Story: Seabirds – overview
New Zealand has a greater diversity of seabirds breeding on its shores and islands and feeding in its waters than any other country in the world. Seabirds are birds which get all or most of their food from the sea. It’s a highly specialised job, for which each species has evolved – from deep-diving penguins, to albatrosses with the wings of a glider.
Full story by Kerry-Jayne Wilson
Main image: Royal albatrosses in flight
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New Zealand’s seabirds
Seabirds are birds that get all or nearly all of their food from the sea. Out of 9,000 bird species worldwide, only 360 are seabirds. Of these, 86 breed in New Zealand and nine breed in other places but visit New Zealand each year. A number of other species visit from time to time. New Zealand’s seabirds include penguins, albatrosses, petrels, shags, prions, gannets and skuas.
New Zealand has a wide variety of seabirds. Some species have huge populations – there are millions of sooty shearwaters (muttonbirds or tītī) living on the Snares Islands, south of Stewart Island.
Types of seabirds
Penguins are excellent divers, chasing their prey (including fish, krill and squid) to depths of 100 metres or more. However, they have lost the ability to fly.
Albatrosses can glide for thousands of kilometres. They breed on land and fly for long distances over the ocean in search of food. Albatross pairs take turns looking for food and sitting on the nest.
Gannets live all around New Zealand, and feed by plunging beak-first into the sea.
Skuas take a lot of their food from the sea, but they also prey on the chicks and eggs of other birds. Brown (southern) skuas breed in Fiordland and the small islands south and east of mainland New Zealand.
Seabirds stay on land while breeding, but when their chicks are old enough to care for themselves, the parents will fly to other parts of the world. Some weeks later the young will follow. Some shearwaters breed in New Zealand in summer and fly to the north Pacific for winter. They return for the next breeding season.
Where to see seabirds
Good places to watch seabirds include the Otago Peninsula, famous for its albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins, and Kaikōura on the east coast of the South Island. Travellers on the ferries crossing Cook Strait or Foveaux Strait might see shearwaters, prions and albatrosses. Tourists like to visit the large gannet colonies at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.