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‘Extinct’ sea bird once again caught

30 November 2007

‘Extinct’ sea bird once again caught in the Hauraki Gulf

The once presumed extinct New Zealand storm petrel has again been recently captured in the Hauraki Gulf but its breeding site remains a mystery.

A team including Department of Conservation staff and scientists, funded jointly by DOC and a grant from National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration, caught three birds during October and early November this year. This brings the tally to seven birds captured since the petrel was rediscovered by Dr Stephenson and Sav Saville of the coast of Whitianga in January 2003.

Ornithologist Dr Stephenson, who snared two birds with one shot using a custom-made net gun, said the moment was unforgettable.

“It’s not everyday you get to hold a seabird that for 150 years was thought to be extinct, let alone hold two.”

None of the captured birds showed signs of breeding, so the birds were released without attaching transmitters, said Dr Stephenson. The transmitters are used to track the birds with the aim of discovering which island they are breeding on.

Despite this, information from the birds will be useful, with measurements and photographs important to understanding this little known bird. DNA from the birds will also be compared with that taken from skins from NZ storm petrels caught in the 1800s. Dr Bruce Robertson from the School of Biological Sciences at Canterbury University is conducting this work.

DOC officer Karen Baird said it was thought the petrels might be breeding on islands where rodents had been eradicated such as the Mokohinau islands.

“One of the theories is that the birds survived in very low numbers on an island where rats were present and once the rats were removed the birds have been quietly building up in numbers until they began to be noticed several years ago.”

Last year three storm petrels were caught and fitted with minute radio transmitters, weighing just one gram. However, extensive searches by plane around islands in the Hauraki Gulf failed to reveal any of the birds on land. The photos, measurements and DNA samples from these birds enabled them to be confirmed as the long lost New Zealand storm petrel, said Ms Baird.

Boaties are asked to keep an eye out for this small black and white bird. Phone sightings to the 24 hour free DOC hotline – 0800 DOCHOT (362468) – or send photos and details to ‘NZ storm petrel sightings’, Department of Conservation, PO Box 474, Warkworth. A fact sheet is available from DOC Warkworth.

This year’s expedition was also supported by local fishing charter operator Brett Rathe and the New Zealand Navy, with time spent onboard navy vessels HMNZS Kahu and Kiwi.

The New Zealand storm-petrel is about 20 cm long and is black and white with black streaks on the belly. It lives and feeds at sea, only returning to land to breed.

ENDS

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