West Coast Seabirds

Seabird news:

Who are Seabirds?

Seabirds are those species that obtain all or most of their food at sea. For New Zealand this includes penguins, albatrosses, shearwaters, other petrels, gannets, shags (cormorants), gulls, terns and skuas. Birds such as godwits and oystercatchers are shorebirds and are not included in this leafet. Fewer species of seabirds breed on the West Coast than in some other parts of New Zealand, however we do have some rather special species to look out for.



Black-backed (Karoro) (Larus dominicanus) (pictured left) and Red-billed Gulls (Tarapunga) (L. novaehollandiae) (pictured right) may be seen almost anywhere along the West Coast, as elsewhere in New Zealand. The rarer, endemic Black-billed Gull (Tarapuka) (L. bulleri) (pictured centre) is primarily a denizen of the braided rivers east of the Southern Alps, but does occur in small numbers on the West Coast. River fats near Springs Junction, Harihari and Whataroa, as well as Okarito Lagoon are perhaps the most likely western localities to encounter them.

Shags (Kawau)

Shags (Kawau)

The handsome Blue Shag (Kawau tikitiki) (Stictocarbo punctatus oliveri) is a local subspecies of the endemic Spotted Shag. Blue Shags feed exclusively at sea but, like other shags, lack the long-distance fight abilities of petrels, shearwaters and prions or the diving abilities of penguins. Blue Shags generally feed within 15 km of their breeding or roosting sites. Their largest colony (with about 600 pairs) is at Perpendicular Point, and can be observed from Irimahuwhero Lookout north of Punakaiki. There is a smaller, more easily observed colony on Seal Island (Fox River) and birds can be seen roosting on coastal rocks elsewhere. Pied shags (Phalacrocorax varius), Black Shags (P. carbo) and Little Shags (P. melanoleucos) may be seen on lakes, rivers, lagoons and in inshore coastal waters anywhere along the West Coast.

Blue Penguin (Korora)

Blue Penguin (Korora)(Eudyptula minor)

The Blue (Little) Penguin breeds around most of New Zealand, on the Chatham Islands and in southern Australia. On the West Coast, eggs are laid between July and October and chicks fedge October to December, with breeding starting and fnishing earlier than in most other parts of New Zealand. Dogs and road kills are the major threats to Blue Penguins on the West Coast. Further information can be found in another leafet produced by this Trust.

Fiordland Crested Penguin (Tawaki)

Fiordland Crested Penguin (Tawaki)(Eudyptes pachyrhynchus)

This large handsome penguin only breeds in thick coastal rainforests in South Westland, Fiordland and western parts of Stewart Island. It is one of the most endangered of all penguins, the main threats on land being dogs and other predators. These penguins probably also suffer from threats at sea. The crested penguins have a bizarre breeding system where they lay two eggs, the frst laid being much smaller than the second. Incubation begins only after the second egg is laid; the second egg hatches frst allowing that chick to grow further before its smaller nest mate hatches. Only one chick will be raised and, unless something happens to the larger chick soon after hatching, the smaller chick inevitably dies. Tawaki are shy birds, reluctant to come ashore if they see people and are easily disturbed if people approach their nests. The best place to look for Tawaki is Monro Beach north of Haast. Sit quietly in the dunes or at the forest edge and wait for the birds to come ashore late afternoon, or leave on their next fshing excursion early in the morning. They can only be seen during their breeding season; June to November.

Westland Petrel (Taiko)

Westland Petrel (Taiko)(Procellaria westlandica)

This is the West Coast’s very own seabird, which breeds only at a few colonies between Punakaiki and Barrytown. Like all other seabirds, both male and female take turns at incubating the egg (petrels lay only one egg each year) and feeding the chick. During the breeding season, when they have eggs or chicks ashore, the adults mostly feed off the West Coast between Haast and Cape Farewell with some birds passing through Cook Strait and feeding near Kaikoura, or even on the Mernoo Bank east of Banks Peninsula. Between breeding seasons Westland petrels migrate to South American seas. Between April and November the petrels can be seen as they raft up offshore in the hour before dusk from the McMillan Road beach just south of Punakaiki. Immediately after dark they can be seen fying inland, the main fight paths passing over the Conservation Volunteers facility 3.5 km south of Punakaiki, or following the south bank of the Punakaiki River. This is a threatened species with fsheries bycatch thought to be one of the major threats.  (Threats and threat status paper available here, Oct 2017)

Fairy Prion (Titi Wainui)

Fairy Prion (Titi Wainui)(Pachyptila turtur)

Almost as abundant as the Sooty Shearwater, Fairy Prions nest on many islands from Northland to Stewart Island. Before the arrival of rats and stoats, both prions and shearwaters were much more numerous with colonies on many West Coast headlands. Today West Coast prions nest only on those few tiny islands and rock stacks that remain free of introduced predators.

Sooty Shearwater (Titi)

Sooty Shearwater (Titi)(Puffnus griseus)

Sooty Shearwaters may lack the appeal of penguins or the grandeur of albatrosses, but these are the consummate seabirds; they can dive to depths of 60 metres and travel huge distances; some birds while breeding in New Zealand forage as far south as the fringe of the Antarctic pack ice. The Sooty Shearwater is perhaps New Zealand’s most abundant bird with a national population of over 13 million, the vast bulk of these nesting on islands surrounding Stewart Island, where local Maori have traditional rights to harvest nearly fedged chicks (muttonbirds), or on The Snares Islands. On the West Coast they are uncommon with small colonies on some headlands and islands. Sooty Shearwaters enjoy an endless summer, in April migrating north to spend our winter off the coasts of Japan and Alaska. These shearwaters are often seen offshore. There is a small colony near the Seal Colony walkway at Cape Foulwind; after dark between November and April a few birds circle overhead before crash landing near their breeding burrows in amongst the faxes.


TernsThe delicate White-fronted Tern (Tara) (Sterna striata) may be seen feeding close inshore, roosting or breeding on coastal rocks and sandy spits anywhere along the West Coast. This tern breeds only in New Zealand though some migrate to Australia during winter. None of the larger almost cosmopolitan Caspian Terns (Taranui) (Hydroprogne caspia) breed on the West Coast, although they are not uncommon on western beaches and river mouths.

What seabirds might be seen offshore?

Westland Petrel at seaWestland Petrel at sea
White-capped AlbatrossWhite-capped Albatross

Seabirds roam widely and are regularly seen far from their breeding colonies. In addition to the species described above the most likely birds to be seen in inshore waters along the West Coast are Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator), White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi), Cape Petrel (Daption capense), Buller’s Shearwater (Puffnus bulleri), Fluttering Shearwater (Puffnus gavia) and Arctic Skua (Stercorarius parasiticus). Two of the best places to search for seabirds are Cape Foulwind and Ship Creek, but do try elsewhere.

For more on all of New Zealand’s seabirds, you’ll find everything you need here: www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz