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Tuatara: Volume 21, Issues 1 and 2 (New Zealand Albatrosses and Petrels: an Identification Guide)

Group 3 — — The Shearwaters — (Length 28-48 cm.)

Group 3 —
The Shearwaters
(Length 28-48 cm.)

Nine species of shearwaters frequent New Zealand waters. Eight can be seen about the mainland, whereas two, the Wedge-tailed (17) and Audubon's Shearwaters (61), are largely confined to warmer waters north of North Cape.

page 29

Shearwaters are noted for their slender body proportions, long bills and narrow, pointed wings. The neck in contrast to the gadfly petrels is fairly long, and contributes significantly to the over-all trim appearance of these birds. Their flight is characteristically stiff - winged and directional with abrupt, very rapid wingbeats interspersed with glides. Shearwaters are skilled divers, often plunging below the sea's surface for food. The strong, narrow wings are used for propelling the bird in pursuit of underwater prey.

The Sooty Shearwater (20) is the most abundant shearwater away from coasts, and enormous numbers of these slim, dark birds can be observed setting out on or returning from migration in May and October respectively. Although widely distributed, they breed in greatest numbers in Foveaux Strait where the Maoris have for many years taken the young (as ‘muttonbirds’) for food.

Another darkly plumaged shearwater is the Flesh-footed Shearwater (15), which regularly attends deep-sea fishing boats returning home to port in the Hauraki Gulf. A large, inquisitive species, it fights noisily over bait and other tasty scraps thrown over the stern (see Figure 11). This shearwater is a superb diver.

Handsome and distinctively patterned, the Buller's Shearwater (24) is also abundant in Hauraki waters, where fishing boats often pass through large flocks of these birds resting on the water or chasing small shoaling fish. Both this species and the Flesh-footed Shearwater are migrants to the North Pacific and leave our waters in May.

Common from Cook Strait northwards, the small brown and white Fluttering Shearwater (30) is a characteristic, year-round bird of inshore waters. Its distinctive, low, flap and glide flight is a familiar sight both in Wellington Harbour and along the northern coasts. The Hutton's Shearwater (31) is a very similar, slightly darker species, and is locally common off the Kaikoura coast.