Scientists closer to finding 'extinct' bird

CATHERINE WOULFE
Last updated 05:00 07/12/2011

In September, I wrote this Sunday Star-Times feature about the rediscovery of a beautiful, enigmatic little seabird, which had been presumed extinct for more than 150 years.

Today I've got an encouraging update for you.

But first, for those who can't be bothered to read the linked story, a bit of background:

The New Zealand storm petrel dropped off the radar in about 1895. It was rediscovered by birdwatchers in 2003, near the Mercury Islands. But no-one knows how or where the birds survived, or how many are left.

We also don't know where they're breeding. It's crucial that we figure that out, because conservation funding hinges on whether the birds are breeding in New Zealand or overseas. Finding the breeding grounds would also go a long way towards working out how many birds are left. (We know there are at least a few dozen, as flocks of that size are now regularly seen in the Hauraki Gulf in summertime).

So a team of scientists and conservationists has been working in the Hauraki Gulf, (with the help of a $20,000 grant from the BirdLife International Community Conservation Fund) to find the nesting sites.

Here's the update. Chris Gaskin, spokesperson for that team, has sent me a photograph of the bird with a stalk tangled in its legs. Gaskin and his team have spent a long time scrutinising that stalk, and they've worked out it's from a houpara plant.

It's most likely the bird picked up the stalk while it was shuffling along the ground at its nesting site. (They never actually land anywhere else). This is huge news in itself: it strongly suggests that the birds are breeding in New Zealand.

Further, the bird in the photo has tatty feathers, which suggests it's been shuffling around on land recently, which suggests it's been breeding recently.

Back to the stalk. The team worked out all the islands that houpara plants grow on. Then they crossed out all the islands that are known to have rats, because if rats were present the birds would likely have been wiped out.

That knocked out about 10 islands but still leaves a few dozen.

The hunt continues...

If you're keen to go and see these gorgeous birds for yourself this summer, look up www.nzseabirds.com or www.wrybilltours.com.

If you happen to see a New Zealand storm petrel anywhere other than the Hauraki Gulf, try to take a photo, and contact the Ornithological Society: www.osnz.org.nz

The group trying to locate the birds' breeding grounds needs sponsorship to continue the search. Please contact Chris Gaskin at info@nzseabirds.com if you can help.

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