New Zealand is one of the major seabird centres of the world. It has more coastal birdlife than any other country on this planet! Because of the country’s extensive coastline and many inshore and offshore islands, it is possible for the keen observer to see more seabirds here than in most other countries. Three-quarters of the world’s albatrosses, penguins and petrels and half the shearwaters and shags are to be found here, along with numerous representatives of a number of other groups.
Cormorants or Shags
Cormorants (also known as shags) are medium-to-large birds common around the world. There are four types of cormorant found around Banks Peninsula – the Little Shag, the Black Shag, the Spotted Shag and the Pied Shag
Shags are heavy birds compared to their wing surface, so they are not as energy efficient as other birds when they fly. To make up for this disadvantage, shags often save energy by flying close to the surface of the water. On windy days, Cormorants like to glide, using their feet as rudders.
Cormorants have proven to be useful birds around the world. In ancient China and Japan, the Black Shag was tamed and trained to catch fish for their owners. While no longer the most efficient fishing method, cormorant fishing is still practiced in some parts of Japan.
Black Backed Gulls (Karoro)
This is the biggest gull in New Zealand, and one of the smartest seabirds in the world. Because of their size and their tendency to glide in the air, they are often mistaken for albatross.
Black Backed Gulls are so clever that Maori used to tame them and use them to protect crops from caterpillars. But the gulls don’t just eat bugs- they’ll dine on just about anything! Black Backed Gulls are known to eat plankton, shellfish, fish, eggs, frogs, lizards, birds, mammals, fruit, vegetables and anything they can scavenge off people and garbage.
Black Backed Gulls pair for life and when you see one, you can bet that its partner won’t be far away. See if you can spot partner gulls on your Black Cat sightseeing cruise.
Red Billed Gulls (Tarapunga)
Red Billed Gulls are the most common seagull found in New Zealand. You’re probably very familiar with them: small, grey and white birds with bright red bills, legs and feet. They live around the coastline and often visit the beach, where they eat small marine creatures (and the occasional bites of fish and chips from friendly humans).
The population of Red Billed Gulls in New Zealand has increased since European settlement, as towns and cities provide great scavenging opportunities. Because of the plentiful food supply, gulls are often found wandering around in urban areas like city centres.
Northern Giant Petrel (Kuaka)
Petrels are closely related to Albatross, though Petrels are much less graceful gliders, flapping more often during flight. These petrels average 90cm (35 inches) in length and are covered in grey-brown feathers.
Northern Giant Petrels are scavengers, eating carrion and scraps left over by humans. Their diet makes them very aggressive and very curious about boats and people: they will come quite close to you if they think there might be food nearby. When they find a plentiful source of food, the Northern Giant Petrels will eat until they are so full they can’t fly.
Australasian Gannet (Takapu)
A large seabird with a yellow head, they dive into the water like a lance when they spot a fish. Gannets are notable for their incredibly streamlined builds.Their aerodynamic come in handy as they hunt by plunge diving, often from very high in the air. It’s really impressive to watch!
In the summer, these birds can be found around New Zealand. The female Gannet lays its egg (only one at a time!) between September and November, and then incubates it for about 44 days. The chick is raised by both parents until February or March, when the Gannets migrate to Australia. It’s pretty amazing to think that these little birds travel over 2000km on their very first flight!
Gannets are one of the longest living seabirds, with a life span of 25 – 38 years.
Terns are seabirds closely related to gulls, and are found all around the world. Terns have long life spans, with some species known to live as long as 25-30 years. The White-Fronted Tern is the most common New Zealand tern and is a protected native species. These birds migrate to Australia for the winter and can often be found feeding above the dolphins. Surprisingly, White-Fronted Terns do not like to swim, and aside from bathing and diving for food, they almost never get into the water. White-Fronted Terns hunt by plunge diving, which means they plunge into the water from the air, capturing the prey they spotted from above. These birds migrate to Australia for the winter and can often be found feeding above the dolphins.
This very large and graceful oceanic bird is a middle sized member of the albatross family and is the most commonly found albatross in the Southern Hemisphere. They can be identified by their distinctive brightly coloured yellow or orange bills.
Albatross used to be hunted for food and clothing. Because of their size, and the ease at which they could be caught, they were favoured by Maori and European sailors for many uses: rugs, tobacco pouches, muffs and even paper clips were created out of parts of the birds. Mollymawks are no longer hunted for food or clothing, but they are at risk from the long bait lines set by fishing boats, with up to 44,000 albatrosses dying each year.
Canadian Geese were introduced to New Zealand as a game bird, and have thrived in our moderate climate.Their population has done so well, in fact, that they are often considered pests for their habit if overgrazing lawns and crops. It is legal to shoot the geese in New Zealand during hunting season.
The geese are known for migrating (and for doing so by flying in a perfect V formation), but in New Zealand they prefer to move between coastal and high country habitats, rather than make a long-distance migration. Their diets differ depending on their habitat: when they stay in the high country, the geese feed on algae and tubers from ponds and when they move to coastal areas they eat molluscs and small crustaceans.
Paradise Ducks are found only in New Zealand and are one of the only native species to actually increase in population after European settlement. Because Paradise ducks live in swampy marshes, when the Europeans deforested much of New Zealand to create farmland, they actually increased the species’ habitat, allowing their population to grow.