Sketches from SeabirdlandLatest update September 21, 2020 Started on July 17, 2017
I'm a sketch biologist sketching my way through the "seabird capital of the world"—New Zealand. I'm living out of a car and tent, hitching boat rides to remote islands, climbing down sea cliffs, and being chased by sea lions while pursuing penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Meanwhile I'm joining New Zealanders in their extraordinary efforts to save seabirds, the fastest declining group of birds worldwide.
Ghostbusting an “Extinct” Seabird
It’s well past midnight on Little Barrier Island, called Hauturu in Māori—“resting place of the wind.”
Six of us have been lying on our backs in the wet grass since nightfall, squinting through the spatter of raindrops on our faces. A giant inverted triangle of light, blurred by mist and striated with rain, shoots upward from a floodlight on the ground and looms above the forest clearing. Swirling in and out of the beam are the pale underbellies of hundreds of seabirds, their raspy laughter filling the air. They look like constellations of stars that have come loose and started careening around the sky.
Each time one of these rogue stars dips low enough, it slips into focus as a Cook’s petrel, a vulnerable seabird species that nests only on a few islands in New Zealand. But the star we're looking for is an even more enigmatic one.
After being thought extinct for the entire 20th century, the New Zealand storm petrel was recently found nesting here—a forest-covered old volcano in the Hauraki Gulf, lying a scant fifty miles north of the city of Auckland. It has no other known breeding sites in the world. Its call is loud in our ears, coming from a speaker placed on the ground to draw the birds toward us. Actually, this is the only audio recording of this species in existence: a plaintive note alternating with a sort of squawk, looping every fifteen seconds. We’ve been hearing it on repeat for hours, and I’m fighting a losing battle not to memorize it.
Rain is slowly soaking into my supposedly rainproof jacket and pants, and moisture from the waterlogged ground is seeping in from below. My socks and boots are sopping wet, a delightful reminder of the knee-deep puddle we had to walk through on the way here. Suddenly someone yells out. “Stormy!”
Capturing a New Zealand storm petrel on Little Barrier Island
It’s scientist Matt Rayner of the Auckland Museum, and he’s not talking about the weather. We all jump up. Three high-lumen torches switch on and converge on an erratically moving shape, pale like the petrels but smaller and scrappier. It appears headless, its dark face disappearing against the sky while its belly reflects white.
Rayner and the other two torch bearers take off at a run, stumbling in gumboots through the hummocky grass, striving valiantly to keep their eyes and their lights on the target as it ricochets around the sky. Like some sort of backcountry ghostbusting team they’re maneuvering to form a triangle around the bird, which seems caught in the nexus of the three beams. Slowly, inexorably, the storm petrel is drawn in a swooping descent to the ground. Rayner gently picks it up.
It was 2003 when a bird that looked a lot like an extinct New Zealand storm petrel was spotted in the Hauraki Gulf, 108 years after its extinction date. Within the next few years, as sightings began to accumulate, scientists managed to capture some of the diminutive black-and-white storm petrels at sea. They confirmed the birds‘ identity genetically using the only three museum specimens in existence, collected in the nineteenth century. Finding this species still clinging to life was nothing short of miraculous. But to safeguard its recovery, researchers needed to know where the burrow-nesting bird was breeding. At that point nobody could be sure if the New Zealand storm petrel’s breeding site was in New Zealand at all.
Steffi Ismar measures the bill of a storm petrel
Rayner is now wading through the soggy grass, storm petrel safely in tow. He crawls under a tarp strung between two trees for shelter from the rain. Settling in next to a box full of banding and measuring tools, he checks the bird for a brood patch. Sure enough, its belly has a patch with no feathers, which means the bird is in active breeding mode. “This measurement was critical for us back in 2013,” he says.
That was when he and fellow researchers, searching for the storm petrel’s breeding grounds, first managed to catch some birds whose bare bellies meant they had nests nearby. In an epic tale of ingenuity and perseverance (recounted here by researcher Chris Gaskin), Rayner and colleagues traced the breeding storm petrels to Little Barrier Island.
Little Barrier is special: arguably New Zealand’s most intact ecosystem, it’s full to the brim with endangered plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else. On this evening’s walk to the catching site we passed a giant weta sitting at eye level on a tree trunk, looking actually rather cute for a cricketlike insect the size of your hand. Geckos peek from the shrubbery on the edge of the clearing, and we’re hearing strident kiwi calls from the bush on both sides of us (not to mention the incessant “more-pork, more-pork” croaking of New Zealand’s only surviving native owl, which is called—wait for it—a morepork).
The key to this mini paradise? Predator control. Cats were eradicated from Little Barrier by 1980 and rats in 2004. Now the island is mammal-free, like it used to be in the not-so-olden days before humans arrived with human-transported pests. In a part of the world where the wildlife evolved without land mammals for 80 million years, invasive predators are serious business—and controlling them can save multiple species of concern at the same time. This storm petrel we’re holding right now demonstrates another benefit of pest control: it can even save species you haven’t discovered yet. Rayner says it’s likely that the New Zealand storm petrel would have gone extinct for real, if Little Barrier hadn’t been cleared of mammals when it was.
Little Barrier Island, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand
Now the cats and rats are gone, and the storm petrels are found—nearly 500 individuals captured and banded since their rediscovery, and a grand total of four nests located on Little Barrier’s steep slopes. But the work of saving this species isn’t over, which is why we’re here getting soaked. Banding and measuring and collecting blood samples are all part of understanding breeding biology, and that’s a crucial prerequisite to effective conservation.
One of the next big challenges for Rayner’s team is convincing some of the birds to take up residence in a colony of nest boxes (built nearby in the forest), because their natural burrows have proven too cryptic, inaccessible, and fragile to monitor. Another is to find out if there any other islands in the Gulf harboring the elusive storm petrels. The project chugs onward, in true New Zealand style, “on the smell of an oily rag,” with the small but mighty Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust carrying on a continual hunt for funding. Did I mention the floodlight we’re using is made out of aluminum foil, duct tape, tin scraps, and the remnants of an old catapult originally built for one of the island caretaker’s children?
We had a rough boat ride from the mainland to the island earlier in the day. We’ll be out in the rain until the wee hours of the morning and we’ll be back every night for ten days straight, catching and releasing bird after bird. Our gear will get wetter and the puddles will get deeper. But for this bunch, that’s all worth it—because seabird conservation in New Zealand gets results. One of them is this little storm petrel with a new band on its leg.
This week in Stylist France magazine, Julia is wearing Lancôme. Abby is wearing eau de seabird and a $17 coat and a pair of pants she's had since 1999. Accessorized, of course, with a grey-faced petrel chick.
While this French fashion magazine is a hilariously unexpected platform (let's just say that "fashion" and "Abby McBride" are rarely used in the same sentence), I'm very pleased to connect with a brand-new audience on behalf of seabirds.
Thank you to Edin Whitehead for photographing me and a fluffy petrel chick on the Mokohinau Islands of New Zealand.
Quick Stop at the Petrel Station
I drove through Punakaiki recently. Once a year this west coast town holds a festival to welcome the Westland petrel back home to New Zealand after the bird’s annual sojourn to South American waters. Amid a weekend of music and revelry, festival-goers gather on the beach at sunset to watch thousands of large black seabirds assemble in the sky above the coast. The birds then fly en masse overhead toward the forest hills, as they do every night during their breeding season.
Punakaiki has good reason to be proud of these beautiful petrels, also known as a tāikos, because they’re truly a local specialty. All 4,000 or so pairs nest along this small patch of coastline. Unlike nearly all other burrowing seabird species in New Zealand, Westland petrels somehow avoided being pushed off the mainland when invasive mammals hitched a ride with humans to this part of the world (though the birds certainly struggle with predation on land, as well as with threats at sea).
I missed the Tāiko Festival by a few weeks, but I got to see something even better when I stopped through town. With the help of a conservation-minded landowner whose property holds dozens of nests, I visited the Westland petrel colony itself.
That’s my faithful steed, Indy, parked at the edge of the inland forest. The beach is just beyond the treeline to the left. (It’s also to the right. Panoramas are weird.)
It was sunset when I parked in the driveway and followed Bruce Stuart-Menteath into the inland forest. In the gathering dusk we ascended long sets of wooden stairs that he’d built years ago to give petrel colony tours to interested parties. At one point, Bruce paused to explain something and was interrupted by a crash in the thicket off to the left. “That was a petrel,” he remarked, and we continued our climb.
At the top we sat down, and there the spectacle began in earnest. Big dark birds were crash-landing in the trees and ferns all around us and shuffling along the ground to their burrows. Watching the dimly lit sky through a gap in the forest, we could see their silhouettes circling as they prepared for entry. One came straight at me; imagine looking at a Batman symbol (except more seabird-shaped) that gets larger and larger and then veers aside at the last instant. I felt a whoosh of air, a brush of wings, and fortunately no puncture from a fearsome ivory beak, as the bird dodged past me and tumbled dramatically onto the ground.
After one of these landings, Bruce turned on a dim light so we could get a look at a petrel as it rested from the exertion. I had half a minute to sketch this one before it crept away toward its burrow:
Later on, another bird climbed up a stump in front of us—a customary launch pad, Bruce informed me—and spent about ten minutes contemplating an early departure back to sea. Several times it opened its long wings and flapped vigorously. But it ended up dropping back to the ground and meandering off into the bush. Apparently it would wait until the morning rush, when most of the petrels head back to the ocean under cover of darkness (to avoid “the falcon,” Bruce said).
We didn’t want to use too much light and disturb the petrels. But there was plenty to listen to, between the crashes and the rustlings and all manner of vocal performances, as the birds sat in their burrow entrances and loudly laid claim to their territory. Within a week or so they’d be laying eggs.
When we descended back to sea level that night, I accepted a kind offer for “tea and pudding” (that’s dinner and dessert in New Zealand) with Bruce and his partner Denise Howard. Then I camped nearby on the coast.
I emerged from my tent an hour before dawn and drove until I reached a stretch of road that Bruce had described to me. I got out of the car. Standing there with the world gradually lightening around me, I watched Westland petrels materialize in the distance above the hills and fly toward me in a wide, continuous stream. They flew over my head and past the moon with faintly swishing wingbeats, off for a day of feeding at sea.
The flood slowed to a trickle, and at last the final petrel flew over. The sun rose. I got back in the car and drove on.
Riches on the Poor Knights
In the far north of New Zealand lie the rugged Poor Knights Islands, off-limits to terrestrial tourism, but surrounded by a stunning marine reserve containing one of Jacques Cousteau’s top ten dive sites. Why are these prismatic waters so rich with life? One likely factor is the abundance of seabirds that breed here, bringing nutrients they’ve consumed at sea and depositing them on land—with a cascade of effects on the coastal ecosystem.
It’s a rare privilege to see the underwater world around this archipelago, but even luckier is being part of a research expedition with a special permit to go ashore. Along with the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust and Radio New Zealand’s Alison Ballance, I caught a ride on a dive boat to one of the Poor Knights Islands to study its influential (yet elusive) seabird inhabitants.
Buller’s shearwaters or rako are slender seabirds that traverse the Pacific and can be seen off the California coast (where they’re sometimes called New Zealand shearwaters), but their only nesting place worldwide is right here. Aside from enriching the Poor Knights ecosystem with their guano, the birds have also used their clawed feet to engineer a unique landscape. The forest floor here is largely a forest crust, with a vast city of burrows beneath.
Visiting the home of the shearwaters is a multi-sensory experience. You land in a dinghy on sharp volcanic rocks with a surge and a splash. You spend a couple of hours lugging loads of gear across the craggy shoreline, encircled by a 360-degree technicolor vista of towering cliffs and sun-filled waters. You climb into the shady forest and set up your tent, smack in the middle of a neighborhood of musky-scented nest burrows. (They seem to be deserted during the day, but you know better).
You spend mornings and afternoons struggling up steep forest slopes, tracking down audio recorders to switch out their batteries and SD cards—which requires stepping gingerly on thousands of shearwater burrows, and taking great pains not to break through their roofs. You lie face down in the leaf litter and reach your entire arm into many of those burrows, each time hoping to feel a spirited nip from the fluffy chick you’ll be measuring, rather than the reptilian bite of a lurking tuatara.
But perhaps the most remarkable sensory dimension of a Poor Knights seabird expedition is the soundscape. When the sun goes down and darkness falls, the adult shearwaters fly in from the ocean, crashing through the canopy and landing with spectacular thumps on the forest floor. After scuttling to find their burrows and feed their chicks, they spend the rest of the night making a grand old racket of yelps and cackles all around your tent. Just before daybreak they climb up boulders and trees, launching themselves back through the trees and out to sea, leaving stillness behind—soon broken by the musical dawn chorus of bellbirds.
If you’re wishing you could experience this for yourself, great news: Ballance has produced a transportive RNZ episode about our trip. Take a few moments to listen in (and don’t miss her written story, which includes some photos of the sketch biologist in residence).
This was supposed to be a story about an expedition to the Pyramid—an extremely dramatic rock in the ocean near Chatham Island (500 miles east of New Zealand), inhabited by the world's only population of Chatham albatross.
Instead, it's a story about sheep.
The scene: a sheep shearer's cottage on windswept Chatham Island. The premise: waiting and waiting and waiting for sea conditions that would allow us to land on the Pyramid. The cast: a photographer (Tom), a videographer (Otto), and a sketch biologist (me). Not to mention the sheep.
During the day, we went on treks—sans sheep—into the nearby forest, where we could pass some time studying another endangered seabird. In the evenings, we hung out at the cottage—with sheep—hoping that the next day might bring a trip to the Pyramid.
On one of these evenings at the sheep shearer's cottage, I took a rare shower, washing my hair for the first time in more than a week. Then I went for a pre-sunset walk, working my way across the barren field around the cottage, weaving in and out of clusters of sheep. They eyed me nervously and sidled out of the way. I rounded the fenced property and went down a hill to the edge of some trees, out of sight of the cottage.
Glancing back up at the hillside, I was accosted by the disconcerting gaze of several dozen sheep. They had formed lines along terraces of the hill and were staring down at me with what looked vaguely like hostility but was probably just sheeply vigilance.
I couldn't help myself. I let out a "maaaaaaa" at the rows of wary sheep. To my everlasting delight, they responded in unison: "maaaaaaaaa." I tried again and was rewarded with another chorus from the sheep choir. We kept this up for a while (and would have continued indefinitely, if it had been up to me) but finally the sheep gradually began to lose interest and go about their business.
Then I saw one sheep lingering oddly at the bottom of the hill. I wondered if it had hurt itself. Moving closer, I realized it was in the middle of a mucky spot, and it was stuck.
Watching the sheep wrestle with its predicament, I became more and more sure that it wouldn't get free without help. So I said farewell to my brief state of post-shower cleanliness. I ran back to the cottage to change into my dirty clothes, put on my gumboots, and grab my gloves. As I crossed paths with a quizzical Otto, I explained succinctly that I was going to try to pull a sheep out of the mud.
When I got back to the sheep, it was almost up to its eyeballs, with all four legs fully submerged, and the lower portion of its copiously fleeced body as well. Moving as close as I could without sinking into the mudhole myself, I bent down, reached around the struggling sheep, grabbed fistfuls of wool, and tried pulling up.
It didn’t budge.
I dug my arm down into the mud and reached for its hind hoof. Pulling as hard as I could, I managed to raise the leg a bit higher in the mud, but the sheep itself was as firmly lodged as ever. I tried for the other hind leg, and almost got hopelessly stuck as a clump of firmer earth I was standing on sunk down. I repositioned, tried again, and managed to raise the second leg a bit too.
Then I reached around the sheep with both arms to grab both hind hooves at once. The sheep struggled and braced its hind legs on my hands under the mud, and was able to plunge forward and free itself.
Laden with mud, the newly liberated sheep staggered across the quagmire while I prayed it wouldn't immediately sink into another puddle. Luckily it went straight for the fence, where there was a strip of firmer ground.
The next task was getting the sheep to move along the fence to one side or the other—preferably the side closer to safety—to escape the mudtrap for good.
Our protagonist was refusing to move, and making butting motions as I approached, when backup arrived. Otto appeared over the crest of the hill, followed by Tom. They helped me surround the sheep and herd it toward the edges of the muddy valley. They helped pull it out of the mud again, the several times it sunk in anew.
The final challenge: getting our hapless sheep friend up onto a ledge separating the muddy patch from the harder hillside. Otto and I combined our efforts and lifted the sheep onto the slope, while Tom guarded the side, so it wouldn’t flee in that direction and end up back in the death trap.
Once on the ledge, the sheep made its way up the rest of the hill under its own power, despite the heavy coating of mud that was weighing it down. It reached the top, found a dirt path, and trotted away—looking all right aside from the mud load, which would probably dissipate as it dried. (Being clean is overrated anyway, I decided.)
And that's the tale of my voyage to the Pyramid, or lack thereof. I'll never be sure how much I've done to help seabirds during this year of seabird storytelling, but I can take comfort knowing I saved one life in the Chatham Islands.
The Very Secret Life of the Chatham Island Taiko
Photo by Otto Whitehead
When an endangered animal is so elusive that it's barely glimpsable (yes, glimpsable), how do you get a picture of it?
This is an important question, thanks to the obvious role images play in capturing human interest and support. It's certainly a question for the Chatham Island taiko, a critically endangered seabird that is superlatively hard to see.
The taiko spends its life out of sight on the ocean. Under cover of darkness it comes ashore to nest, on an island 500 miles east of New Zealand, where it immediately disappears into a burrow underground. It's just about as unphotographable as you can imagine.
Enter: sketching! As one of National Geographic's leading photographers remarked to me during our explorations of Chatham Island, "You're lucky; you can just make stuff up." For the record, making stuff up is not how I describe my approach. But through art I was able to reconstruct a few days in the life of the barely glimpsable taiko.
Here's how: I caught what brief glimpses of the bird were possible during conservation missions conducted at night. I squinted at grainy nocturnal footage from trail cameras, watching shadowy forms emerge from burrows and climb trees to launch into the sky. I got familiar with the taiko's jungly habitat by day, trekking up and down forest trails. I studied closely related species to infer aspects of appearance and behavior. I spent a lot of time talking taiko with the people who know it best.
And the outcome is below. (In a separate post, due to technical problems.)
Meeting an Unmeetable Creature
Chatham Island lies 500 miles east of New Zealand. It is a large island, a roughly undulating expanse of faded greens and earth tones. Mostly treeless, peppered with sheep.
But tucked away in a corner of this barren landscape is a dense, verdant forest. Hidden in that forest is one of the world's rarest seabirds.
The Chatham Island taiko—a type of petrel with plumage like a slate-gray suit—was rediscovered in 1978 after many years of supposed extinction.
A group of enterprising people tried everything they could to protect the tiny population. After decades of effort, taiko numbers started to rise from a couple of known nests to a handful, to several dozen. About 100 individuals are known today.
The people who shouldered this incredible responsibility—keeping one of the world's rarest birds from going extinct—are the members of the Chatham Island Taiko Trust. Their job is massive, multifaceted, and dominated by the relentless, endless task of invasive predator control. They have fenced off one large area, known as Sweetwater, within a special predator-proof fence.
But not all of the endangered seabirds have gotten the memo to nest inside the fence. Taiko burrows are scattered throughout the Tuku, this hilly forest packed with tree ferns.
Photo by Otto Whitehead
I made a few forays into the Tuku with a Taiko Trust scientist. We were joined sporadically by other researchers and visitors, including the team producing National Geographic's story on the global seabird crisis.
Each Tuku trek was long and convoluted, as we made the rounds from burrow to burrow to burrow, checking them for records of recent taiko activity.
What used to be a low-tech endeavor (e.g. with strategically placed twigs that shift when a bird passes through) has become more sophisticated over the years. Data loggers register the comings and goings of electronically tagged birds.
At this point you might be wondering when I'm going to show you a picture of a taiko. Not yet! Sorry. Turns out you don't actually see these seabirds when you traverse their breeding grounds (for reasons that will become clearer in my next post).
The few taiko glimpses we snagged were under cover of darkness. One evening we embarked on a long nighttime slog to a specific burrow, the residence of a taiko that had yet to be tagged. An audio lure played softly while we sat among mud and ferns in the dark and waited, fighting sleepiness.
Suddenly and miraculously, the taiko emerged, responding to the call. The researchers quickly switched on a headlamp to trap the bird, fit it with a band and electronic tag, and release it. In the dull red glow I sketched this picture.
Yes, this is the foot of a Chatham Island taiko
Now the taiko will provide information about its activities for the rest of its life, without ever having to be handled again. The Trust will use that information to better protect the bird and its fellows.
I'll leave you with a question to ponder. The moment shown above—an interruption, albeit a careful and essential one—was our only chance to capture images of this animal, this superlatively elusive seabird. How, then, could we hope to depict its natural behavior?
Stay tuned to see one solution...
Steampunk Plane to Another Planet
This is a story about the time I boarded a plane in Wellington and flew east, 500 miles, to a very strange place.
The Chatham Islands are part of New Zealand, but that's not completely obvious when you're here. Chatham Islanders refer to the mainland not as "the mainland" but as "New Zealand."
I went to the Chatham Islands to sketch seabirds, yes. I also went to meet up with the team photographing, filming, and writing this National Geographic magazine story about the global seabird crisis.
The team happened to be chasing down seabirds on the Chatham Islands at the same time as I was chasing down seabirds anywhere and everywhere in New Zealand. More about the seabirds later. First, a journal entry to set the scene.
Day 1: I fly to Chatham Island on a rickety rattletrap of a plane, sitting next to an elderly widow and across from a vast tarp-covered bundle (contents unknown) that has replaced all of the seats left of the aisle. Otto picks me up at the airport and we set off across the mostly treeless island in an offroad truck.
We reach some buildings signaling the town of Waitangi and make a brief stop at the (only?) store, where it costs more than $60 NZD for a small bag of snacks. After another long stretch up and down bumpy dirt roads we arrive at team headquarters: the sheep shearer’s cottage. I sketch a parea through the window.
The parea—a very large endemic pigeon—is obviously not a seabird, but it is one of an assortment of bird species found on this clump of far-flung isles and nowhere else in the world. Thirty years ago there were only about 45 parea left. They've rebounded since then, thanks to the same invasive predator control efforts that are saving Chatham seabirds. We'll get to that.
In upcoming posts you will meet more Chatham Island specialties. And a lot of sheep. Get ready for the sheep.
Supposedly I didn’t show any fear during my first abseil—down a 70-meter seacliff south of Dunedin, New Zealand. Thank you, poker face. But in truth, it was amazement more than fear that I felt while hanging vertiginously over the ocean, descending past surfaces sculpted like unfired urns, to find a wild, winged treasure buried in the sandstone below.
This music video/science documentary mashup—viewable at the bottom of today's post—features Volcano Sky from the album “Birds Say” by Darlingside. (In case you missed it, here’s another music vidocumentary of amazing New Zealand seabirds.)
Abseiler and former Department of Conservation ranger Graeme Loh has been hurtling over the cliff regularly for a couple of decades, studying and caring for a colony of small, silvery seabirds that nest on a ledge halfway down.
