Common diving petrel

Pelecanoides urinatrix (Gmelin, 1789)

New Zealand status: Native

Conservation status: Not Threatened

Other names: kuaka, Richdale's diving petrel, diver

Geographical variation: Three subspecies recognised in New Zealand: northern diving petrel (P.u. urinatrix) in northern New Zealand and Cook Strait (also south-east Australia), southern diving petrel (P.u. chathamensis) on the Chatham Islands, Snares Islands and around Stewart Island, and subantarctic diving petrel (P.u. exsul) on Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell Islands (also other extralimital subantarctic islands). Three other extralimital subspecies.

Common diving petrel. Northern diving petrel rising from water, showing underwing. Whangaroa pelagic, September 2014. Image © Les Feasey by Les Feasey

Common diving petrel. Northern diving petrel rising from water, showing underwing. Whangaroa pelagic, September 2014. Image © Les Feasey by Les Feasey

The common diving petrel is an abundant small seabird of exposed coastal waters around New Zealand. It occurs from the Three Kings Islands south to Campbell Island and east to the Chatham Islands. Although it doesn’t form dense flocks, hundreds can be in view at a time, looking like miniature penguins on the sea surface, or buzzing over the wave crests. Diving petrels are remarkably similar in appearance and behaviour to little auks (dovekies) of Arctic seas, but the two are not closely related (auks are more closely related to gulls and terns). This is the most frequently cited example of convergent evolution among birds.

Identification

The common diving petrel is a small, chunky seabird; black above and grey-and-white below, with a stubby black bill and blue feet. With their short whirring wings and characteristic straight-line flight close to the sea surface, diving petrels are instantly recognisable. The only confusion risk is that there are two species in New Zealand, but the second species (South Georgian diving petrel) is so rare here that it has never been reliably identified at sea. See that species for distinguishing characters. Common diving petrels are extremely variable in the extent of white on the throat and underwing, and birds in fresh plumage (especially fledglings) also have pale stripes down the scapulars – a character sometimes referred to as diagnostic for South Georgian diving petrel. For these reasons, careful inspection of birds in the hand is the only way that South Georgian diving petrels could be identified away from the sole New Zealand breeding site on Codfish Island.

Common diving petrels do not call at sea, but are very vocal at night on and over their breeding grounds. The main call is a musical croon with an upward inflection. Calls of the two sexes are readily distinguished, with males having a simpler call, and females a stutter at the start.

Distribution and habitat

Common diving petrels are extremely vulnerable to introduced predators, including rats, stoats, cats and weka. They are mainly found on small islands that have never had predators introduced.  Fortunately there are many such islands, or islands that have been cleared of predators, and common diving petrels breed on more than 70 islands scattered over 17 degrees of latitude from the Three Kings Islands south to Campbell Island. Important New Zealand breeding sites are listed below. Elsewhere, common diving petrels breed on islands off south-east Australia, and on many islands in the subantarctic zones of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Preferred breeding sites are steep coastal slopes with dense ground cover and shallow soils (otherwise their burrows are taken over by larger petrel species). During the day they are most often seen over the open sea near breeding colonies; they rarely enter sheltered coastal waters.

Population

There are probably more than a million pairs in the New Zealand region, but few accurate colony estimates have been made. Large colonies include those on the Three Kings Islands, Cavalli Islands, Chicken Islands, Middle and Green Islands (Mercury Islands), Alderman Islands, Sugarloaf Islands (New Plymouth), Trio Islands (Marlborough Sounds), Rangatira Island (Chatham Islands), Little Solander Island, Snares Islands and Antipodes Islands. Common diving petrels are the fifth most common bird found dead on New Zealand beaches, at an average rate of 0.16 birds per km. The largest wreck was of 3593 birds in 1975.

