The Jesus bird returns

CATHERINE WOULFE
Last updated 05:00 25/09/2011
birderwide
JOHN COWPLAND

Photographer and birdwatcher Brent Stephenson on a Napier beach.

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No one knows how many are left or where they breed. But we now know that the New Zealand storm petrel lives. Catherine Woulfe with the remarkable story of how a bird 'extinct' for 150 years came back from the dead.

The New Zealand storm petrel flutters along the surface of the water like a big butterfly, slapping the water with its feet – a habit that has earned all storm petrels the nickname "Jesus birds".

It doesn't follow boats. It is quiet and lives almost its whole life at sea, landing only to breed, and then only at night. It looks a lot like one of the world's most common seabirds, Wilson's storm petrel. All of which explains, perhaps, how for more than 150 years, it did not officially exist.

But it was there: DNA from birds caught in the Hauraki Gulf has just been matched to tissue fragments of the "extinct" species, sent from museums in England and France. So last month, eight years after the bird was first spotted near the Mercury Islands, this line appeared in an academic article: "We can therefore confirm that the previously presumed-extinct New Zealand storm-petrel has indeed been rediscovered."

WE'RE AT this point thanks to a series of fortunate coincidences. The most fortunate is that this bird survived for a century and a half with no deliberate help from humans, from a population base some experts believe to have been quite low. (Only three museum specimens exist, the last received in 1895, which could indicate that no one collected them, or there were not many there to collect.)

No one knows how the birds managed this. Perhaps they existed in reasonable numbers in the Hauraki Gulf the whole time, but we've only just noticed them, thanks to changes in camera technology, and the rise of the "drift and chum" method of attracting birds to boats, which involves hanging bags filled with pummelled fish over the side to create a slick of food.

Perhaps the birds spent those 150 years elsewhere and moved here due to climate change. Or, perhaps they clung to survival in tiny numbers on a rock in the gulf, and shifted to a bigger island in the past decade in the wake of DoC's rat-eradication programme.

This is the theory favoured by Ian "Sav" Saville, a Hawke's

Bay-based birder who on January 25, 2003, became the person to rediscover this enigmatic little bird.

Eight years later he's still enchanted by it: the petrel is the official mascot of the bird touring company he runs with photographer Brent Stephenson.

On that day, Stephenson, Saville, and about eight others chartered a fishing boat out of Whitianga. The plan was to have a nosy at seabirds in the Hauraki Gulf.

"It was a complete fluke," Saville says. "We saw heaps and heaps of the common storm petrels, the white-faced storm petrels, and then I just saw this little black and white thing..."

Saville called out "black and white storm petrel" and Stephenson, beside him on the top deck of the boat, managed five photographs as the bird raced toward the boat, did one quick lap, and raced off again.

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Four of the photos were of poor quality. But the fifth was a stunner: it clearly showed a white belly streaked with darker markings. The pair knew as soon as they saw it on the screen that this was odd. They emailed the photos to all the bird experts they could think of, all over the world, who told them what it was not. But they still didn't know what it was.

"It was not a bird that was on the radar of any birder," says Stephenson. "Really, the only people who knew about it were seabird taxonomists and museum people."

In Wellington, one of those people, Te Papa paleantologist Alan Tennyson, happened to hear about the mystery bird. The picture rang a bell – it looked like a bird from a book he'd read in high school – so he jokingly emailed Saville and Stephenson: "How about this for a suggestion way out of left field... it's Oceanites maorianus – the plumage matches!"

Saville didn't get the joke. He didn't know what Oceanites maorianus was [the Latin name was later changed] and his birding books were no help either: the bird was noted only as an afterthought, alongside entries on other storm petrels.

"The strange thing is nobody thought of it as an extinct bird," Saville says. "It had been sort of discarded. In the 1930s the

pre-eminent seabird experts of the world decided, off their own bat, that this thing wasn't a distinct species, that it was just an aberration of something else. And so it just got sort of put to one side and forgotten."

Soon after that, Saville bumped into birding guide Ian Southey, who had by chance just inspected the three skins in the museums – and taken photographs.

"He sent us the photographs and sure as eggs, there it was."

Saville and Stephenson published the story of their "possible sighting" in a UK birding magazine and walked on air for the next few months.

But they were laughed out of town by many experts, Saville says, and failed to spot the black-and-white bird on two subsequent outings in the gulf.