They’re called fairy prions, and they’re enchanting. The sheer cliff protects them from rats and other invasive mammals that terrorize the countryside above. Otherwise, these delicate and sweet-tempered birds can nest only on offshore islands free of predators.
The hidden ledge holds about 50 natural nest burrows and 90 nest boxes (including 74 study boxes), which Loh built after discovering the colony in the early 1990s. A few years later he started banding the prions, and by now he’s placed bands on the legs of some 1500 birds. Learn more about the secret prion colony in a Radio New Zealand story by Alison Ballance.
I visited the colony at the perfect time to see adults as well as nestlings. Fairy prion parents incubate their chicks for less than a week, but Loh found adults huddled with their babies in 23 of the 61 active nests. (In one nest a parent was still sitting on an egg.)
Seabird chicks tend to be ludicrously fluffy. These fairy prions were no exception.
Besides checking all of the study boxes for activity, Loh also downloaded data from temperature loggers and cameras, gathering information about the prions’ comings and goings.
While Loh did the rounds, I had ample time...
As if caretaking a cliffside colony weren’t enough of a commitment, Loh has added a new element to the project. He recently led a team of volunteers in building a remarkable fence at the top of the cliff, completely sealing off one small plot of land from wily predators.
With the help of audio recordings to lure in fairy prions, he aims to expand the colony to this slightly more accessible location, as well as protect other seabird species that nest there. So far no nesting prions, but it’s early yet.
When I set out to find a nesting colony of the most endangered gull in the world, I fully expected to fail.
Not that it should be hard if you’re in the right place, and I was—the river-crossed interior of New Zealand’s South Island. The black-billed gull (which, I might add, is not a seagull) nests mainly on gravel river islands in the far south, feeding on little critters in the rivers and nearby farm fields.
Still, I suspected I might not run into any black-billed gulls at all, because I’m a haphazard naturalist with a patented technique of bumbling along to see what I see. That generally does not include specified targets, never mind highly endangered ones.
My current target seemed like a needle in a haystack. Thanks to a tip from nature filmmaker Bill Morris, I knew the 170-kilometer Oreti River was one where black-bills had nested in previous years. Without any additional information I bumbled my way to the unassuming town of Lumsden, where there was a camping area near the river. (Bill asked me to let him know if I found a colony, because he was keen to film one. I said I would, omitting my fairly confident prediction that it wasn’t going to happen.)
The black-bill is the only gull in the world classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Ten years ago the population was estimated at 90,000 adults, but it’s been dropping precipitously for decades. Some of the culprits are invasive predators, invasive weeds encroaching on nest habitat, invasive people driving cars through active colonies, and effects of ocean warming on the fish and marine invertebrates that black-bills eat in the nonbreeding season.
It was late afternoon on Christmas Day when I arrived at my Lumsden campsite to search for some of these beleaguered gulls.
I had spent Christmas Eve sleeping in my car on a mountain pass, ignoring the stares of several bemused sheep, and the following day driving across rugged terrain through a variety of weather conditions. By the time I arrived I was pretty hungry and tired.
But like a committed finder of endangered species, I walked straight over to the river, eyes on the alert for small, pale, long-billed gulls. I found a vast gravel expanse, completely devoid of birds.
No gulls here
Any spark of optimism that I may have been indulging died away immediately. Fortunately, my hopes had been so low that I wasn’t very disappointed. I reverted to my usual semi-abstracted state and started strolling down the river, with an eye out for anything that might come along.
I strolled until I couldn’t stroll any farther, having reached a point where two streams converged from either side of me. I turned around and strolled back upstream until the gravel beach shrank to nothing and the river was flush with the wall of streamside shrubbery.
Oh well, at least I’d tried, I thought. I was about one second away from heading back to the campsite to eat and sleep. Then I saw something in the distance—upriver, near a distant highway bridge to the north. A handful of white birds flying around. They couldn’t be. I raised my binoculars. They were.
With visions of food and a nap slipping away, I sprinted back to camp and got in my car, drove to the highway, and parked at the bridge. I saw no trace of the birds. Where did they go? Maybe they were following a school of fish down the river, I thought, ruing my ignorance about their feeding habits (haphazard naturalist, I told you). I started walking south along the river, with my hopes dying down again.
But I rounded a bend and suddenly there they were: a dozen or so black-billed gulls wheeling in the sky.
I would have been happy getting a glimpse of a single bird, and here was a great look at a whole bunch of them, alive with sound and motion. It was thrilling. Then, as I got closer, I noticed the ground beneath them. It was completely white with gulls. This was no mere feeding frenzy: I’d stumbled onto a breeding colony.
There were hundreds and maybe thousands of birds on the ground. It was hard to tell how many because they were packed on a flat gravel island, raised above the stream level and shielded by some grasses. I was shocked to have actually found what I was looking for.
My Christmas dinner (pasta and leftover snacks) tasted particularly delicious. My sleeping bag that night was especially comfortable.
The next morning Bill the filmmaker showed up and we spent a full day with the black-billed gulls. I sketched, he filmed, and later he cautiously sent his camera drone over the colony. “You can see tire tracks from cars driving through,” he said. “Wonder if they’ve been going through while the gulls are there—I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had.”
After we’d spent hours moving very slowly toward the edge of the colony, a guy with a fishing pole appeared and walked right through it, scattering gulls right and left. This was a kind of bumbling I take pains to avoid. I half expected him to ask us what we were doing, and I half hoped he would.
“Just observing the most endangered gull in the world; what are you doing?" (I wouldn’t have actually said that.)
Surely that fisherman doesn't realize he's in the company of a unique and threatened species. Maybe he, and whoever left tire tracks through the colony, and a lot of other people in the world would treat "seagulls" differently if they knew just a bit more of the story.
As for me, I will continue to wander haphazardly, and occasionally find wonderful things by accident. But I'll tread carefully, knowing that there's so much I don't know about the world I'm exploring.
Seagull or Not?
Having survived a subantarctic voyage, I'm back to roaming around mainland New Zealand—seabird capital of the world—in pursuit of stories and sketches. In today's episode we engage in an extremely important debate about (sea)gulls.
According to certain pedants, there’s no such thing as a seagull.
The bird in question, which may or may not be stealing your sandwich as we speak, is actually a gull—one of about fifty gull species living in habitats all over the world (oceanic and otherwise). Gulls range from the size of a dove to the size of an osprey, with all sorts of differences in appearance and behavior.
Three of those species live here in New Zealand—including the river-dwelling black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world. When I took my sketchbook and went looking for nesting gulls, I found some nests inches from the ocean and others 50 miles inland, which is about as far from the coast as you can get around here.
What’s wrong saying "seagull" for the sea-going ones? Sigh...nothing, I suppose. But by using more precise terms you can help discourage a tragic misconception: that there’s only one kind of seagull, and it’s a rat with wings.
In a single week I’ve watched a motorist drive casually into a flock of endangered black-billed gulls resting on the grass, cringed while a recreational fisherman traipsed through one of their breeding colonies on a river island, and heard stories about people shooting them for fun. They’re just seagulls, after all—they’re everywhere, all making a nuisance of themselves. Right?
Nope. Endangered or otherwise, each gull species is unique and deserves to be recognized as such, in my humble opinion. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to New Zealand’s gulls.
RED-BILLED GULL (Larus novaehollandiae)
The dainty red-billed gull is known as tarāpunga or akiaki in Māori. It’s the most common gull on New Zealand’s shores, so some people think of it as a pest. But in fact its population has been plummeting in response to things like invasive predators and changes in krill abundance caused by climate fluctuation. I think the red-billed gull is one of the dandiest birds around: sparkling white, with brilliant red accents and an attitude out of proportion with its size.
BLACK-BILLED GULL (Larus bulleri)
The black-billed gull also goes by tarāpuka. Closely related to the common but declining red-billed gull, it’s of similar size and spunk but with a more elongated body, a more attenuated bill, and more of an emo expression. It nests in dense colonies on river islands and is the most endangered gull in the world. I generally avoid talking about politics, but I voted for this misunderstood and underappreciated bird in the New Zealand Bird of the Year elections. More about it in my next story.
SOUTHERN BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus dominicanus)
The southern black-backed gull is found all over the southern hemisphere, where it’s usually known as the kelp gull. Here in New Zealand it goes by karoro or simply “black-back”. Opportunistic scavengers, black-backed gulls have gotten more common alongside human impacts on the landscape. Even among bird aficionados they have a villainous reputation, thanks to their habit of dining on eggs and chicks. But just look at how cute that black-backed gull family is! Anyway, good or bad, a gull is never just a seagull.
In the next episode we'll stumble upon a gull goldmine, so stay tuned.
What will become of the endangered penguins? Will our ship make it back to New Zealand? Does Abby know how to make scones? Find out in this final installment of the subantarctic odyssey "Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin."
Day 15 – Cabin Fever
The morning weather was too bad for penguin counting. According to a few repeat volunteers and staff on the project, I’ve lucked into the chilliest, stormiest Auckland Islands penguin-counting trip to date (sounds like something I would do). Nobody even followed through on last night's pirate plan, though we could see the other ship in the distance.
Amidst today’s inactivity I did accomplish one thing: making a carrot cake for DoC ranger Juzah’s birthday. You wouldn’t think that experience as a pastry chef would be especially useful in the average scientific enterprise, but let me tell you, it comes in handy all the time.
Day 16 – Aucklands Farewell
Eight days after the first count on Rose Island, we set off for another one on the same island—our final count of the trip. A bunch of us hopped into the dinghy and zoomed away in the dark.
Low tide meant a high climb onto the rocks compared to last time. “Find lots of YEPs,” someone said as we dispersed, referring to yellow-eyed penguins. The obvious reply was “yep.” This being New Zealand, both times it was pronounced yip.
Maybe it was the calm water or maybe the ease of experience, but everything seemed to go uncannily smoothly. I even got to return to my original tussock.
Just as before, I had barely settled into place when an adult penguin appeared. It popped out of the grass right in front of me. A minute later, I saw a second penguin at the base of the rock ledge jutting into water. I bet they were the same two from last week.
The first penguin called, shrilly (bringing to mind its Māori name, hoiho, which means “noise shouter”). It crossed over to join the second penguin and they both toddled out to the end of the rocks, entering the water at 5:35, exactly like they did a week ago.
Then the Rose Island sun rose, right in my face. Suddenly I couldn’t see very well. But I did get blissfully warm. (See video clip below.)
That was the end of penguin counting. We had just one more recreational dinghy trip ashore. Actually, the dinghy never made it: the slope was too gradual to land properly. Several people’s boots filled with water as we waded the rest of the way in. On shore we found a few buildings, abandoned decades ago, but with some furniture and supplies intact. There was even a guest book. If you ever end up there yourself and flip through the book, keep an eye out for the page with former New Zealand Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry’s name signed at the top and mine at the bottom.
The buildings were surrounded by ancient rātā trees, their wide trunks growing nearly horizontal along the ground before rising up into the canopy. We walked through the trees and up the mountain. Strung along the whole length of the path was a rusty old wire, with which the former tenants had communicated between the top and bottom of the hill. And at the top of the hill was a little shed with a platform on the roof.
Was there a ladder going up to the platform? When I went around the back to check, I nearly tripped over a sea lion tucked in behind the shed. This gave me a start, but it was a small female and she stayed calmly in place. She must have spent hours climbing up there. I’m told they do that kind of thing to escape the attention of males.
Back on the coast below, I put my GoPro down on a rock while I donned my lifejacket. It almost ended its days on that rock on Auckland Island, but I remembered it at the very last second before returning to the ship. When we finally boarded Evohe for the last time, something else felt like it was missing: we didn’t need to scrub our boots with Sterigene disinfectant. Sadly, we had no more islands to visit.
