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nz storm petrel

Mystery storm-petrel seen off Whitianga, New Zealand – could it be an extinct species?

by Brent Stephenson and Sav Saville


During a pelagic trip, organised by Brent Stephenson, off Whitianga, on the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand, on 25 January 2003, an unusual storm-petrel was seen. White-faced storm-petrels, Pelagodroma marina, had been in almost constant view for the previous hour or more, when Sav Saville spotted a different bird approaching from the north. Sav initially called the bird as a "white-rumped storm petrel" having initially seen what seemed to be an all-dark upperside with gleaming white rump. BS quickly got onto the bird as it turned to show its undersides, revealing a big flash of white.

The bird was in view for approximately 1 minute, in which time it did several arcs in front of the boat, before heading strongly away from the boat. The views were quite close in good light, but fairly brief, from a pitching deck. Those who saw the bird best (including BS and SS) were quite convinced that it was a black-bellied SP, Fregetta tropica, (even though the time and place were strange) because they all thought that the bird actually had a dark stripe through the centre of the belly. Photographs later showed that this was not the case, and that the 'stripe' must have been a light effect, perhaps aided by the dark streaking on the upper breast. The flight of the bird was rather strong, with no characteristic Fregetta fluttering, and it only made contact with the water surface a couple of times, appearing to quite strongly ‘push off’ from the water. One of the photos taken shows this contact with the water.

Furthermore, the photographs (six of them in all) show a bird that in many ways does not fit the typical Fregetta ‘jizz’ or plumages (even considering the fact that both species have highly variable plumages). Following our initial discussions with Australian and New Zealand birders and ornithologists, a somewhat joking comment was made about the fact that it appeared to fit the plumage of the ‘extinct’ New Zealand storm-petrel, Oceanites maorianus. This little known species, sometimes considered as a subspecies of Wilson's SP, Oceanites oceanicus, had whitish underparts and underwing, and it was also slightly bigger than Wilson’s. Is there a possibility that this species is still extant – it would not be the first time a seabird has been rediscovered after being presumed extinct!

Your comments are welcomed, please email me at info@wrybill-tours.com For further information and photographs of this bird, please visit http://www.wrybill-tours.com/idproblems/stormpet.htm