Threats and conservation

Common diving petrels have been extirpated by predators on many islands, including by feral cats on Mangere and Herekopare Islands, weka on Jacky Lee Island, and ship rats on Solomon Island. One stoat killed 90 adults on Motuotau Island off Mt Maunganui before it was trapped in 1996. Bones have been found at many mainland sites, indicating where breeding sites occurred before the introduction of Pacific rats by Maori. Their main natural predators at island breeding sites are subantarctic skuas, southern black-backed gulls and swamp harriers. Over 700 were killed by the Rena oil spill in Bay of Plenty in late 2011 (more than any other species).

Few actions specifically targeted at conservation of common diving petrels have been undertaken. These included translocation of fully-grown chicks to Mana Island (1997-99), Motuora Island (2007-09), and Cape Kidnappers (2011 and ongoing). Other more generic island restoration projects (especially pest mammal and weka eradications) have and will benefit common diving petrel populations, including on the Mokohinau Islands, Mercury Islands, Mangere Island (Chatham Islands) and on several muttonbird islands near Stewart Island.

Breeding

Common diving petrels are colonial breeders, nesting in short burrows, rock crevices or under dense vegetation. The breeding season is earlier in the north, with peak laying of the single egg in August in the Mercury Islands, and mid-October on the Snares Islands. Incubation is shared and takes about 53 days. The chick is left unattended during daylight when 9-15 days old. Both parents visit most nights and feed the chick by regurgitation, right through to fledging at 44-55 days old. Young birds return to colonies when 1-2 years old, and first breed when 1-3 years old. They are the only petrel species known to breed at a year old (2 females and 1 male recorded on Mana Island). The common diving petrel is one of few petrel species that can lay a replacement egg if the first egg fails early in incubation.

Behaviour and ecology

Common diving petrels often occur in large, dispersed flocks at sea. They are not attracted to boats and are non-migratory, staying in New Zealand waters throughout the year. Birds can be found ashore at colonies in any month of the year, though few are present for 1-2 months after breeding (January-February in Cook Strait). They excavate their own burrows, and breed as monogamous pairs, which can remain together over many seasons (though divorces are frequent). Common diving petrels visit breeding sites after dark and depart before dawn, or stay in burrows or nest crevices during daylight. Colonies can be low density, or up to 6 burrows per square metre.

Food

Common diving petrels mainly eat small pelagic crustaceans, especially the krill Nyctiphanes australis and copepods. Prey is captured by pursuit diving, with the partially folded wings used for propulsion. Diving petrels are well named – they have remarkable diving ability for their size.  A New Zealand study of 6 birds recorded a mean dive depth of 11 metres and a maximum of 22 metres, but they have been recorded diving to depths of 64 metres off the Kerguelen Islands.

Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Diving_Petrel

References

Bocher, P.; Labidoire, B.; Cherel, Y. 2000: Maximum dive depths of common diving-petrels (Pelecanoides urinatrix) during the annual cycle at Mayes Island, Kerguelen. Journal of Zoology, London 251: 517-524.

Marchant, S.; Higgins, P.J. (eds.), 1990. Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Vol. 1, ratites to ducks. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Miskelly, C.M.; Sagar, P.M.; Tennyson, A.J.D.; Scofield, R.P. 2001. Birds of the Snares Islands, New Zealand. Notornis 48: 1-40.

Miskelly, C.M.; Taylor, G.A. 2004. Establishment of a colony of common diving petrels (Pelecanoides urinatrix) by chick transfers and acoustic attraction. Emu 104: 205-211.

Miskelly, C.M.; Taylor, G.A. 2007. Common diving petrel (Pelecanoides urinatrix) breeding at 1 year old. Notornis 54: 239-240.

Miskelly, C.M.; Taylor, G.A.; Gummer, H.; Williams, R. 2009. Translocations of eight species of burrow-nesting seabirds (genera Pterodroma, Pelecanoides, Pachyptila and Puffinus: family Procellariidae). Biological Conservation142: 1965-1980.

Powlesland, R.G.; Pickard, C.R.; Powlesland, M.H. 1992. Seabirds found dead on New Zealand beaches in 1989, and a review of Pelecanoides urinatrix , Phaethon rubricauda , P. lepturus and Fregata ariel recoveries, 1943 to 1988. Notornis 39: 101-111.