By early afternoon we were on our way back toward mainland New Zealand.
Day 17 – The Return, With Scones
Thanks to crew member David Smith for mapping our path through the Auckland Islands.
Our ship flew like a seabird back to the South Island town of Bluff, arriving evening before the sun set. The midnight-to-4 a.m. watch was considerably less scary than last time, the tradeoff being that it was nearly impossible to stay awake.
One last noteworthy event before we made it back to land: the only person on the ship who had never seen or eaten a scone in New Zealand (that’s me) was asked to make scones. I think everyone ultimately realized that was a mistake.
Landing the boat was a protracted affair in a difficult berth. I got to be first ashore, scrambling onto the dock to catch and throw lines. It was late, and we spent one last night aboard Evohe.
Day 18 – Plight of the Penguins
By 8:00 a.m all of the penguin-monitoring volunteers and DoC rangers had left the ship.
The crew stayed behind to clean up. While I was maneuvering the vacuum through the narrow galley, my entire ponytail was sucked into the hose. There was a second where I wasn’t sure I’d get it back, but I did, and it was stylishly matted and smelled distinctly vacuumous.
We crammed Steve’s little old red car full to the brim with stuff, and four of us drove back to Dunedin.
My faithful station wagon Indy was still there. He didn’t start. Of course he didn’t. I knew he wouldn’t. (I still hoped he would.) But David grabbed some jumper cables, and all was well. I’ll deal with the battery this week.
That night I lay in a very comfortable bed on land, feeling the phantom rocking of the ship I’d been on for two and a half weeks, and thought about yellow-eyed penguins. New Zealanders have spent decades working to save this species on the mainland. But there seems to be a strong chance that they’ll run out of time, in the midst of arguments about which threats are causing penguins the most harm.
As yellow-eyed penguins disappear from the mainland, their final hope lies hidden on islands in the subantarctic. Not an easy place to carry out research or conservation, as I’ve learned firsthand. Fortunately, New Zealand scientists and conservationists are not easily held back. The researchers I joined on this trip are steadily making progress in learning about the lives and needs of yellow-eyed penguins—things you can only discover by putting the rest of your life on hold for weeks or months and going where other people never go.
Over time, that hard-earned knowledge will be invaluable for informing conservation efforts on the mainland and in the subantarctic. But meanwhile, with so many hazards stacked against them, yellow-eyed penguins could go extinct. Perhaps the only way to safeguard their survival is to crack down on known threats, sooner rather than later.
It was a long day and a long trip, and these problems are not easily solved. I fell asleep, and my long subantarctic dream came to a close.
As our subantarctic voyage nears its conclusion, we make a stop at penguin HQ... Enderby Island! (Photo by John Ayers)
Day 14 – Twelve Hours of Enderby
At the dreaded 02:30 wakeup time I clambered out of my bunk, piled on layer upon layer of gear, shoveled some cereal into my mouth without tasting it, and in a state of great sleepiness lowered myself into the dinghy in the dark. There were five of us, with Hamish as usual at the helm. We sped away from the yellow lights of the portholes, leaving Evohe behind and barreling into the blackness. “We’re going to wake up from this and think it was a nightmare,” Peanut said. “No, a beautiful dream!” said Flo. It really had elements of both.
Once ashore we started the long walk across the island in the dark. Our path through the grass tussocks was lit by dimmed headtorches, and an eery orchestra of seabird sounds emanated from both sides. Little fat diving petrels scurried from the path. At one point I could see the shadowy forms of giant petrels standing on the beach in the dark, with their wings spread high. I was among those traveling the farthest this morning. I continually removed layers and crammed them into my increasingly crammed backpack.
After settling into my spot, I put them all on again. It was 5:15 a.m., and it was going to be a chilly four hours.
The sun rose as I watched two penguins on the beach below. They stood together with their backs toward me, on rocks covered with those white spatters that always look like guano but are actually white lichen. I was struck by the colors: the penguins’ gray backs blended with the gloomy seascape, the yellow horizontal stripe on their heads was an extension of the sunrise straight ahead, and their white-lined wings gleamed like the white-topped rocks.
They both raised their wings slowly and stretched higher, then gave a synchronized shiver, a bit like two dogs shaking themselves. Then they continued on toward the water with their comical gaits, stopping often and looking all around with apparent caution. For the final stretch they slithered on their bellies over the kelp.
As I faced the sunrise, I thought that I must be looking more or less straight across the Southern Ocean toward the Patagonian ice fields. Three skuas flew together over the beach calling like gulls. For a second two of them locked feet and fell through the air. Before hitting the ground they righted themselves and flapped away.
At 07:40 I saw something quite startling: on the edge of the shore some distance away, there was a massive thing—a living creature—on the kelp. My mind was temporarily blown, the same way it had been the first time I saw a moose stepping into the road back in Maine. Like a moose compared with a run-of-the-mill deer, so was this incomprehensibly big elephant seal compared with the sea lions. The whole of its body rippled as it hitched itself up the beach: a few hitches and then a rest, and repeat. It took 15 minutes to reach the grass, 20 meters from the shore.
Sea lions kept coming up to loll on the grass as well. I was grateful that nothing ended up either stumbling into me or seeking me out. The subantarctic megaherbs were megahandy for shielding me from view.
Toward the end of my four-hour stint, an Auckland Island tomtit started hopping around in the megaherbs behind me. While I followed its progress I saw a white shape back there: a penguin! It might have been waiting for me to leave before proceeding to the water. So I left discreetly right as my shift ended at 9:00.
On my way out I radioed to warn the others not to step on the elephant seal as they passed through, since elephant seals at rest look more like topography than animals. Then we all met up farther down the beach and compared notes. Enderby Island being a penguin hotspot, some members of the group had logged quite a few penguins. DoC ranger Jolie counted dozens of them, including a line of 15 penguins waddling down to the sea at once.
It was now an uncharacteristically brilliant sunny day in the subantarctic, as we continued hiking all the way around the perimeter of Enderby Island. Banded dotterels scurried over the grass and giant petrels cruised the sky. At one point I saw three giant petrels take off in the distance ahead of us, and ten minutes later we came upon their giant fluffy chicks near the cliff edge. We gave them a wide berth so as not to make them vomit up their most recent meals.
Giant petrels are indeed giant, but toward the end of the walk we passed some truly enormous southern royal albatrosses. There were several of them seated on the ground, courting and maybe sitting on eggs.
Sunbaked and bird-dazzled, we finally made it all the way around the island. While waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, we hung out with the resident grad students—whom we had dropped off last week—in front of their huts. Chris and Rebecca have started right in on their summer work, getting up close and personal with the Enderby penguin population. Their nest numbers are down from last year, just as our morning count numbers are down. But last year was an especially good year. It will take more data and more work to determine a population trend.
I hoped we would get a chance to follow Chris and Rebecca to some of the penguin nests they monitor. But we’d been on land for twelve hours, and everyone was starving for lunch, so we returned to Evohe.
Today’s survival challenge: what to do when the water tank unexpectedly runs dry. I washed the lunch dishes with a bucket of seawater, which was fun but took at least twice as long as usual. Captain Steve cautioned me not to spill any (“a boat rusts from the inside out”). It was good that he did, because it took considerable effort to keep water off the floor.
Meanwhile Steve and Hamish spent an hour or so obtaining two dingyhfuls of water from a creek on the main island. They literally filled the dinghy with water, due to a lack of other available containers, and pumped that directly into the ship’s tank. (I could see some of the proceedings through the galley porthole.) We shouldn’t end up needing this delightfully brown fluid for drinking water, since we have a few backup bottles of that, but it is providing extra flavoring in the tea.
Word on the ship is that there’s supposed to be another vessel visiting this region tomorrow. If I’m overhearing the post-dinner conversation correctly, the penguin-monitoring volunteers are talking seriously about boarding it like pirates. Maybe it’s for the best that this voyage is almost over.
Day 13 – Explorations of Eden
Today started out pretty OK. Just another morning in the subantarctic, in an impossible cove full of waterfalls, rainbows, and yellow-eyed penguins.
Eight penguins swam up to and under and around the boat. They disappeared for a while, then came back and did it again. They seemed like a band of mischief-makers. (Scroll down for video.)
I was the first one on deck this morning, for once, so I snagged the coveted sheltered spot at Evohe’s stern. That selfish act was justly rewarded. Despite the profusion of penguins in the water, there were none on my allotted section of coastline. Nor on Peanut’s section to my right. But Tony to my left was racking them up, and the shore crew got decent numbers too.
On our afternoon field trip we got to visit the nearest waterfall, where the DoC team collected the fish traps they had deployed yesterday. Not too much is known about the freshwater fish in these islands. Even less is known by me.
I used the rest of my free time ashore to scale the waterfall, tier after tier, all the way to the top.
Cruising onward in Evohe, we came upon another paradisiacal cove and another waterfall. This one was more distant and dramatic, pouring toward a valley just hidden from view. We dinghied to land and walked through forests and fields to the valley, inevitably getting lost on the way. Auckland Island gentians were blooming in the open areas.
Here’s what we found inside the hidden valley: wind-blasted Lake Hinemoa.
We returned to Evohe and cruised on. Our final stop was to visit some caves and arches.
Then it was time to head back toward Enderby Island, where we started this subantarctic exploration more than a week ago. We’re going ashore there tomorrow morning to do a penguin-monitoring stint. We’ll need to walk to our sites on the other side of the island before sunrise, which means getting up at 2:30 in the morning. Does that even count as morning? I don’t think so.
Our voyage in the subantarctic continues!
DAY 12—Wreck and Near-wreck
Today the only penguin monitoring was from the deck of Evohe, so I skipped it and slept in—all the way until 5:15. I became so engrossed in writing up notes and backing up footage that I somehow missed a late morning excursion to the island, to look for the ruins of a camp. I caught a second trip ashore with skipper Steve and Hamish.
Ruins are okay, but I was more interested in the very odd appearance of this forest. A thick layer of even-length branches coated the ground, mostly aligned in one direction, as if someone had thatched the entire forest floor. I suppose it’s caused by the top branches of the dense canopy crashing around and breaking off in the relentless subantarctic wind. We returned to Evohe and the ship moved on.
I almost missed the next shore excursion because I’d been recruited to make a cake. But I finished frosting it just in time to go see the famed wreck of the Grafton.
Of all the crazy castaway stories from these islands, this one might be the craziest. Surviving for more than a year on the island, the five Grafton castaways eventually gave up on being rescued. They used debris from their wreck to make a bellows and forge. They forged tools and outfitted a dinghy with a deck and sails. Only three of them could fit onboard, but those three miraculously made it to Stewart Island (at the south end of New Zealand) in five days. The two left behind, best buddies, were no longer on speaking terms when they were rescued some weeks later—that’s how fellow penguin monitor John told it to me yesterday, anyway.
Today the Grafton wreck was the site of a memorable performance, when Richard led three shipmates in a haka, a Māori war dance. Don't miss the video clip below.
Then we discovered firsthand that the Grafton castaways had been smart not to overload their dinghy. For the short trip back from the wreck to the boat, we piled everyone into a single dinghy load. Water poured over the stern as we backed away from the shore, making the dinghy even heavier. Even after we faced forward and got up speed, the ocean continued flooding in over the stern, and in waves over the bow. By the time we reached Evohe I think some people were starting to get worried.
As the final event of the evening, in the main saloon of the ship, I gave a presentation of sorts to my shipmates about my work. I handed around the business cards that have been sitting in my backpack all this time: authentic sea lion-trampled limited edition. Very much the worse for wear.
