Last November I made a personal dream come true by joining a 19-day expedition cruise to New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands, a trip called Birding Down Under: A seabird extravaganza around some of the remotest and wildest islands on the planet.

There were many highlights, but the biggest surprise on the Birding Down Under expedition cruise I found myself… During the tour, on our request, we got an onboard lecture about prion identification by the birding expedition tour leaders – as we were struggling with interpretation of the ID features of the various prion species. Most species look very (very!) similar and the identification is usually a puzzle between several features (e.g. bill structure, shade of blue color, tail pattern, etc.) by looking at the back of your camera on the small screen.

All the regular species were covered during the lecture including the island variation as well. The lecture was finished by an image taken off Macquarie island (Australia) of an apparent MacGillivray’s Prion (a Broad-billed Prion look-alike). A species known to breed on St. Paul and Gough Island, both islands very far away from where we were now. If only…

The next morning (in New Zealand waters) I was photographing Fulmar Prions off the side of the ship when a strange prion shot through my viewfinder and where the AF locked on. Which was odd in itself as the Fulmar Prions had a near impossible flight pattern – eluding the AF on many occasions.

Looking at the bird, or more precise the head pattern and bill structure, on the back of the camera I noticed that it was something I hadn’t seen before and I thought maybe Salvin’s Prion as it showed a s-shaped lower mandible – a key ID feature as mentioned in the lecture – and a rare bird in itself for the trip. Not to waist time I alerted both birding guides and the rest of the birders on deck. When I was indoors, looking for the remaining birders on board, the bird appeared at the stern and identified as the same species as photographed off Macquarie island a few years ago – an apparent MacGillivray’s Prion. A new species for New Zealand if accepted!
To everybody’s delight, the bird gave a big show for all birders on board.



It got even crazier, as the next day we had 2-3 birds around the ship for most of the day. In the aftermath of the event, one of the onboard guides checked all his images from Broad-billed Prions he had taken during all his previous tours over the years, to see if this bird was amongst them and he couldn’t find any other similar looking birds as we had on our trip. In the meanwhile I had checked my photos taken during this trip and it turned out I had already photographed one bird during the Stewart Island – Snares crossing! So they were around this year but not photographed in previous years.

So what is it?
Prion identification is a nightmare. Back on land, we sent the images to experts and some agree that it looks like the real MacGillivray’s Prion that are around Gough Island – which was only recently discovered as well. Some experts still have some reservations, as they can’t rule out immature Broad-billed Prions. How do they look like? Nobody knows for sure.

Extensive study of prion’s is needed for confirmation what we have seen, but at least we can say for now that there is something new out there – and when birders are aware that it might be out there, new sightings will undoubtedly be made and the mystery will slowly be unraveled. My guess is that it will turn out to be MacGillivray’s Prion or maybe even a new species of prion for science, a species that looks exactly like MacGillivray’s Prion. It is what prions do, looking near identical to another species. It is the life of a prion!

Comments on the ID are welcome!

The selfie sums up how I felt at the end of the ‘Big day’s’ during the Birding Down Under trip, the day’s with stunning wildlife encounters, wild beautiful raw nature and many 1000’s of pictures taken during the day – utterly exhausted but extremely content and happy! The trusty Leiva Noctivid’s binocular proved indisposable yet again. The performance out at sea is next to nothing, picking up seabirds far away easily. Awesome!

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