Southern Black-backed Gulls at Muriwai, New Zealand
When Bob and I headed to Muriwai on New Zealand’s North Island, we had one intention and that was to photograph and observe the dense Australasian Gannet colony that occupies the headland there. The location was also perfect for Southern Black-backed Gulls, so there was a good number of them as well.
As we drove along Waitea Road in the direction of the gannet colony, we got our first glimpses of Otakamiro Point in Muriwai Regional Park. We had to navigate a trail from the parking lot out onto the headland where observation decks have been provided for visitors to watch the Gannets, Terns and other seabirds.
Muriwai Beach is a beach that extends for 60 kilometres to the north, a sliver of black sand fronted by thundering surf and backed by sand hills and sheer cliffs. The habitat that exists at Otakamiro Point is perfect for nesting Southern Black-backed Gulls as well as
the Australasian Gannets and
White-fronted Terns that are found there.
Southern Black-backed Gulls, also known as Kelp Gulls or Dominican Gulls, breed in coastal areas throughout most of the Southern Hemisphere. The largest colonies are found on sea cliffs, offshore islands and steep headlands such as occur at Otakamiro Point. Our visit in November timed up perfectly with their breeding season that occurs between September and January.
Recognized as both predators and scavengers, these bold and conspicuous birds will eat any manner of animal matter, fresh or rotting. Of growing concern is their propensity to gouge the blubber and skin of Southern Right Whales when these mammals surface to breathe. A large percentage of the Whale population is left with huge lesions.
In addition to carcasses, fish, and mollusks, the intelligent Southern Black-backed Gulls will seize every opportunity to raid other birds’ nests for both the eggs and nestlings. As we observed the Australasian Gannet colony, we happened to witness a pair of these Gulls working together to outsmart a pair of nesting Gannets.
Proudly flaunting its spoils, the Southern Black-backed Gull gave us an excellent view of its diagnostic features. In addition to the black back and wings, it is the red spot at the tip of the bill and the yellowish-green legs that point to the bird’s identity.
Increasing numbers of South Black-backed Gulls threaten to have a negative impact on other coastal species of wildlife, especially Terns that nest in close proximity. Southern Black-backed Gulls, themselves, were once fully protected under the Wildlife Act of 1953, but that protection was suspended in 1970.
This Southern Black-backed Gull took to the air and soared above the frothy waves of the Tasman Sea far below. Within seconds, we lost sight of it among the scores of other Gulls, Terns and Gannets that formed a constant ebb and flow of avian movement from on high to sea level.
On the thermal currents of air at the headland, both the Gannets and Gulls floated right at eye level. The onshore breezes chilled us, but our lofty perch afforded ample opportunities to practice photographing birds in flight.
Southern Black-backed Gulls are the most abundant gull found in New Zealand. In fact, of all the countries where these Gulls are common, New Zealand has the largest population with over one million birds. It is the only large gull in the country with an average wingspan of over one metre. We were quite pleased to have the chance to see them.