Order Procellariiformes: Tube-nosed Birds
– Procellariiformes are divided into three families.
– Diomedeide: Albatrosses and Mollymawks
– Procellariidae: Shearwaters, Diving Petrels, Fulmars, Prions and Gadfly Petrels
– Hydrobatidae: Storm Petrels
One feature brings all these species together from the tiniest storm petrel to the giant albatross; they are all tube-nosed birds. Their nasal passages form into tubes on either side of their beaks (albatrosses) or on top of their beaks (all other species). A horny plate like covering is also present on the upper mandible.
Some feed in flight by scooping up items from the surface, while others dive. Fish, cephalopods, marine invertebrates or scraps from fishing vessels form the main diet.
The Procellariiformes or tube-nosed birds make up a major proportion of New Zealand’s birds. Over 60 species have been recorded from the New Zealand region, but for the average New Zealander most will never be seen. Some are only on our list because dead specimens have been found during a beach patrol. Others live far to the south and would rarely if ever be seen by people living on the North or South Islands. Unless you are a boatie or commercial fisherman these birds will just remain names in books. Exceptions would be species like the Royal Albatross at Taiaroa Heads and Giant Petrels and Cape Pigeons which are regularly seen from the inter-island Ferry.
The species illustrated here have been shown, wherever possible, in flight. This is to help with identification as pictures of birds sitting on the ground outside their burrows at night are of little value for identification at sea. It is at sea where most people observe the birds and where identification problems arise.
Procellariiformes is an apt name for these birds; „procella“ means „storm“ in Latin and many of these species frequent the `Roaring Forties` where the fierce winds blow incessantly. It is amazing that these generally delicate hollow-boned creatures clad in just the softness of feathers can withstand the windchill and the rain and even thrive in such inhospitable waters. Inevitably many do die and hundreds even thousands are sometimes washed ashore on our beaches and found by ‚beach patrollers‘ from the Ornithological Society.
Unfortunately it is often the conditions they meet when they come to the „safety“ of land that kills them! Predators; cats, stoats, ferrets and others are waiting at the colony sites and wreak havoc. Before the cats were laboriously cleared from Little Barrier, Black Petrels and Cook’s Petrels were decimated. Only a few species cling to mainland nesting areas. Huttons Shearwaters live high in the Seaward Kaikouras, the Westland Petrel in forest near Punakaiki. A few scattered remnants of Sooty Shearwaters and Grey-faced Petrels nest on headlands. Of the albatrosses and mollymawks only the Royal Albatross nests on the mainland.
Breeding is a long drawn out process. From the time of arrival, through courtship, incubation, chick rearing and fledging more than a year will have passed for the Wandering Albatross and even the smallest storm-petrels will have been involved for four months.
Visiting a species that nests colonially in holes is an unforgettable experience. Birds arriving in the dark call loudly to their mates and one is enveloped in a cacophony of sound. At the start of the season males occupy last year’s burrows first and advertise that they have arrived by calling frequently. How they are able to find their own burrow at night in bush among hundreds of others is a mystery. Females return to the same mate and burrow year after year until one of them dies. Only one egg is laid and incubation is shared. If the egg is lost it is not replaced. While incubating the birds do not eat. After fledging the immature birds will spend several years at sea before being old enough to breed.
Fortunately the prions, petrels and shearwaters show little difference in plumage between the sexes and between immatures and adults. However the albatrosses and mollymawks can be difficult with several having significant differences between juvenile and adult.
While many of the Procellariiformes are very rare in New Zealand they are common and widespread overseas. However, the Chatham Island Taiko is a truly rare endemic nesting in a remote part of the Chathams. Also at the Chathams is the unusual „white-bellied“ shearwater! At the time of writing its status is still under consideration.