Grey Noddy

My very first encounter with the grey ternlet was some years ago, 2001, when some senior and authoritative members of the Bay of Plenty Ornithological Society decided it was time to check out whether or not grey ternlets were still to be found on and around the Volkner Rocks, north of White Island, in the Bay of Plenty. They needed numbers for the expensive boat trip and it was an opporunity to try and improve my woeful knowledge of sea birds even though I am not a good sailor.

The trip was eventful in that we saw many dolphins and flying fish and even a huge sun fish wallowing near Volkner Rocks but no grey ternlets. The trip was also eventful in that the boat’s engine broke down just north of Whale Island where I spent a few hours contemplating whether or not I could manage to swim to the Whale Island.

According to Paddy Latham, the grey ternlet “is a breeding resident of the Kermadec Is. Some time in the 20th century it colonised the Three Kings Islands, off the northern tip of the North Island and at least one group of islets, probably two, in the Bay of Plenty. It was first recorded in the Bay of Plenty in 1970 when about 1000 grey ternlets were seen and filmed on and about the Volkner Rocks by D. Pomeroy.”

“The Volkner Rocks are a group of three stacks five kilometres northwest of White Island and 50 kilometres north of Whakatane. A ‘lesser number’ of grey ternlets was discovered at the Sugarloaf Rock, an outlier of the Alderman group, 20 kilometres east of Tairua and 120 kilometres northwest of White Island, also by D. Pomeroy. R.A. Falla accompanied Pomeroy on a further visit to the Sugarloaf and found c. 200 grey ternlets to be present, some of which appeared to be immature.

“It is not known whether a few grey ternlets arrived first and built up gradually to the hundreds that were found, or whether they all arrived at once, just before they were discovered. Their place of origin was probably the Kermadecs — Norfolk Island is another possible source. A severe northerly gale could have been the ‘vehicle’ that brought them.

“Until recently the Volkner Rocks were used as a bomb and rocket range by the Royal New Zealand Air Force. As a result they were not often visited by people. In the early 1990s they ceased being a target and visits became more frequent. Before my 1997 visit, and unbeknownst to me at the time, a Department of Conservation team led by K.L. Owen visited the Volkners in 1993. They were able to land on the West Stack, the Central and East Stacks, being considered too difficult for a landing attempt. Although they did not see any live grey ternlets they did find c. 50 old nests, 10 dead ternlets among the nests, and some abandoned eggs. One of the eggs was taken and later confirmed as being that of a grey ternlet. On a subsequent visit by DOC, in 1997, at least four live birds were seen and videoed.

“On 13 Dec 1997, acting on anecdotal reports circulating among the local fishing fraternity of c. 200 ‘strange’ terns being seen at the Volkners earlier in the year, J.A. Brierly, W.M. Hutton, and I visited the group to investigate. Our stay was short, the sea quite rough, and the area about the Volkners was alive with birds
— c. 500 white-fronted terns, Sterna striata; c. 30 short-tailed shearwaters, Puffinus tenuirostris; c. 80 Buller’s shearwaters, P. bulleri — all of which made it difficult to find any grey ternlets. However, we finally saw at least two, probably four, before having to leave. On a winter visit, in 2001, we could not find any. The sea was calm and we were able to examine each stack through binoculars, seeing only a few white-fronted terns, a southern black-backed gull, Larus dominicanus, and some starlings, Sturnus vulgaris.

“In 2002, during another visit to the Volkners, 30 grey ternlets were found roosting on the Central Stack. B.M. Stephenson took photographs. Some of the birds had darker grey-brown plumage on the nape and were probably immature. On the return trip to Whakatane, three more grey ternlets were seen in flight, c. 3 km south of the stacks. Grey ternlets were observed by others on trips at around the same time.

“These observations show that the grey ternlet is still present in the Bay of Plenty some 30 years after ts discovery there. Breeding, previously assumed, has been confirmed. However, despite these trips to the Volkner Rocks and the observations made, the status of the grey ternlet in the Bay of Plenty remains unknown. The size of the population is unknown, although numbers appear to have decreased since 1970. Nor do we know whether they are present throughout the year, whether they breed there every year, nor whether they are still at the Sugarloaf.”

— Narena Olliver,  Greytown, 2007

Sub Species:

Other common names:  — 

grey noddy, blue-grey noddy

Description:  — 

Native bird

Distinctive small delicate blue-grey tern, wings darker with thin white trailing edge, prominent eye, long forked tail, bill black, long black legs; flight graceful, feeds like a storm petrel.

Where to find:  — 

Kermedecs, Bay of Plenty, Three Kings Island.

Credit for the photograph: — 

Illustration description: — 


Gould, John, Birds of Australia, 1848.

Reference(s): — 


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

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

Latham, Patrick.C.M., Notornis, 2003, Vol. 50: 118-121.

Page date & version: — 


Tuesday, 20 May 2014; ver2009v1


©  2007    Narena Olliver,    new zealand birds limited,     Greytown, New Zealand.