The subantarctic seabird voyage continues...
Day 11: Ascent of the Albatross
“Today’s going to be a good day,” said crew member David, as we all got ready for penguin counting in the 4 a.m. darkness. He was right.
We started out in Magnetic Bay. I was lucky to be among those dropped off on Adams Island, the farthest south island of the archipelago. Adams has never been colonized by pigs or rodents or any other sort of terrestrial mammal, so its native flora and fauna is particularly pristine.
The landing site was full of birds and bird sounds in the dark. A pair of native teal startled in my headtorch, fleeing at a leisurely pace on webbed feet over the rocks.
The bellbird chorus was a stream of short, sharp, sweet piccolo wisps. I could hear the purrs of petrels in the dark, and later see petrel silhouettes flying from shore to sea.
I spent the next four hours failing to observe any penguins but successfully avoiding the notice of the resident sea lion patrolling the shoreline. His snorty breaths warned me, from some distance away, to keep especially still every time he swam by. After yesterday’s little incident, I suddenly feel a distinct kinship with the prey animals of the world.
The world slowly lit up. Just visible through binoculars across the water, on the main Auckland Island, was a finger post. Finger posts were installed in the late 19th century to point castaways toward shelter and provisions. I guess it was all too common for ships to run aground here en route from Australia to Cape Horn.
Though we weren’t allowed to explore protected Adams Island, we were in for an excellent afternoon adventure on the main island. Our ship Evohe cruised down the channel dividing the two islands, all the way to Victoria Passage, the narrow western opening to the sea. There we all went ashore in two dinghy trips (see the exciting video below).
Once safely on the rocks, we scrambled along the beach toward the peninsula marking the passage. On our left was the channel between the islands. In front of us, a broken chain of land between the two islands. And on our right, the Tasman Sea. Evohe has sailed through this dramatic passage before, to circumnavigate the main Auckland Island, but only in ideal conditions. On this trip we would be making a U-turn and heading back the way we came.
Waves crashed spectacularly on the cliffs and long tendrils of kelp danced in the surge below.
Next came my favorite part of any hike: an arduous climb up a steep mountain. This involved improvising a path that connected hundreds of rambling pig trails, winding around grassy tussocks and muddy ravines. As I ascended I kept hearing a wild, hoarse, wailing call, and seeing light-mantled sooty albatrosses fly hauntingly by on tapered wings.
At the top, we dropped down over the other side and looked out at another cliff face, dotted with white spots. Here at the end of the earth, a creaky frog sound filled the air: the cry of New Zealand white-capped mollymawks. Dozens of these albatrosses were in the air, cruising on updrafts along the cliff. Hundreds were seated on nests.
With their dark furrowed brows, and bodies oriented in random directions on their cylindrical nests, the mollymawks seemed to be lost in thought. Steve told me that they usually nest on flat ground, but were driven to this vertical cliff by the invasive pigs—introduced to feed castaways, but now wreaking havoc on native plants and animals.
“There’s a pig there now,” said Steve suddenly. It was way down near the base of the cliff, a barely visible dark form. With alarm we watched it move along among the scattered white shapes of the birds. Then we saw another pig, and another. The albatross colony has shrunk dramatically just in the past few years, and this is one reason.
I needed help holding my flag (it was windy up there). Mollymawk nests visible on both sides.
Pending the results of a recent mouse eradication effort in the Antipodes Islands, Auckland Island may be the last of New Zealand’s subantarctic isles to have pests: not just pigs but cats and mice as well. It’s also the largest of those islands, so eradicating all of the invaders is a very tall order.
But that’s the plan! Here’s hoping it pans out, for the sake of the albatrosses and a host of other endangered species.
The voyage to the subantarctic continues...
Day 10—Endangered (by) Sea Lions
Alternate title: Mom, Don’t Read This One.
Imagine you’ve sailed 300 miles south of New Zealand to a subantarctic island. You’ve been dropped off by dinghy before sunrise in a secluded cove, by yourself, to spend the morning counting yellow-eyed penguins. (To get an idea of the vibe, watch the brief video clip at the bottom of this post.)
After about two penguinless hours the tide is surging up so high that you decide to move onto higher ground. That means stepping backward into the forest, up onto the little ledge you’ve been leaning against.
As you’re settling onto this low perch, a bull sea lion materializes on the beach in front of you. He is a very large animal with a lot of teeth and some bloody chunks hanging from his hide. You’re hemmed in by trees and shrubs and a steep slope behind you.
This is a highly endangered New Zealand sea lion who has possibly never encountered a human before, here on the remote island where he breeds. You’ve watched him patrolling the waters of this coast for the past couple of hours, but it seemed like he was going to leave you alone.
Not so. In fact, his giant body is trampling your backpack and sketchbook and emergency radio, which you’ve not yet retrieved from the ground below. As you crouch there on the ledge, his head—with big liquid eyes and a blunt, whiskered-covered muzzle—is three feet away from yours. The GoPro on your own head, incidentally, is not recording.
You’ve had some practice dealing with similar animals: specifically, several months of camping with a herd of Galápagos sea lions. So you’re not panicking yet. You’re holding a stick between yourself and him, quietly waiting for him to lose interest.
He doesn’t lose interest. He roars and throws himself at you.
Do you: (a) wait for the impact of his teeth, or (b) perform a sideways dive through the shrubbery and down to the beach, and start running? I did the latter. He crashed into the bushes that had been behind me one second earlier. I was meanwhile booking it down the thin strip of gravelly shore, in my gumboots and all my rain gear.
The first time I glanced back, the sea lion was emerging back onto the beach, slithering out the same opening in the bushes through which I’d fled. The second time I glanced back, he was charging toward me at a full gallop. I stopped glancing back.
Up ahead, the shoreside trees and bushes gave way to a more open, grassy area. I veered off the rocks and up onto the grass, thinking I could run more easily and he might not follow me up there. But it turned out to be a soggy marsh, and follow me he did. I gave it my best effort, sloshing through muddy ditches and past some scattered bushes, before the sea lion caught up.
I had no choice but to turn around, face him, and yell. I told him—loudly and with expletives—that he’d better back off.
This seemed to make some kind of an impression. He came to a halt in front of the stick I was still clutching in one hand. For the next few minutes we played a fun little game. He would lunge forward, I would shout, he would back off, and then he would do it again. The yelling seemed to keep him at arm’s length, which a big improvement on the full-body assault that had begun our acquaintance. But now I was more or less stuck, knee deep in a ditch and blocked by bushes, and from here I couldn’t even see the ocean. I had no idea if anyone could hear me from their penguin-counting posts way down the coast.
Then came the cruel joke of the morning: I started getting dizzy. (I recently had a minor concussion that involved some dizzy spells. They faded away within a couple of weeks, but apparently being toyed with by a 700-pound carnivore is enough to cause a relapse.) I had to kneel down with one ear to the marsh, still yelling at the sea lion, who was now towering over me. I made a couple attempts to stand up but reeled back over again.
Somehow I needed to extricate myself from this ridiculous situation. On the third try I managed to stay standing. I tugged my boots out of the mud. To get back to the beach I would need to move closer to the sea lion for a moment, so I could edge in front of a shrub that blocked my exit.
He lunged at me for doing that, but I growled him down. Feeling disembodied from what was happening, I noticed that my voice sounded quieter but maybe more threatening in tone now. I guess some sense of propriety had bizarrely kicked in, because I had also stopped swearing.
You stay away from me. Don’t you come near me.
He continued lunging at me as I continued circling. When I descended from the grass onto the beach, he gave an especially vehement lunge from his higher ground, but stayed up there.
Sidling away with one eye still on my nemesis, I was mildly alarmed to see a second sea lion head approaching in the water. This one made a beeline not toward me but toward the first sea lion, to my great relief. They started fighting with each other, and I took that opportunity to run the final stretch toward my stuff. I dodged into the tangle of branches that sprawled out from the forest’s edge, grabbed my radio from the ground, and dodged out.
Just then I saw the dinghy approaching. Apparently penguin monitor Alan, posted some distance down the beach, had heard my expletive-strewn shouting and radioed for assistance. (His comedic line for the rest of the day: “I’ve never seen a sea lion blush before.”)
Dinghy helmsman Hamish circled in. He saw me on one end of the beach and a couple sea lions on the other, said “All good?,” and spun around to leave again. I had to quickly say um well not exactly and could you possibly take me back to the boat now! I was pretty sure everyone would think I was overreacting, but I was too rattled and dizzy to care. Much.
Before climbing in the dinghy I picked up my backpack and all the pages of my sketchbook, which had been pulverized. Today’s penguin count: zero.
Here is a female sea lion, who probably would have been a more pleasant beach companion this morning.
On the dinghy ride back to the ship, we passed a thin leopard seal draped on the beach not far from where I’d been sitting, its reptilian head barely raised to look at us. Hamish said they’re quite vicious—in contrast to, say, the sea lions. I took this as a pointed remark.
According to those with experience in these islands, New Zealand sea lions are usually just messing with you—all bark and no bite. I'm glad I have no scars to contradict that.
I spent the next few hours back in Evohe’s main saloon with my shipmates. Over food and drink we conversed about a range of topics in history and science—speculating wildly about everything, thanks to the glorious lack of internet in the subantarctic. With this dose of humanity and a large amount of chocolate, I recovered my equilibrium.
The subantarctic ‘Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin‘ continues...
Day 8—Penguin Payoff
At some point in the very early morning I heard the anchor coming up: we were leaving our sheltered anchorage spot and heading toward Rose Island. I was about to perform my first subantarctic penguin-monitoring duties on land.
I hadn’t slept much, thanks to a loud banging noise from the wind generator (which was “munted,” a word I had been pleased to learn earlier on this trip). So I was still dazed with sleepiness as I climbed over the side of the ship to set off for the island. The dinghy was heaving wildly this morning and I suddenly wondered how accessible the inflation tab of my lifejacket was. After a bit of fumbling I located it with my fingers. Meanwhile we were all doused repeatedly with sprays of salt water.
The waves calmed as we approached the island. Once I got ashore onto the slippery rocks, the ground seemed to sway with the sudden absence of boat motion. We all made our way down the beach to our respective posts, marked the previous afternoon by the DoC rangers with bits of reflective tape. Soon I was happily seated in a tussock.
I sat in darkness for a while, until almost imperceptibly the sky began to lighten.
At 5:32 two penguins appeared in front of me, as if by magic. Their white fronts and yellow-striped heads glowed dimly, while their dark gray backs faded into the shadowy rocks.
They must not have seen me, because they waddled purposefully along the low ledge of rocks that jutted diagonally into the shallows. They had a forward-leaning walk, with wings held back. When faced with a change in elevation they hunched even farther forward and flung themselves with a floppy, double-legged hop. Their awkwardness was enchanting. (But deceptive: later in the trip I would watch them swimming just below the surface of the ocean, where they moved with shocking speed and grace.)
At 5:35 they reached the end of the ledge and disappeared belly-first into the water, off to catch fish for the day. Two penguins counted.
There are days when I worry I’m somehow failing to take full advantage of my travel opportunities. Today wasn’t one of them. As light slowly filled the sky I sat there in my tussock, at the bottom of the world, with skuas and giant petrels cruising the air above me. Masses of kelp filled the inlets and edges of the shore, looking like a writhing, self-animated creature. Bits of it would flip up suddenly, like the flipper of a sea lion or a whale.
Pairs of Auckland Island teal swam among the kelp. Auckland Island shags sat like sentries on the rocks. An Auckland Island pipit kept coming back to the same spot in front of me, poking its long beak around near the puddles at the edge of rock and grass.
