The ‘rediscovery’ of the extinct New Zealand storm-petrel


On 25th January 2003 a possible sighting of the supposedly extinct New Zealand storm-petrel, NZSP, Oceanites maorianus, was made by Brent Stephenson, Sav Saville, and several other birders, during a pelagic out of Whitianga, New Zealand (full information on the initial sighting and the subsequent debate can be found here, whilst a trip report written from that day can be found here). The above photo, and several others, were taken of the bird and subsequently caused a great stir amongst the birding and scientific community within New Zealand and elsewhere. Could the supposedly extinct NZSP, known only from three specimens, not even adequately described, and having not been seen since the collection of the last specimen over 150 years ago, still be alive!!??

Many thought not, stating they thought the photos showed nothing other than a Black-bellied Storm-petrel – BBSP, Fregetta tropica, or White-bellied Storm-petrel – WBSP, Fregetta grallaria. The fact that there wasn’t even a concensus between these two species, and a nagging doubt that it just didn’t fit either of these spurred us on to get to the bottom of it all. Several prominent seabird biologists and birders suggested that we were on to something, and thanks must go to Ian Southey, Bill Bourne, and Hadoram Shirihai for their support early on.

New Zealand has already witnessed the ‘rediscovery’ of at least two supposedly extinct species, the Takahe and the Taiko, so perhaps this wasn’t such a bizarre thought. Well it certainly wasn’t!! On 17 November 2003 Bob Flood and Bryan Thomas chartered a boat out of Auckland and chummed at a location just north of Little Barrier Island. To cut a long story short – see the full story here – they observed, photographed, and videod 10 -20 birds identical to that which we had seen on 25 January. An article by Bob Flood has just been published in the December 2003 issue of ‘Birding World’, along with superb photos by Bryan Thomas, and effectively this confirms the existence of this supposedly extinct species.

Bob Flood would like the following erratum to be noted –

“Bob Flood’s article on the New Zealand Storm-petrel was published in Birding World on December 10th. Bob has noticed that the caption to Plates 6 & 7 is incorrect. The caption should read, ‘Black-bellied Storm-petrel Fregetta tropica c.40 kms east of Southport, Queensland, Australia, November 15, 2003 (Bryan Thomas …’. Bringing this error to the attention of interested parties will prevent confusion.”

Click here to see information with text by Bob Flood, including a full description, and photos by Bryan Thomas. We are very grateful to them for kindly making this available to us!

Subsequent trips into the Hauraki Gulf have seen these birds, and on 18 January 2004, a group led by Brent, with TV3 onboard, found, photographed and obtained video footage of New Zealand storm-petrel. This ‘exclusive’ formed the lead story during TV3’s News on 19 January 2004. Click here to see more information on the day, and photos of some of the birds seen.

The above photograph is copyrighted. If you would like to use it, then please contact me first.

The New Zealand storm-petrel today

It is hard to believe that today, during late-October through to April each summer, we can take a day trip into several parts of northern New Zealand, and see this once ‘extinct’ bird.  Of course it was there all the time, we just didn’t realise.  During our single day pelagics from Marsden Cove and Sandspit, we have an excellent chance of seeing this bird, bouncing off the waves and feeding, along with other endemic breeding seabirds, at the back of the boats we charter.  Take a look at our Pelagic Birding trips page for more information on these trips.

In January 2003, the pelagic seabirding world was a very different one.  Pelagic birding trips were not as commonly run as they are today, and digital photography was only just beginning.  Now there are pelagic birding trips being run regularly in many corners of the World, and these days people wielding digital cameras with incredible optics is par for the course.  But we are still discovering new things, and this is still part of the reason we love going to sea.  The incredible feeling that you really don’t know what you are going to see that day as you steam out of the port, is as true today as it was back then.

That day off Whitianga was a day neither Sav nor I will ever forget.  The ensuing days just as memorable, as we see-sawed between not believing it really could be the enigmatic bird, to being absolutely dead-certain.  Being able to hold the first New Zealand storm-petrel with a targeted capture at sea (using a net-gun) was truly surreal, and spending several summers capturing more in the hope of finding where the birds bred an amazing experience.  During the initial days, Little Barrier was always near the top of the suspected breeding sites, and as it turned out, when the birds were eventually tracked to land in Feb 2013, it was to Little Barrier.  This island remains the sole known breeding site for the species.

If you are planning a trip to New Zealand, then you really need to come out and see this bird with us!

Suggested further reading

Flood, B. 2003. The New Zealand storm-petrel is not extinct. Birding World 16: 479-483.

Rayner, M.J., Gaskin, C.P., Fitzgerald, N.B., Baird, K.A.,  Berg, M.M., Boyle D., Joyce, L., Landers, T.J.,  Loh, G.G., Maturin, S., Perrimen, L., Scofield, R.P., Simm, J., Southey, I., Taylor, G.A., Tennyson, A.J.D.,  Robertson, B.C., Young, M., Walle, R., Ismar, S.M.H. 2015. Using miniaturized radio telemetry to discover the breeding grounds of the endangered New Zealand Storm Petrel Fregetta maoriana. Ibis 157: 754-766.

Saville, S.; Stephenson, B.; Southey, I. 2003. A possible sighting of an ‘extinct’ bird – the New Zealand Storm-Petrel. Birding World 16: 173-175.

Stephenson, B.M., Flood, R., Thomas, B., and Saville, S. 2008.  Rediscovery of the New Zealand storm petrel (Pealeornis maoriana Mathews 1932): two sightings that revised our knowledge of storm petrels.  Notornis 55: 77-83.

Stephenson, B.M.; Gaskin, C.P.; Griffiths, R.; Jamieson, H.; Baird, K.A.; Palma, R.L.; Imber, M.J. 2008. The New Zealand storm petrel (Pealeornis maoriana Mathews, 1932): first live capture and species assessment of an enigmatic seabird. Notornis 55: 191-206.