THEN, IN November 2003, British twitchers Robert Flood and Bryan Thomas had a dream day on the water: 20 minutes after starting their "drift and chum" just north of Little Barrier Island, the first black and white storm petrel appeared. Over the next 90 minutes, they photographed and filmed about 20 of the birds.

That was enough for the global conservation body Birding International to classify the rediscovered NZSP as "critically endangered". But DoC deemed the bird "data deficient". The New Zealand storm petrel is alone in this limbo-like category. Here's a catch-22: the bird will not be shifted out of that category, or attract any serious DoC funding, until we know where it breeds and how many are left. And to answer those questions costs money.

Even the new DNA evidence, which cleared up years of uncertainty over the bird, will not be enough to shunt the bird into a more useful category.

Dr Bruce Robertson, who led that work, was able to slot the bird into the storm petrel family tree – as a distinct species, not some freaky-feathered offshoot of another bird. He recommends it be renamed Fregetta maoriana, and says the DNA also suggests the population is not closely

inter-related. In his academic article, Robertson is assertive and optimistic: the DNA analysis will make the petrel "a conservation priority and allow conservation managers to start planning a species recovery program," he writes.

On the phone he's less confident.

"Yeah, I don't know." He sighs. "Conservation dollars are being slashed back... It could actually take quite a lot of effort.

"It could well be that they've just survived on some small rockstack somewhere that didn't have rodents or predators, so it might be like trying to find a needle in a haystack."

Stephenson, too, sounds jaded: "It's a very hard task to get money for this species. It should be a priority, but seabirds in New Zealand are receiving less and less funding... It's not a cute cuddly kakapo, or a big sort of in-your-face takahe, it's a little black and white bird that flits around at sea."

That little black and white bird is doing its very best to prove itself. During the two summers after its big reveal, it was spotted by at least 31 birdwatching groups in the gulf. Stephenson: "You can now go out pretty much any day in the summer, and see these birds – almost within sight of the Sky Tower."

In November 2005, one particularly determined bird flew into a boat and fluttered around fisherman and seabird expert Geordie Murman, one of the few people in the country who would recognise it.

Murman was having dinner at the time. He put the bird in a box and called a team of scientists who had chartered his boat for the next day, intending to observe the birds. The captured bird was measured and tagged, and the team took samples of its feathers and lice.

Over the next four years, 12 more birds were caught and released, but attempts to track them back to their breeding colonies failed, as none of the birds had the telltale "brood patches". These patches are areas of plucked down on the belly, which the birds use to transfer heat to eggs. To date, no one has caught a New Zealand storm petrel with one of these patches.

On the other hand, a few years ago the birds were spotted over land, at night, on a remote island in the gulf. And years of work by ornithologists, DoC staff and volunteers has narrowed the core search area down to the Mokohinau Islands, Little Barrier Island and Poor Knights Islands.

This month, Birding International gave a group of seabird experts from DoC, Forest & Bird and universities $20,000 to continue the search. This summer, they'll again be out on the water trying to catch the little bird and check for brood patches. And recording devices are set up on some of the islands, running all night in the hope a New Zealand storm petrel will pipe up.

The only problem is, they don't know what it sounds like.

SMILE FOR THE BIRDIE

Very little is known about the New Zealand storm petrel. Flocks of up to 30 have been seen but we don't know how many are left or where they breed. Each bird weighs about 35 grams and is roughly the size of a sparrow. Over summer they are based in the Hauraki Gulf. Late last summer, a handful of birds were spotted off New South Wales, and they have also been seen in winter, off New Caledonia, so perhaps they migrate to warmer waters.

Storm petrels are the smallest of all seabirds. They are in the "tubenosed" family, along with albatrosses and shearwaters, and live their whole lives at sea, coming ashore only to breed and landing only at night. Storm petrels mate for life and may live for 30 years. Each pair lays one egg each season, in a burrow (although the New Zealand storm petrel may nest on cliffs). They feed on plankton in the open ocean, and fly low over the water, often pattering their feet on the surface, hence the "Jesus bird" moniker.

There's an awful lot of myth attached to storm petrels: they get their name because sailors thought they warned of storms. Others thought they were the souls of dead sailors. There's footage of these gorgeous little birds on YouTube, but you'll see them in real life only from the water, in summer. A professional bird tour will greatly improve your chances.

Brent Stephenson and Sav Saville run tours of the Hauraki Gulf: see www.wrybill-tours.com for details. Pterodroma Pelagics also run regular tours; www.nzseabirds.com

If you happen to see one 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.

http://nzbirds.com/birds/nzstormpetrel.html

- Sunday Star Times

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