The view from my tussock on Rose Island (with skua)
Before the end of the count I saw a couple more penguins jump in, far down the beach. Then at 9:00 I stood up, stretched, and made my way back to the pickup point. We all piled back into the dinghy and returned to Evohe. I was pretty happy to have seen four yellow-eyed penguins, each of whom presumably had a nest hidden nearby where their partners would be tending chicks. But total numbers on Rose Island were down from last year.
As if the morning’s activities counted as work, in the afternoon we were due for our first recreational excursion. Our destination: the broccoli forest of Auckland Island. I’m not sure what I expected, but when we stepped into that forest I was surprised.
The southern rātā trees, which looked impenetrably dense from the outside, turned out to be a mere shell. Underneath we found their twisted trunks but almost no other vegetation. When we looked up, our eyes were dazzled by channels of sky running through the dark canopy, a mosaic of crown shyness.
The lack of undergrowth, said ranger Juzah, is on account of the pigs. Pigs were originally brought to this mammal-less island as a food supply for castaways from frequent shipwrecks. As New Zealand’s biggest subantarctic island, this is the only one from which mammalian pests have yet to be eradicated. (It also has mice and cats.)
We continued through the forest until we reached the ruins of a mid-19th-century settlement. Unsurprisingly, it had lasted only two years.
An early rātā blossom, fallen on the forest floor
As we dinghied back to Evohe we were treated to another violent hail and wind storm. Sounds of dismay ensued and were jovially brushed off by helmsman Hamish. “It wouldn’t do to be in the subantarctics and have it be sunny,” he said.
Now I’m in my bunk. I heard someone say that the crew would be getting up at 3, which scared me into bed early. I just washed my hair for the first time in about a week, in a perfunctory and water-conserving manner. I can hear the rest of the group going a bit loopy in the main saloon: John apparently has his stethoscope out and Richard is taking everyone’s blood pressure. Ah, the shipboard life.
Day 9—Naturalist Ashore
Once again I spent a morning on Evohe‘s deck searching in vain for penguins: this time in Webling Bay, which is pronounced “Wibbling” in Kiwi. After the count, we congregated for snacks in the main saloon and somehow ended up competing in feats of athletic prowess. The usual kind of stuff: pushups, pullups, and highland dancing. Hard to deny the Scottish influence among Southland New Zealanders.
We cruised south along the crenelated east coast of the main Auckland Island toward Chambres Inlet. Along the way, one of the veteran crew members pointed out a rockhopper colony. Through binoculars I could just make out some penguiny shapes on a ledge of dark rocks near the water, with a big headland towering behind.
Chambres Inlet will be the site of tomorrow’s penguin count. But today the four DoC rangers had a mission to install fish traps in some of the streams, in hopes of learning what freshwater fish species inhabit these islands. They asked if I wanted to come, and I definitely did.
We dinghied to shore and waded up a stream and set the first trap in place. On the way back to the dinghy pickup point, I couldn’t resist whipping out my sketchbook to draw some of the giant limpets covering the intertidal rocks. DoC ranger Sarah noticed, and offered to let me stay behind to sketch. The afternoon was just getting better and better.
The rangers went off in the dinghy to their remaining sites while I stayed behind. I sat on the rocks and sketched. I wandered around in the trees and sketched. It was maybe the best hour of the trip so far.
The steep slopes of the coastal forest were crisscrossed with trails, made not by humans but by sea lions. At one point I watched one sea lion surf onto shore and seem to contemplate an uphill journey through the trees.
It was huge and sleek and shiny from the water and looked entirely unsuited to moving around on this island. I knew that wasn’t true, but the next morning I would find out just how untrue it was.
TO BE CONTINUED...
This is the all-important post-island boot-scrubbing ritual described in my previous post.
The Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin continues...
DAY 7—Penguins Wanted
It was cold and clear and very dark when six hardy souls climbed over the ship’s rail and down into the little dinghy, surging up and down against Evohe’s hull. Hamish the helmsman yanked the engine into gear and they all sped way into the blackness. He would be dropping them off at intervals along the coast of the nearest island.
To monitor yellow-eyed penguins on a subantarctic island, 300 miles south of New Zealand, you get up at three-something in the morning. You get into position before first light, when the reclusive birds are already emerging from their nests and skulking toward the ocean. You stay in one spot without moving for four and a half hours, or risk scaring the penguins back into hiding. You wear layers and layers and layers of clothing, because there’s no telling what the weather will do.
Those of us stationed on the ship this morning had more leeway where the weather was concerned. After seeing the shore crew off, we waited on the sheltered side of the boat until we agreed that it was almost light enough to see. Then we went over to our posts around the deck, at which precise moment it started hailing. The sky cleared; the sun came up. The light began to take on a strange and unsettling hue, and we were engulfed in hail again.
Scroll down for video. (Transcript: “Reckon we go in, because we can’t see.”)
When the second hailstorm passed, the nearby mountaintops were coated with a layer of white that slowly melted away. Meanwhile there we were, back at our posts and doing our best to look for penguins. Squinting at a too-distant shore through binoculars, I scanned the dark line of rocks for any and all white blobs that might possibly be pale penguin bellies.
Finally I saw some: a clump of three faraway white blobs. I waited ten minutes for the penguins to jump into the sea. Then they all flew away. I concluded that they were, in fact, gulls.
Zero penguins for me today, but what a day. After that last storm, the sun steadily gained conviction and transformed the moody morning landscape back into the chilly paradise we had discovered yesterday, with not only whales but breaching whales to punctuate the scene. How they could get up speed in that shallow cove was beyond me.
And that concluded our first penguin count. Everyone had survived, and we took a prolonged break to get warm, eat snacks, take naps, and have lunch. My baking contribution for the day was brownies.
Then the afternoon’s task: moving the two grad students and all their stuff onto Enderby Island. Chris and Rebecca will live there, on their own, all summer.
Getting 15 people and a dozen dinghyfuls of stuff onto a ledge of slippery, kelp-covered rocks was no small challenge, even with the calm seas we had this afternoon. Nor was carrying stacks of fish bins and 40-pound batteries all the way down the beach and up the hill to the huts.
But that didn’t matter, because we’d landed in wonderland. I was enthralled to see real live brown skuas sauntering around and poking through our piles of supplies. Not only were there endangered New Zealand sea lions all over the place, but they were dwarfed by the massive bulk of a male elephant seal lying among them. He occasionally whiffled through his large proboscis as we walked by with load after load of stuff.
The sea lions, on the other hand, seemed a lot more interested in messing with the humans. Every so often one would galumph over to one of us with a menacing growl, and stop short just a few feet away. Chris assured us that they’re all show and no bite. He then showed us a big wavy scar on his arm.
That had been an extreme situation, he said.
It’s the eighth summer out here for Chris, whose Ph.D. work is closely tied to this annual penguin-counting expedition. Among many other things, he’s been figuring out if and how the snapshot morning counts can be used to accurately assess the penguin population. Enderby is the most penguin-populated island in the archipelago, so this is where he and Rebecca are intensively studying the birds at their nests.
After a few days on a cramped ship, I was practically running back and forth in my enthusiasm to carry heavy objects across the island. I’d peeled off about a dozen articles of clothing and was down to single layers (plus gumboots). It took many loads and a couple of hours to get everything up to the huts, where it all underwent another quarantine check. The island has been cleared of all invasive mammals, so we had to make sure there were no rodents hiding in any boxes or bags. Then we bade Chris and Rebecca farewell—just until next week, when we’ll make one more stop at Enderby before leaving the subantarctic.
Upon returning to Evohe we performed an all-important boot-scrubbing ritual in a bucket of sterilizing liquid. We can’t risk bringing any species from Enderby to our next stop: Rose Island. (Where I might finally come face to face with a yellow-eyed penguin. Stay tuned.)
The Voyage of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin continues...
DAY 4—All Aboard
At 9:00 in the morning I was waiting, along with the rest of Evohe's crew, for the penguin-counting team to show up and meet us at the dock in Bluff—the southernmost port of New Zealand's South Island.
They arrived with a van full of “fish bins” (which seem to be a standard packing container here in New Zealand) and duffel bags. We made a human chain from the dock to the boat to get everything aboard. The rule was not to put anything on the ground, because it had all just undergone intensive quarantine, to make sure there were no stray seeds or other living things that could hitch a ride to the subantarctic Auckland Islands.
Bluff, New Zealand
The penguin volunteers are mostly retirees. There’s a family doctor, an engineer, a pilot who introduced herself as Peanut, a forestry guy, and an American expat. There’s also a mid-career teacher from Tolaga Bay Area School. Then there are the Department of Conservation rangers, four intrepid women from a few different towns in the southern South Island. Rounding out the group of new arrivals are a Ph.D. student and master’s student from Massey University, who will stay out on one island for the whole New Zealand summer. On the ship's crew are a retired captain who is a trustee for the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, a deer farmer, a recent university graduate, and me.
Yes, it’s a colorful bunch. Several people are wearing rainbow-striped tights under their shorts.
Leading us is our distinguished captain Steve, originally from England. (He purchased this ship in 1984, having never set foot on a sailboat before, and has since built a life and career around Evohe.) We all gathered in the outdoor cockpit behind the enclosed wheelhouse. “It’s going to be rough ride,” Steve told the group.
We departed the South Island and headed into Foveaux Strait, where a weirdly blue-gray sky loomed over an aquagreen sea.
I watched seabirds with binoculars until the boat motion became prohibitive, at which point I lapsed into opportunistic birding, which is a unique experience in these conditions. An albatross would pop into view alongside the boat, at eye level and practically within arm’s reach, before disappearing as abruptly as it came. Then we’d heel over and suddenly I’d be looking straight down at two cape petrels sitting on the water.
After a few hours we came alongside Stewart Island and its satellite muttonbird islands, the final outpost of “mainland” New Zealand before the wide open sea. We pulled into Port Pegasus in the evening to spend one more night in a sheltered cove.
I keep having the slightly disorienting experience of arriving and leaving places while sequestered in the galley below. This time I missed our arrival because I was making chocolate chip cookies. The New Zealanders were not terribly familiar with this type of baked good, but it put me in good standing with the other American on board.
In our nice calm cove, shipboard life seemed pretty pleasant. Little did we know what was in store for us the next day.
DAY 5—Onward from Pegasus
It all started benignly enough: we passed a peaceful hour in the cove by Port Pegasus, with terns diving to catch fish and Salvin’s mollymawks coasting around the boat. We even glimpsed our first yellow-eyed penguins and got excited to see more of them on the Auckland Islands.
And then… the passage began.
Evohe departed Port Pegasus with two sails up and the motor running for maximum speed. She immediately encountered rollicking seas, all day long and into the next, as we headed in the direction of Antarctica—into an immense, frigid ocean with no other boats. It didn’t take long to start thinking that maybe this whole thing was a crazy idea.
At one point crew member David catapulted across the wheelhouse and silently returned to his seat. “What are you doing, Dave?” asked fellow crew member Hamish, facetiously. David gave a sort of rueful shrug with his eyebrows. “You could ask the same of all of us.”
The boat had adopted a permanent 45-degree average tilt to port, compounded by a lot of rocking as a confused sea smashed into the starboard beam. In the bathroom mirror I noticed my hair was also standing at a 45-degree angle, as was the towel hanging on a hook on the wall.
“It’s just part of the adventure, I suppose,” said DoC ranger Juzah, unconvincingly, as we braced ourselves against the thousandth lurch of waves crashing into the beam. “You have to deserve the penguin monitoring,” agreed fellow ranger Flo.
Everyone started out on the upper deck, in the cockpit and the wheelhouse, enjoying the view and fresh air. But numbers dwindled as people made their way below to their bunks, with varying degrees of control over their stomach contents.
