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Tahiti Petrel, off New Caledonia

We headed back to New Caledonia with a bit of disappointment as we had not achieved our primary goal of capturing a NCSP and getting measurements and samples for DNA.
However spending a week on a catamaran photographing tropical seabirds isn't exactly a hardship.

First Image Large numbers of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, off New Caledonia

First Image The expedition crew heading back to New Caledonia

All in all it was a great trip. Chris Collins did a fantastic job with the logistics, there was good food and lots of entertainment. We enjoyed lots of good conversation and of course we saw lots of excellent seabirds.
Good luck to Chris, Adam and the 2014 NCSP Expedition.

Kirk Zufelt
World Pelagic Birding Headquarters
Sault Ste. Marie, ON