New Zealand’s volcanic White Island, also known as Whakaari, which erupted on Monday, killing at least six people, leaving eight missing and presumed dead, and injuring many others, is part of an Important Bird Area thanks to the presence of nesting colonies of Australasian Gannets.
The island is part of the Bay of Plenty Islands Important Bird Area. The IBA’s most important species, besides the gannet, are Grey-faced Petrel, Flesh-footed Shearwater (listed as Near Threatened), Kaka (Endangered), Australasian Bittern (Endangered), Brown Teal (Near Threatened), and North Island Saddleback (Near Threatened).
The gannet breeds in colonies, mostly on offshore islands, around New Zealand and Australia. The White Island colony had about 5,300 pairs in 2014-15, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, making it one of the larger colonies in the country.
The Australasian Gannet breeding season runs from July through February, and fledging doesn’t begin until late December, so it seems likely that birds on the island would have been caring for chicks or incubating eggs when the eruption occurred.
Birder Russell Cannings visited the island on November 25 for an hour and spent an additional hour-plus just offshore, and he reported seeing 1,000 gannets, 25 White-fronted Terns, 18 Silver Gulls, as well as handfuls of Kelp Gull, Welcome Swallow, European Starling, Eurasian Blackbird, Common Chaffinch, Rock Pigeon, and Short-tailed Shearwater. All told, eBird lists 29 bird species on the island.
The obvious concern in the coming days will be to rescue anyone who may have survived the blast. So, it will likely be some time before an assessment of the island’s birdlife can begin.
Updated December 11th with revised death toll.