Anxiety levels currently stable
Even people who had never been seasick before found themselves ill, including the retired sea captain. Supposedly there were only five of us who didn’t throw up. (Below, watch a one-minute excerpt of a many-minute voyage.)
Knowing I had to get up in the middle of the night to go on watch, I went to bed early. Getting into that bunk felt great. I did my best to ignore the loud clangs of pots and dishes in the nearby galley, and the disconcerting phenomenon of my bedside porthole going underwater every now and then. Whenever there was a particularly violent tilt, I spent a few seconds wondering if we would come back up again.
At 11:57 p.m. I fell out of my bunk (more or less intentionally) to begin my watch.
DAY 6—Hellish Passage to Paradise
As midnight struck I staggered up to the wheelhouse. The ship was pitching wildly and pitch black, but for some colored lights blinking on nautical devices. I spent the next four hours doing my best to stay awake and maintain control over my vivid visions of capsizing.
It had been hours and hours since we’d encountered another boat. We kept ploughing headlong through a vast, dark ocean toward nothing but some tiny islands, still hours and hours away. At one point my watchmate, Hamish, and I realized the autopilot had stopped working and we’d been going the wrong direction for a minute or two. Fortunately it had just blown a fuse.
It was a hellish night. By the end of the watch the seas seemed to have calmed just slightly. At 4:03 a.m. I fell back into bed and slept for most of the eight hours until my next watch, at noon.
A million years later, sitting lethargically around the wheelhouse, we finally saw land. “Land ho?” said volunteer Sharon, hopefully, looking around at the rest of us for confirmation. “Land! Land!”
And what interesting land it was. The rolling hills appeared to be coated with an unbroken canopy of large broccoli: rātā trees. I didn’t expect such a profusion of vegetation here.
I bundled up and went out on deck, feeling the keen breeze of the subantarctic and the keen relief of leaving a confined space. A delicate red-billed gull glided around the boat twice, within arm’s reach as it passed. We were in a cove encircled by the main Auckland Island, with smaller Rose and Enderby Islands off to the north. The afternoon sun illuminated the nearby mountain called “Sarah’s Bosom.”
Then a whale spouted—my first southern right whale! They breed here in Port Ross, but this was the first time the crew had ever seen one at this time of year.
Now the sun is low in the sky and the cold blue-green-gray landscape is warmed with yellows and pinks. It’s a subantarctic paradise, a place that few people ever reach. I feel almost like a real naturalist explorer.
Stay tuned for the next installment. See original post.
Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin
Yellow-eyed penguins are heading toward extinction on mainland New Zealand. Their only other breeding habitat is hundreds of miles to the south on a handful of islands. In this multi-part story I join a surreal voyage to the all-but-inaccessible Auckland Islands, where we’re trying to find out how this gravely endangered penguin is faring in the subantarctic.
DAY 1: Shipping Out
I stood next to my car at the Fryatt Street dock in Dunedin, looking for a ship called Evohe. She was bound for the subantarctic Auckland Islands, 300 miles south of New Zealand.
My slot on the crew had fallen into place at the last minute. Since this was more or less the chance of a lifetime, I begged my feeble station wagon, Indy, to take me from Auckland in the North Island to Dunedin in the South Island in three days. With a slight assist from the Interislander Ferry, Indy pulled through.
A 25-meter sailing vessel sounds big, but when you see it in real life and contemplate your imminent departure toward the Antarctic Ocean, wow does it look small.
The captain and the rest of the crew showed up an hour after I did: they had been at the grocery store buying five trolleys‘ worth of produce (five grocery carts, in American). We transferred copious amounts of fruits and vegetables onto Evohe, squirreling it all away in compartments under floorboards and cupboards built into bunks.
Then we went back to the store for five more trolleys of dry goods.
The other three crew members are local, and apparently we’re not actually departing until tomorrow, so they’ve gone home and I’m the only one in the aft crew cabin this evening. I’ve crawled into my coffin-like bunk on the port side. Waves are slapping on the stern.
DAY 2: Bound for Bluff
The vaguely lobster-shaped Auckland Islands are ridiculously remote, have globally unique wildlife, and hold a reputation as a stronghold of the yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho in Māori), possibly the most endangered penguin in the world.
This species is well on its way toward disappearing from mainland New Zealand, thanks to a host of threats on land and at sea. Nobody is really sure how the rest of the population is doing on the subantarctic islands, because they’re so hard to access. That’s where this voyage comes in, the sixth of its kind in as many years.
I had the ship to myself all morning. Later I learned that skipper Steve spent the morning flying to Wellington and back to take care of paperwork for the voyage. Eventually he and the other crew members reappeared.
Our first stop will be in Bluff, the southernmost port of the South Island, where we will pick up two graduate students, four Department of Conservation rangers, and six penguin-monitoring volunteers. Then it’s off on the harrowing journey through the Southern Ocean. It’s much easier to get to Antarctica than it is to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, I’m told.
First we had to get out of Dunedin. It seemed we were almost ready to embark. Just for good measure we went back to PAK’nSAVE for yet another five trolleys full of food.
At last, as the sun went down, we motored through the long, skinny Otago Harbour, leaving my car behind on the Dunedin dock to rest (and possibly lose all of his battery charge, based on recent experience). So long for now, Indy.
A rainbow stretched across the craggy landscape along the water, rainbow-adorned scenery being the norm in these parts. Just before getting out to sea we passed the famous northern royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the only mainland albatross colony in the southern hemisphere.
When we approached the red and green lights marking the channel, the mnemonic “red right returning” leapt familiarly to mind, before I saw that red was actually on our right as we departed. Everything just has to be different in New Zealand…
DAY 3: Ready About
We were underway all night, and still chugging along the coast until afternoon, passing the Catlins and other landmarks of the South Island. In the afternoon we arrived in the port of Bluff.
As we approached the dock I was assigned to leap from the boat and grab the lines. On cue, the skies opened up and poured. A few minutes later, when we finished tying up, the sun shone as if nothing had happened.
We spent the rest of the day washing the deck, refueling, cleaning the interior, and making up bunks. I went below to make potato leek soup and salad. Meanwhile the boat was moved three times, until we were finally in our rightful berth. Ready for tomorrow’s guests and final departure.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Last-minute call to join a voyage to the subantarctic islands, to count yellow-eyed penguins!
I’m surprised and pleased to report that my feeble '98 Toyota station wagon, Indy, got me from Auckland to Dunedin in three days (with a necessary assist from the Interislander ferry, pictured at left) without breaking down once. And I made it in time to catch this boat.
Like much of New Zealand, Goat Island should be an ideal place for nesting seabirds. It even sits inside a marine reserve—the first such reserve in the country, established in 1975.
But the island has rats.
When Edin and I kayaked over to it, the first thing we found was neither an invasive mammal nor a seabird. It was a New Zealand fur seal snoozing in an inlet. Exhibit A, below.
But we quickly got down to business: our plan was to bushwhack all over the island, so Edin could monitor ("stick her arm into") all of the Grey-faced Petrel burrows where she had observed breeding activity earlier in the season.
"This is slightly depressing," she said after the first few minutes. "There were birds incubating in both of these burrows, and there's nothing in there now."
Not too long ago, the only mammals in New Zealand were marine mammals like that sleepy seal, plus a few bats. But thanks to human colonization and everything that came with it, native seabirds now have to contend with a slew of invasive mammals on land—damaging their breeding grounds and eating their babies.
As we looked in on burrow after empty burrow, we also came across some of the traps installed to keep rat numbers in check. Unfortunately, those wily rodents keep on swimming over from the mainland.
Finally Edin reached into a burrow and pulled out a ball of gray fluff with a beak. "I watched this one hatch!" she said, starting to weigh and measure it. "I'm super glad it's still around." In total, we found seven fluffy chicks, which was better than zero. We also found more rat traps, doing their job.
The last thing we found, before kayaking back to shore, was the seal—still snoozing.
Left: petrel chick. Right: me and my inflatable kayak (photo by Edin Whitehead).
The voyage to and from rugged, rodent-inhabited Rakitū Island was marked by cetacean sightings. On the way out, bottlenose dolphins. On the way back the next day, an unusual glimpse of five blue whales. (Scroll down for illustrations.)
Within the steeply sloped forests of Rakitū itself, I found myself struggling through what may be the densest jungle I've ever attempted to traverse. At one point I gave up and tried crowd-surfing a thicket. I made it across.
After hours of scrambling—guided by weak GPS signals, spottily placed neon flagging, and a blurry map—we miraculously found each of the audio recorders we were looking for. (I less miraculously lost my water bottle in the process.)
In a barely accessible landscape like this one, acoustic recordings are one way to keep track of wildlife populations. Scientists use that kind of information when planning a conservation initiative—for example, an island-wide purge of invasive rodents.
Rat-ridden Rakitū is slated for an eradication in several months' time. Once the rats are gone, native wildlife—seabirds in particular—will be able to return to the island.
Left: Rakitū Island sketch. Right: In which I photobomb a notable whale sighting (photo by Edin Whitehead).
After an afternoon trek along the coast, a group of us climbed the steep slopes of the Tawharanui Peninsula (video below) and settled into the grass, waiting for the sun to go down and the seabirds to fly in for the night.
During the climb I felt a bit sorry for Edin—appearing toward the end of the video—who was wearing yellow PVC overalls. But those overalls had already proven their worth. Edin was making frequent stops at seabird burrows to weigh the fluffy chicks hidden inside, and some of those chicks were projectile vomiting all over her.
Seabirds can nest here because Tawharanui is a "mainland island," more or less free of invasive mammals that prey on native birds, thanks to a special 2.5-km fence that cuts across the base of the peninsula. This protection is invaluable for land birds too. (Later that night, I heard some rustling in the bush and caught a glimpse of a kiwi in my headtorch.)
Waiting for the nightly seabird influx. Apparently I even sketch in my sleep. Photo by Chris Gaskin of the Seabird Trust.
I'm told that little Maria Island—one of the Noises Islands in New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf—is the site of the first islandwide eradication of invasive rodents. That happened in the 1960s, and since then pest removal has saved native species on islands around the world.
When I visited Maria Island with Noises owner Sue Neureuter and seabird scientist Matt Rayner, we couldn't land the boat on the rocky shore. So I swam over to take a look. I climbed out of the cold water, up the barnacle-covered rocks, and onto the grassy slope.
Music video or science documentary? This is both! We took a GoPro-rigged buoy out into New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, where multitudes of hungry seabirds were tracking swarms of fish and krill just below the surface of the sea. The video below features Darlingside’s “The Ancestor” from the album Birds Say and underwater footage courtesy of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust.
Here are some of the things you’re seeing:
- Clouds of wriggling krill among massive schools of blue mackerel
- Fluttering shearwaters casually flying around underwater in pursuit of the krill
- Thousands of fairy prions, Buller’s shearwaters (which breed on a single clump of islands in New Zealand, and nowhere else in the world), and other tubenose seabirds in flight
- Cameo of a northern giant petrel coming in for a close look at our GoPro buoy
Now that we’ve established the “music vidocumentary” as a genre, let’s go behind the scenes. What are these GoPro-wielding scientists up to? Chris Gaskin of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust wants to understand how commercial fishing affects seabirds. Not just how it snags them on hooks, already a hot-button topic, but how it changes their food supply.
Lots of seabirds feed on krill. Fish eat those tasty little crustaceans too, and their feeding frenzies (called work-ups) seem to bring krill up toward the surface within reach of the birds. “We want to document that, but also record out what else is going on within these work-ups,” Gaskin said. So Gaskin and skipper James Ross have been voyaging regularly into the Gulf to get a better look below the waves—which is where the GoPro-bedecked buoy comes in. Kiwi ingenuity at its finest.
