grey-backed storm petrel

This species was first taken off Kaikoura during Cook's first voyage to New Zealand and was described in Solander's manuscript, part of which was published in Mathew's Birds of Australia in 1912. Gould took it off Bass Strait in 1839 and founded the name nereis which is an allusion to the Nereids, the sea nymphs of Greek mythology.

The grey backed storm petrel is the smallest storm petrel in the New Zealand region. It never strays far from its subantarctic breeding grounds, visiting its nesting grounds at night all year round. In New Zealand waters it breeds at the Auckland, Antipodes and Chatham Islands and possibly off islets off Campbell Island. The breeding season extends from August to March and nests on the surface in grass or tussock, at the base of flax or ferns in what have been described as "rat holes". The egg is white, speckled with red at the larger end which both birds incubate.

The diet of many storm-petrels species is poorly known due to difficulties in researching but they feed mostly on crustacean zooplankton. From studies made in the Chatham Islands, the Grey-backed Storm-petrel concentrates on feeding on the larvae of goose barnacles that evidently are picked off floating rafts of seaweed.

To pick up food from the surface of the water, petrels face into the wind and hold their trembling wings outstretched to keep themselves aloft while trailing their legs in the water to prevent them from being blown backwards. In this position they hover, sometimes making pattering runs as they peck at the food in front of them. It is this “walking on the water” which gives them their name of “little Peters” after St Peter; hence petrels. The more specific 'storm petrel' or 'stormy petrel' refers to their habit of hiding in the lee of ships during storms. Early sailors named these birds “Mother Carey's Chickens” because they were thought to warn of oncoming storms; this name is based on a corrupted form of Mater Cara, a name for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

— Greytown, 2008

grey-backed storm petrel
Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

Garrodia nereis, Thalassidroma nereis, Mother Carey's Chickens, Little Peters, Jesus bird.

Description:  — 

Native bird

18cm, 35g, head, neck, throat and upper breast dark grey/black, underparts white, upper wings and tail ashy grey, black tips to wings and square tail.

Where to find:  — 

In New Zealand waters it breeds at the Auckland, Antipodes and Chatham Islands and possibly off islets off Campbell Island. Ranges to 30 degrees South in NZ waters but rarely seen near coast.

Poetry:  — 

Song of the Stormy Petrel

O'er the silver plain of ocean winds are gathering the storm-clouds, and between the clouds and ocean proudly wheels the Stormy Petrel, like a streak of sable lightning.

Now his wing the wave caresses, now he rises like an arrow, cleaving clouds and crying fiercely, while the clouds detect a rapture in the bird's courageous crying.
In that crying sounds a craving for the tempest! Sounds the flaming of his passion, of his anger, of his confidence in triumph.

The gulls are moaning in their terror - moaning, darting o'er the waters, and would gladly hide their horror in the inky depths of ocean.
And the grebes are also moaning. Not for them the nameless rapture of the struggle. They are frightened by the crashing of the thunder.

And the foolish penguins cower in the crevices of rocks, while alone the Stormy Petrel proudly wheels above the ocean, o'er the silver-frothing waters.

Ever lower, ever blacker, sink the storm-clouds to the sea, and the singing waves are mounting in their yearning toward the thunder.

Strikes the thunder. Now the waters fiercely battle with the winds. And the winds in fury seize them in unbreakable embrace, hurtling down the emerald masses to be shattered on the cliffs.

Like a streak of sable lightning wheels and cries the Stormy Petrel, piercing storm-clouds like an arrow, cutting swiftly through the waters.

He is coursing like a Demon, the black Demon of the tempest, ever laughing, ever sobbing - he is laughing at the storm-clouds, he is sobbing with his rapture.
In the crashing of the thunder the wise Demon bears a murmur of exhaustion. He is certain that the clouds will not obliterate the sun; that the storm-clouds never, never, will obliterate the sun.

The waters roar....The thunder crashes....
Livid lightning flares in storm-clouds o'er the vast expanse of ocean, and the flaming darts are captured and extinguished by the waters, while the serpentine reflections writhe, expiring, in the deep.

The storm! The storm will soon be breaking!
Still the valiant Stormy Petrel proudly wheels amond the lightning, o'er the roaring, raging ocean, and his cry resounds exultant, like a prophecy of triumph –
Let it break in all its fury!

— Maxim Gorky
GNU Free Documentation License

Illustration description: — 


Gould, John, Birds of Australia, 1848.

Mathews, G.M., Birds of Australia, 1910-27.

Reference(s): — 


Heather, B., & Robertson, H., Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, 2000.

Oliver, W.R.B., New Zealand Birds, 1955.

Readers Digest Complete Book of NZ Birds, 1985.

Page date & version: — 


Saturday, 31 May 2014; ver2009v1


©  2008    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.