Monday, 4 July 2011

Back Catalogue: Polynesian Storm-petrel

The first record for Australia by Bob Flood

During the Western Pacific Odyssey 2008 on April 7th over Norfolk Ridge, en route from Norfolk Island to New Caledonia, I located a Polynesian Storm-petrel Nesofregetta fuliginosa from the stern of MV Professor Khromov. There was a force 4-5 wind and the sea was choppy with a two metre swell. The bird passed port side of the stern approximately 80 metres off drifting towards the wake, but was soon lost to sight. A handful of birders witnessed this sighting.

I radioed out the news and very quickly all other birders on board gathered on or above the stern. We were dripping cod liver oil. Evidently when the bird crossed the wake it caught a whiff of the odour and headed back towards the stern. After several minutes a shout came from an upper-deck that the storm-petrel was heading back. It advanced to about 80 metres and showed for about six minutes enabling reasonable photographs and video to be secured and excellent views for all. A few Grey-faced Petrels Pterodroma gouldi and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters Puffinus pacificus were present at the time.

The relatively huge size of this storm-petrel was self-evident as it effortlessly glided back and forward across the wake, jizz reminiscent of a Wood Swallow Artamus, foraging by rising over crests and swooping into troughs where it was seen to collect oil droplets. The storm-petrel hardly ever flapped its wings, but gently twisted them and its tail in effortless turning manoeuvres. The head looked relatively small on a thick neck and against a stocky body. The bill was relatively long and slim. The caudal projection was long, comprising rump, a long forked tail, and toes projecting well beyond the tail tip. The wings were long and broad with the hand especially long and somewhat attenuated with fairly blunt tips. The wings were held outstretched with the leading edge moderately angular and the trailing edge mildly angular.

This was a pale phase individual, dark grey-brown overall with white throat, breast, belly, thin rump band, and broad white secondary underwing-covert panels becoming dusky on the primary underwing-coverts making the underwing of the hand overall dark. The dark breast band extended onto the underwing to form a thick dark leading edge to the hand mirroring a thick dark trailing edge formed by dark secondaries. The undertail-coverts were dark. Flight feathers were darkest being black-brown. Narrow indistinct upperwing greater covert bars were visible in the field at close range. The flight feathers were visibly worn with notches and abrasion evident in photographs.

This individual is the first ever Polynesian Storm-petrel to be recorded within Australian waters and was accepted by their rare bird committee.