Oceanic New Zealand – Hauraki Gulf

New Zealand gets rave reviews as a scenic destination. As a birder/naturalist I have a somewhat different opinion regarding the flora and fauna of the islands – however the ocean is fantastic! New Zealand is remote and never had mammals. Birds dominated all the ecological niches and many of them lost the ability to fly as predation was modest. Some birds grew to be larger than ostriches and many were something like our rodents in the role they played.

Then the ocean people arrived. About 700 years ago canoes arrived from islands in the central Pacific. These people settled New Zealand’s islands, learned to use “flax” for fiber, and started to eat the flightless birds. Things changed rapidly.

These islands are pretty far south – that is like being pretty far north where I live. There is almost no snow at sea level but cool weather marks the winter season. The Southern Alps have snow year round and are the home to one of the remaining native floral communities – the Nothofagus forests. As you head south from the North Island to the South Island and on to Stewart Island you get cooler water and more birds that are associated with the Southern Ocean and Antarctica; shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels, and albatrosses.

There will be several entries on this part of the world and the remarkable birds of the region. This first one is from the North Island and recounts an eleven hour boat trip out of a small place called Sandspit into the Hauraki Gulf. This is warmer than the southern waters and is the home to the rare New Zealand Storm-Petrel – which, sadly, had left the area after breeding, the week before we arrived.

Sandspit is a smallish harbor but one that provides access to the Hauraki Giulf and the many islands of the region. While we waited to depart the wildlife services were moving boxes of kiwis that had been raised on protected islands, by vehicle to be released on larger islands.

Once off shore, on a flat and warm sea, the islands presented a rather formidable appearance; not crashed by angry surf but steep and hard. These islands need to be cleaned of cats, rats, brush-tailed possums, and other predators in order to allow native birds to repopulate.

The surface of the sea often churned with schools of fish. The action was so intense that you could hear the waterfall-like noise of the fish over the noise of the boat.

Gulls are not as obvious in the southern hemisphere as they are in the northern. The gulls of Australia and New Zealand are quite limited in number but the Red-billed Gull was rather common, especially in the fish-rich waters of the Hauraki Gulf.

We used both fish and squid to attract the birds. We also attracted a shark or two and were occasionally entertained by dolphins.

Sharks would occasionally cruise by as we chummed for birds. This Mako was one of the largest and was around for a few minutes. They never ate any of our chum.

Fluttering Shearwaters were one of our targets and they were present in good numbers.
Flesh-footed Shearwater was another target. This is an uncommon bird off the California coast and it was nice to be able to spend a little time watching them as they fed and interacted. Always better than a quick look at a flying bird.
The Grey Noddy is a tern that appears in the gulf after breeding. The image is a bit weak but the birds were a treat.
The Grey-faced Petrel was another target bird that made an abundant and welcome appearance. They had not been around until the week we arrived – you win some and lose some.

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