The trick is finding the filming location, because work-ups are always on the move. Heading out into the Gulf on Ross’s boat, we scanned the horizon until we found a promising cloud of birds in the distance. As we got closer, we started to see a rough patch in the water, evidence of the maelstrom of marine animals hunting and fleeing from each other just below the surface. We started to hear and smell it too: it sounded like rapids in a river, and smelled (to put it generously) something like strong seafood.
Three of us hopped from the boat into a small dinghy (see the photo below) and headed straight into the middle of the action. Or tried to. Those birds and fish were all over the place—one minute just out of reach, and the next minute half a kilometer away. At last we caught up with them, I dropped the buoy, and the cameras rolled. When the work-up moved on, we retrieved the buoy and motored the dinghy back to Ross’s boat.
The footage we captured adds another piece to a complicated food-web puzzle. Gaskin and colleagues will work with the Department of Conservation and the University of Auckland to put that puzzle together. Their project, in turn, is just one piece in a network of essential seabird conservation efforts going on throughout the Gulf and around New Zealand.
I’m still reeling after being surrounded by more seabirds than I had previously seen in my life, many of them unique to this small corner of the world. But at current rates of seabird decline, this astonishing abundance and diversity of birds won’t last—even here in the seabird mecca that is the Hauraki Gulf.
We should protect seabirds for all sorts of practical reasons. We should save them for their critical role within the marine food web. We should save them for their unique ability to convert fish from the sea into nutrients for the land, and for their value as indicators of ecosystem change.
But I also think we should save seabirds because…well, just look at them!
Photo (by Tony Whitehead): Wielding a GoPro-studded buoy, I accompany Chris Gaskin and Edin Whitehead into the seabird cyclone. See original post.
Below, watch a thrilling video of a sketch biologist sketching a little blue penguin specimen from the collections of the Auckland Museum—my host institution in New Zealand—at ever-so-slightly-faster-than-actual speed (you can tell by the breathing).
Also, read the museum's Q&A about my project.
Although my project will take me all around New Zealand, I'm lucky to be hosted by the Auckland Museum and curator Matt Rayner while in Auckland. One perk is getting to sketch seabirds from the collections, as pictured below. I find that stuffed specimens stay put while being drawn, which is a novelty. (And yet my sketching remains slapdash. Such is the power of habit.)
But sometimes even specimens move: in the video clip below, Matt wheels a cart full of seabirds down to one of the galleries, where I got to give a brief talk under some eerily-lit skeletons hanging from the ceiling. The Museum worked with Fulbright New Zealand and the U.S. Embassy to put on this event introducing my project.
In a fun twist, I got dizzy and almost fell over in the middle of my talk. I later realized this was because I had a concussion from hitting my head on a rock earlier in the week. (Seabirding: an extreme sport.)
This is Rua the New Zealand Conservation Dog, introduced in my previous post. Rua has just sniffed out a grey-faced petrel nest and is intently watching the burrow entrance while awaiting further instructions from his handler, Jo Sim. (As Jo points out, this angle makes Rua's butt look big. Sorry, Rua!)
I joined Rua the seabird detection dog, his handler Jo Sim, Jo's partner Brook Mells, and Auckland Council scientist Todd Landers for two days of searching out Grey-faced Petrel nests on the steep coastal slopes of Muriwai and Piha. Check out New Zealand's Conservation Dogs program and learn more about Jo and Rua.
I've been in New Zealand exactly two weeks. Here's a breakdown of adventures and misadventures so far.
- Arrived in Auckland with a heavy backpack, heavy carryon suitcase, heavy checked suitcase, and heavy duffel bag containing a kayak. On more than one occasion during the multi-day trip from Maine, had the pleasure of carrying/propelling all four items simultaneously.
- Successfully drove around the city on the left side of the road with a lefthand stickshift in a borrowed car. Fellow Auckland drivers may not fully agree with that statement.
- Bought my very own 1998 Toyota Caldina station wagon from a sleazy car salesman posing unconvincingly as a regular retired guy who had owned the vehicle for ten years. Obtained insurance. Began working on solutions for the foul-smelling interior (professional cleaning service? bowls of vinegar? coffee grounds?). Struggled to find parking. Started hearing clunking sounds when I brake.
- Prevailed on the seemingly boundless hospitality of (Auckland Museum curator) Matt Rayner and his family for several days. Thank you, Rayners!
- Stayed for a week in a dingy hostel dormitory. Somehow got a room otherwise occupied exclusively by a rotating cast of middle-aged men. All very polite, and all horrific snorers.
- For the duration of my short stay in Auckland, moved into a delightful flat on Gribblehirst Road. You heard that correctly.
- Made a list of precisely 17 stores I will visit to obtain the project supplies I didn't have room for in my plane luggage. Ordered a new computer to replace the new computer I bought last month, which had an inexplicable meltdown the day before I left the States.
- Had problems using all three of the payment cards I brought. Opened a New Zealand bank account.
- Obtained staff access to the Auckland Museum. Met several dozen interesting and friendly people involved in New Zealand wildlife conservation. Continued the process of planning nine months' worth of expeditions and storytelling all over the country.
- Joined a three-day expedition to the dramatic Mokohinau Islands. Spent time with the penguins, petrels, diving petrels, storm petrels, and shearwaters that nest there.
- Peeked at a kiwi in its burrow on the Tawharanui Peninsula ("wh" being pronounced "f," by the way) and then enjoyed a torrential rainstorm while catching grey-faced petrels on a clifftop in the dark.
- Spent a day on a boat in the Hauraki Gulf and watched all sorts of seabirds flying around, including albatrosses and giant petrels and the long-lost New Zealand storm petrel, which for the entire 20th century was thought to be extinct!
So far, so good.
Photo: Oscar Thomas holds a grey-faced petrel chick that Megan Friesen has extracted from a nest box, while monitoring seabirds at Tawharanui.
This is a little story about coincidences. (Title: "Only in the seabird research world.")
Three months ago, a boat picked me up from Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine. On this boat were some people I didn't know, who were about to spend two months on the island.
One of them was named Alyssa.
Today, a boat picked me up from Burgess Island off the coast of New Zealand. On this boat were some people I didn't know, who were about to spend two months on the island.
Except I did know one of them! It was Alyssa again.
Photo by Todd Landers.
I’m on a clifftop in the dark, on a remote island in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf. An inky sea lies below, unfamiliar constellations glitter above, and a bird has just flown straight into my hand.
Other pale squeaking shapes are brushing by me and bumping into me. A few minutes ago one smacked me in the eye. They started whirling in from the ocean at nightfall, forming a helter-skelter cloud over the vegetation on the cliff: a storm cloud of white-faced storm petrels.
Surprised to be holding a seabird, I lift my hand into the beam of my headlamp (which I should remember to call a “headtorch” while I’m in New Zealand) and look at the small creature lying quietly on my palm. It has a brown back, a brown-streaked face with a white eyebrow, and a white belly that gleams ghostly in the darkness. Its beak is topped with an odd little tube, involved in filtering salt from the seawater it drinks. Folded against its body are long black legs and yellow-webbed feet. This is a bird that hops from wave to wave, nabbing beakfuls of krill while fluttering along the surface of the ocean.
Just a moment of looking, and then I shift my hold on its soft and delicate form, releasing it into the air to join its fellows. Storm petrels spend most of their lives at sea, but once a year they start paying nocturnal visits to certain islands, islands that are safe from the predators prowling the mainland. They’re about to carry out the annual business of nesting.
That’s why the birds are here. As for me, I came to Burgess Island yesterday on a boat with four seabird conservation scientists. We’re staying in a hut on the other side of the island, next to a lighthouse.
Today we trekked over to these cliffs in the late afternoon, arrived just after sunset, and had a peaceful few minutes staring westward out to sea. Until dusk fell and this happened: [See video below. And yes, maybe I could have used an audio clip, but then you wouldn’t get to see how dark it was.]
Apparently this “whooping” technique is a standard way of luring seabirds to land. Either it worked on the storm petrels, or they were headed here anyway. Maybe some of both.
Now, an hour after their frenzied arrival, the birds are gradually settling to earth, milling around in the low-lying shrubbery that conceals a whole neighborhood of nest burrows. Auckland Museum curator (and lead seabird vocalist) Matt Rayner is weaving through the fragile colony with care. He checks the storm petrels for numbered bands, placed on their legs in previous visits, to keep tabs on how the population is faring. It’s faring unusually well.
Not long ago, Burgess Island had hardly any seabirds left, thanks to invasive predatory rats and to the nest-trampling livestock owned by the lighthouse keepers. But by the time the lighthouse was automated in 1980, the keepers and all of their cows, pigs, goats, and sheep had vacated the island. Ten years after that, Burgess was the site of the world’s first-ever helicopter drop of poison for rat control. Then it was finally safe for seabirds to start returning.
Nearby on the clifftop, Auckland University researcher Brendon Dunphy and grad student Edin Whitehead are sitting on a patch of rocky ground with diving petrels in their laps. They’re weighing these small, heavy birds by the light of their headlamps (headtorches!) and extracting blood samples, identifying ways to assess the health of the ocean by paying attention to seabird health. Auckland Council scientist Todd Landers is roaming around and capturing petrel sounds, part of long-term acoustic monitoring studies. All in the name of helping these birds, which are essential members of a maritime ecosystem we all depend on.
In New Zealand and everywhere, seabirds lead a precarious existence, victims to introduced predators, changing oceans, entanglement on fishing lines, and all sorts of other knotty problems on land and sea. The recovery of Burgess Island is a bright spot in the darkness: a flicker of hope that these birds still stand a chance.
Coming face to face with one of them tonight was startling and special, like learning a secret. The next time I stand outside at nightfall, with or without a headtorch, I’ll be picturing a cloud of storm petrels sweeping in from the ocean—wild, precious, and at our mercy.
Landing on Burgess Island to study seabirds! (Left photo: Auckland University grad student Edin Whitehead, Auckland Council scientist Todd Landers, and Auckland Museum scientist Matt Rayner. Right photo, taken surreptitiously by Edin: my Burgess Island birthday handstand.)
I knew I needed a New Zealand bird guide for this trip.
I did not know I would find one in a pile of secondhand books being sold from a table outside the Maine Audubon center in Scarborough Marsh, right before embarking on my travels.
Seems like a good omen.
I'm Abby McBride, a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. I'm spending the better part of a year in New Zealand, writing and illustrating stories about penguins, prions, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, albatrosses, and all sorts of other birds that spend their lives on the ocean.
Seabirds are declining faster than any other group of birds in the world, which is very worrisome indeed. Besides being beautiful and fascinating in their own right, these too-often overlooked birds play an indispensable role in connecting marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and act as coal mine canaries to warn us about problems in the environment.
Why go to New Zealand? This small island country holds by far the most seabird species of any country in the world. It also happens to be a global leader in solving the plethora of problems afflicting seabirds, caused by humans past and present.
Take the New Zealand storm petrel, one victim of the rats that followed human colonists to New Zealand. So scarce it was thought extinct for the entire 20th century, this tiny seabird recently showed up nesting on an island 50 miles from Auckland. It owes its second chance to New Zealanders, working hard to control predators throughout the country.
I aim to capture a sense of this seabird-saving grit and gumption and help pass it on. So I'm roaming the New Zealand coastline for nine months with my not-so-trusty station wagon, my coffin-sized tent, and my inflatable kayak. I'm hitching rides on boats to offshore islands. I'm sketching seabirds and taking part in seabird conservation and telling stories about it all.
Left image: Abby with petrel chick (photo by Edin Whitehead). Right image: the "extinct" NZ storm petrel (watercolor by me).
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