Richdale, L.E. 1943. Kuaka or diving petrel Pelecanoides urinatrix (Gmelin). Emu 43: 24-48, 97-107.

Richdale, L.E. 1945. Supplementary notes on the diving petrel. Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand 75: 42-53.

Taylor, G.A. 2000. Action plan for seabird conservation in New Zealand, Part B: Non-threatened seabirds. Threatened Species Occasional Publication 17. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Taylor, G. A. 2008. Maximum dive depths of eight New Zealand Procellariiformes including Pterodroma species.  Papers & Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 142: 189-198.

Taylor, G.A.; Miskelly, C.M. 2007. Re-laying following egg failure by common diving petrels (Pelecanoides urinatrix). Notornis 54: 240-242.

Thoresen, A.C. 1969. Observations on the breeding behavior of the diving petrel Pelecanoides u. urinatrix (Gmelin). Notornis 16: 241-260.

Wilson, R.A. 1959. Bird islands of New Zealand. Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, Christchurch.

Recommended citation

Miskelly, C.M. 2013. Common diving petrel. In Miskelly, C.M. (ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. www.nzbirdsonline.org.nz

Common diving petrel

Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun

Northern diving petrel

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
burrow, rock crevice
Nest description
Shallow burrow or rock crevice or on surface under dense ground vegetation, little or no nest lining. If nest lining use grass leaves.
Nest height (mean)
0.00 m
Maximum number of successful broods
1
Clutch size (mean)
1
Mean egg dimensions (length)
37.90 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
29.60 mm
Egg colour
White
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
Not applicable
Incubation behaviour
shared
Incubation length (mean)
Approximately 53 days
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
45-56 days
Nestling period (min)
45 days
Nestling period (max)
56days
Age at fledging (mean)
45-56 days
Age at fledging (min)
45days
Age at fledging (max)
56days
Age at independence (mean)
45-56 days
Age at independence (min)
45 days
Age at independence (max)
56 days
Age at first breeding (typical)
1-3 years
Age at first breeding (min)
1years
Maximum longevity
18 plus years

Southern diving petrel

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
burrow
Nest description
Shallow burrow, rock crevice or on surface under dense ground vegetation, with little or no nest lining. If nest lining grass leaves.
Nest height (mean)
0.00 m
Maximum number of successful broods
1
Clutch size (mean)
1
Mean egg dimensions (length)
38.10 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
30.20 mm
Egg colour
White
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
Not applicable
Incubation behaviour
shared
Incubation length (mean)
Unknown
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
54 days
Nestling period (min)
44 days
Nestling period (max)
59days
Age at fledging (mean)
54 days
Age at fledging (min)
44days
Age at fledging (max)
59days
Age at independence (mean)
54 days
Age at independence (min)
44 days
Age at independence (max)
59 days
Age at first breeding (typical)
2-3 years
Maximum longevity
Unknown
Maximum dispersal
Unknown

Subantarctic diving petrel

Social structure
monogamous
Breeding season
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Nest type
burrow
Nest height (mean)
0.00 m
Maximum number of successful broods
1
Clutch size (mean)
1
Mean egg dimensions (length)
40.20 mm
Mean egg dimensions (width)
31.60 mm
Egg colour
White
Egg laying dates
  • Jul
  • Aug
  • Sep
  • Oct
  • Nov
  • Dec
  • Jan
  • Feb
  • Mar
  • Apr
  • May
  • Jun
Interval between eggs in a clutch
Not applicable
Incubation behaviour
shared
Incubation length (mean)
Unknown
Nestling type
altricial
Nestling period (mean)
54 days (South Georgia)
Nestling period (min)
50 days
Nestling period (max)
58days
Age at fledging (mean)
54 days
Age at fledging (min)
50days
Age at fledging (max)
58days
Age at independence (mean)
54 days
Age at independence (min)
50 days
Age at independence (max)
58 days
Age at first breeding (typical)
Unknown
Maximum longevity
Unknown
Maximum dispersal
Unknown