Herald petrel

Common name: Herald petrel

Scientific name: Pterodroma heraldica

Family: Procellariidae (petrels and shearwaters)

Conservation status: The Herald petrel is Endangered in Queensland (Nature Conservation Act 1992) and Critically Endangered nationally (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999). It is ranked as low under the department's Back on Track species prioritisation framework.

Description

The Herald petrel is a medium to large tropical petrel which belongs to a group of seabirds known as ‘gadfly’ petrels. All of these petrels have short sturdy bills suitable for picking soft prey from the surface of the water and complex wing and face marking which are probably important for interspecific recognition. Herald petrels are polymorphic, with three main colour phases, dark, intermediate and pale. Most Australasian records of the Herald petrel have been of the pale phase. This species is similar to the kermadec and providence petrels, with dark underwings with a contrasting white patch at the base of the primaries extending as a pale wedge along greater coverts towards the body. The Herald petrel can be distinguished from other species of petrel by white patches on the leading edge of the underwing near the body. The sexes are alike, with no seasonal variation.

Habitat and distribution

The distribution and habitat of the Herald petrel is not well understood. Their breeding distribution extends from eastern Australia to Easter Island in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The only known Australian breeding location is Raine Island in the outer Great Barrier Reef. These petrels nest on scrapes under the vegetation on the highest part of the island. Birds are present for most of the year and only absent between November to January. This contrasts to other pacific breeding colonies where birds are present throughout the year.

The at-sea distribution of these petrels in not known, with scattered records throughout many regions of the South Pacific and some in the North Pacific.

Life history and behaviour

Social organisation is not completely understood. Outside of the breeding season pairs or individuals are seen at sea, but sometimes up to 15 birds have been seen in mixed feeding flocks. Very little is known about their diet or feeding methods, although they have been seen in association with the wedge-tailed shearwater Ardenna pacificus.

On Raine Island they are usually seen in pairs or in threes. Courtship flights consisting of high speed synchronized dives and loops are performed over the breeding site. Its most common call is a rapidly repeated single notes 'ti-ti-ti-ti-ti' lasting from four - six seconds.

The first evidence of breeding since the 1980s, was recently recorded on Raine Island by Queensland Parks and Wildlife staff.

Threatening processes

The tiny population is vulnerable to catastrophes. Silver gull may be a threat to eggs and chicks on Raine Island, and nesting turtles probably destroy some nests.

Recovery action

  • Continue to monitor annual breeding effort at Raine Island.

Related information

Department of the Environment and Heritage. 2005. Ten Seabird species Issues paper. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

Department of the Environment and Energy (DOEE). 2017. Pterodroma heraldica Herald petrel in Species Profile and Threats Database. DOEE, Canberra.

Garnett ST, Szabo JK and Duntson G 2011. The action plan for Australian birds 2010. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.