Birds of NZ - Shags, Gulls

Shags of the Otago Harbour area

We find some 85,000 sites on the "Net" (year 2005) that refer to "Wildlife of Otago" and about 40,000 to "Wildlife of Otago Harbour", mainly Eco-tours, boat tours, hotels, motels, backpackers, B & B's, birding groups etc, but so far we have not discovered a single adequate illustration. We are trying to fill what we see as a need.

Spotted Shags; Tiaroa Head.
There seem to be five varieties of shag in Southern New Zealand. The large Black Shag is the most common on inland rivers and lakes and dines on trout. The Stewart Island Shag is apparently occasionally seen here also.

<< Here we have part of a large colony of Spotted, Crested or Blue shags nesting before Christmas-time on basaltic cliffs near Taiaroa. In the breeding season they develope crests and blue facial patches. The ledges are sometimes exceedingly narrow and it is a mystery as to how they are not blown off, nest and all.

A shag's wings are wetted in the water and they spend hours a day hanging them out to dry. Wetting the wings enables them to dive deeply and stay underwater, others, like the gannet, trap air in their feathers and are popped back to the surface. Shags must have flexible necks as they can swallow a 3lb fish whole and can stay under water for 2 min or more. They sit on 1-3 eggs at a time.

It seems that the great majority of the shag population of Otago Harbour are "Little Shags". How many? Well, one can count them in groups of 3-4 to 10-12 clustered on the ramps of boats sheds. There may be 200 on the Eastern side of the Harbour, but only a dozen on the industrialised North-west side. Lately we have found them inland near Wanaka.

<< Here we have the Spotted shag in the same place, after Xmas, the nesting season being over. See how the crest has gone and the facial patches faded. But they really are "Spotted" due to black tips to feathers. Hundreds of Spotted shags thunder back and forth along the cliffs, seemingly visiting other groups. The odd fur seal lolls in the water below.
<< Good drying weather. We BELIEVE these three pix are all of the Little Shag which can be highly variagated in colour. Or is the top one trying to pass as a "White Fronted" and the lower one as a "Black"! At Vauxhall boatsheds on Otago Harbour, July, 2005.
<< These three amongst dozens were also hanging out near the Vauxhall Boat Sheds.
How curious that a gannet or penguin can dive and not even get damp! The poor old shag always looks a little bedraggled a price he has to pay for being much more effective underwater.
<< Do you think Mother shags bring them up saying, "Now don't forget to dry your wings, dear!" I wonder why we describe someone with wet messy hair as being "shaggy" or speak of a "shaggy dog"?

Taken by C.B. Gunn on a Pentax *ist 6Mp digicam, 500mm f/8 lenses with doubler.

<< Once dry, shags pull their wings in like other birds. This bird is displaying yet another variation of shag chest plumage. As they have black feet, some would call them "Cormorants".

<< A raggle-taggle group of variagated Little Shags, survey the harbour at Otago near Portobello. Once it was all theirs now they are crowded to the wall by encroaching houses, people, dogs, container ships, fishing boats and oil on the water. There is not a chain of wildlife reserve on the entire 20-mile-long harbour, even the Albatross colony is outside on the coast. They survive entirely on wharves, boat ramps and boat houses as the highway lies within feet of the sea.
Can we detect a slight air of resignation?

Little Shags at Dunedin's Vauxhall Boat Sheds.
<< The volcanic sea cliffs of Taiaroa head are safe havens for Spotted Shags.
<< White-Fronted Shag (on the Avon Estuary) taking flight.
Photo: C.B.Gunn
<< Shag in flight. With wet wings they have a good deal of difficulty rising from the water, in fact it is amazing that they can do so at all.
Photo: C.B.Gunn
<< Three Little shaglets probably hatched in November, still crowd in the nest in willow trees on Albert Town Lagoon.
Notice they still have down, rather than feathers.
<< This is an adult among a group of a dozen Little shags in the willows at Albert Town Lagoon, a good hundred miles in any direction from the sea, even over the alps. Fifty years ago the only shags seen were large Black shags and I never recall having found a nest. Now the Black shag seems to have vanished. Maybe smaller is better?


Seagulls are oddly named in as much as one very rarely sees them at sea. The open sea, being little more productive than a desert these days, is nothing like as attractive as a good seashore fishing harbour or rubbish dump, though a trawler entering harbour with the crew gutting fish is usually a great gathering point.

Red-billed Gull catching the wind for take-off.
Photo: C.B.G.

Gull catching the wind to help it take off.
Photo: C.B.G.
Common Gulls are very territorial and scream at each other for a particular patch of ground, and have no hesitation in chasing other gulls to steal their food.
A gull comes into land. (Below). Notice that like the albatross, the outboard wing panels are drawn in and dropped and the camber of the wings is increased to give maximum lift a slow speed.

We used to call the "Red-billed Gull' a "Mackeral Gull" . The immaculate plumage suggests a great deal of preening. How can a gull remain so immaculate when one considers how scruffy the average human being is?

Gull testing seaweed for edibility.
Photo: C.B.G.

Gull on lookout for something edible.
Photo: C.B.G.

Gull in flight.
Photo: C.B.G.

Waiting & watching.
Photo: C.B.G.

Gull preening.
Photo: C.B.G.

The Great Black-Backed Gull is quiet and stately by comparison. It frequents many of the same of places as the Common Red Billed Gull, but does not stray as far inland.

Black-Backed Gull on flagpole
Photo: C.B.G.

Immature Black-Backed Gull.
Photo: C.B.G.

Black-Backed Gull
The seem to have a marked prediliction for hanging round garbage dumps, perhaps their natural habitat has been disturbed..
Photo: C.B.G.

Immature Lesser Black-Backed Gull

Photo: C.B.G.

Gull hovering before landing. See the spread of tail feathers..
Photo: C.B.G.

A Skua, Ross Sea.

Both skuas and immature BBGs have highly variable plumage. This Antarctic Skua is seen on the ice in McMurdo Sound with Mt Lister and the Royal Society Range in the distance. The prominent hook on the beak is one point of difference.

When we first saw this immature BBG, we thought it might be a skua, see below, left
Photo: C.B.G.

Almost mature B.B.Gull
Photo: C.B.G.