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Despatches from across the ditch

Gary W. Wilson | Guest Contributor

Aotearoa/New Zealand is a centre of seabird diversity: seabirds constitute around 30% of all New Zealand’s native birds, both extinct and extant (Wilson 2021).

New Zealand has approximately 350 species of birds: of which 93 breed in New Zealand and 42 are Endemic. The monitoring of New Zealand’s birds and their status is an ongoing task, as are efforts to conserve them and facilitate their breeding success. The latter is often being done by protecting breeding sites on islands and headlands, from the activities of predators. Notable and well-known examples are on Waiheke, Great Barrier Island, and The Poor Knights Islands off the East Coast, and Whangārei Heads on the adjoining coast, of the North Island.

While the number of seabird species present in New Zealand’s waters is substantial, many can only be seen in offshore trips to identified hot spots, and regular pelagic trips catering for bird watchers are now commonplace.

In this article I discuss Petrel Station Pelagics, a scientifically-oriented operation run by ornithologist Scott Brookes, out of the delightful seaside village of Tutukaka, three hours north of Auckland. Scott started running trips in 2017 from Tutukaka to the edge of the drop-off shelf, some 40 kms offshore, in order to observe and learn more about the seabirds in an area of known biodiversity value.

Using a sturdy 9m powerboat and with numbers limited to eight guests/observers, a typical trip takes all day and ventures out via the Poor Knights Islands; drifts and chums for several hours on the shelf margin; and returns past the Pinnacle Rocks.

After the success of initial trips and some very interesting sightings of birds, fish, and marine mammals, the word spread, public interest grew, and more trips were planned. A dedicated band of observers and photographers soon formed and Scott formalised the trips to maximise their scientific value.

The trips traverse three distinct ecosystems, each with an attendant avifauna. In this way and by recording environmental parameters on each occasion, and conducting trips across all seasons, a valuable data set on bird species presence and activities is being compiled. Also, in this way comparable data sets are compiled and uploaded to eBird.

The inshore leg encompasses the Tutukaka Harbour and surrounding area.

A view across the marina in Tutukaka towards the Quality Hotel Oceans by GW Wilson.

The second leg includes the Poor Knights Islands, which are in a marine reserve (with no landing allowed) and adjacent shelf area. The Islands are important as the only breeding site for Buller’s Shearwater (Ardenna bulleri), and they are often seen in large numbers on upwellings of fish on the surrounding shelf.

These upwellings can be visually spectacular with a suite of fish species, smallest above and larger below, churning the water and being harried by the birds, including Australasian Gannets from a nearby nesting colony, plunge-diving from above. It is worth mentioning that in three back-to-back trips in December 2023, a group of visiting Australian birders saw more than 180,000 birds of 37 species, numerically mostly Shearwaters and Fairy Prion (Pachyptila turtur) over upwellings at this location.

Mixed species of seabirds (mostly Buller’s Shearwaters and Fairy Prion) feeding about an upwelling of fish near the Poor Knights Islands by GW Wilson.

Apart from the spectacular scenery of the Islands, there is also a chance of seeing Red-crowned Parakeet (Kākāriki) (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae), now restricted to predator-free islands and adjacent mainland sanctuary areas.

The third leg of the trip is out to the edge of the shelf. While some species of birds follow the boat to this location, it is out here that the highlights often occur. A sea anchor is deployed and the boat allowed to drift, with chum put overboard, for several hours. After what is often a slow start, the pace quickens and the low deck and all-round access offers unparalleled views of incoming birds and those landed on the water.

White-capped (Shy) Albatross by GW Wilson.

The highlights vary depending on what each participant wants to see or has on their bucket list, but the arrival of one, two or three species of Albatross, including the White-capped (Shy) Albatross (Thalassarche cauta) which I photographed (above) tends to please everyone. Personally, I am entranced by the New Zealand Storm-Petrels (Fregetta maoriana) walking on water – so small and dainty for being so far out to sea, but so active and difficult to photograph.

New Zealand Storm-Petrel on the shelf margin by GW Wilson.

In addition to the birds, other species respond to the rain of food coming down from above, and we are often visited by a Blue Shark, and less frequently by other shark species. Speaking of food, something some guests do not want to think about at this time and location, though a welcome tradition for those who do, is the Ginger Crumble supplied by Scott (baked fresh by his wife). Ginger is always a remedy for a queasy tummy….

The run home tends to yield more observations of interest. In addition to the birds, we often see Sunfish, and occasionally Orca, Manta Ray, and Whale sp. The return trip passes by The Pinnacles and High Peak Rock, and offers views of the Gannet and New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) colonies on them.

High Peak Rock by GW Wilson.
New Zealand Fur-Seal on The Pinnacles by GW Wilson.
Homeward bound on a calm sea after a good day on a pelagic trip is always a good feeling by RF Wilson.

Scott maintains an excellent website (see below) and it is worth visiting it to catch up with recent observations and plans for the future. I note that at the moment 68 species of seabirds have been seen on Petrel Station Pelagics trips and observations of rare and/or infrequently seen species are being made quite often, The data being collected is making a substantial contribution to our understanding of seabird species occurrence, movements, and ecology.

Gary W Wilson

Parua Bay, Northland, New Zealand

For further information or to book a trip, visit:

Literature cited

Wilson, K-J (2021) New Zealand Seabirds: A Natural History. Potton & Burton, Nelson.


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