The enigmatic and endangered Kermadec storm petrel

A version of this story first appeared in The Listener on 26 September 2013.

Kermadec storm petrel. Photo by Gareth Rapley.

Kermadec storm petrel. Photo by Gareth Rapley.

One night on Macauley Island, in the Kermadec Islands group, in 1988, ornithologists Alan Tennyson, Graeme Taylor and Paul Scofield noticed something flitting around the Tilley lamp inside their tent. A close inspection of the tiny grey and white bird revealed a Kermadec storm petrel, a species known from only a handful of specimens shot at sea in the 1920s. The bird wasn’t nesting on Macauley, whose seabird population had been devastated by rats, cats and goats, but over subsequent years the birds were occasionally spotted at sea. In 2006, a Navy helicopter dropped Karen Baird and Mike Imber on Haszard Island – a rocky islet next to Macauley – to search for signs of the bird.

Haszard Islet. Photo by Terry Green, Department of Conservation

Haszard Islet. Photo by Terry Green, Department of Conservation

“The area on top of the island is quite small and the ground is soft,” says Baird. “Mike stuck his hand down a burrow and out came a Kermadec storm petrel on an egg. We looked at the amount of habitat available and estimated there were 100 burrows at most, so maybe 100 breeding pairs.”

Haszard Island is a grass-topped lump of volcanic rock sticking sharply out of New Zealand’s northern ocean. The many species of seabirds that live in the Kermadec Islands can survive patrolling sharks, erupting volcanoes and tropical storms, but the rats, mice and cats introduced in the 19th century decimated many species. Haszard Island, though, has remained pest-free, providing a haven for this vulnerable seabird who spends months each year raising a single chick in an earthy burrow.

The Kermadec storm petrel (Pelagodroma albiclunis) is one of the entrants in Forest & Bird’s annual Bird of the Year competition. Bronwen Golder, of the Pew Environment Group’s Kermadec Initiative, is campaign manager for this enigmatic little bird. “The Kermadec storm petrel is one of New Zealand’s endemic species – they’re found nowhere else in the world – but they are critically endangered,” she says. “But it’s a bird we know hardly anything about. How can one of our endemic birds be a total enigma? We want people to know about it, we want people to champion it; ultimately, we want to support scientists to study them and find out more about where they go, and when we find out that, we find out more about our ocean and how it’s working.”

The tiny storm petrel is facing tough competition. About 35 birds are competing for this year’s prize, with celebrity campaign managers backing the weka (Weta Workshop), fairy tern (Hayley Holt), bittern (Te Radar), pukeko (Seven Sharp), kereru (Barnaby Weir), New Zealand dotterel (Sam Judd), shining cuckoo (Wallace Chapman) and black petrel (Jacinda Ardern).

I’m backing the underdog, the enigmatic, critically endangered storm petrel. Thanks to the island eradication expertise of the Department of Conservation, the cats and rats are gone from the Kermadecs now, so perhaps there’s a chance for the storm petrel to spread its wings and find new breeding spots.

You can vote now at http://www.birdoftheyear.org.nz/

The first Kermadec storm petrel found breeding on Haszard Island in 2006. It's so little and cute! Photo by Karen Baird

The first Kermadec storm petrel found breeding on Haszard Island in 2006. It’s so little and cute!
Photo by Karen Baird

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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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