Kaikoura’s special sea birds, Hutton’s Shearwater, nest in mountains!

Once upon a time, as many good stories begin, I went for a misty morning walk in Kaikoura, New Zealand , with members of the Sierra Club (USA).

We took photos of seals, climbed over styles, and walked around the headland of the Kaikoura Peninsula. At the top we came across an eerie scene. In the early morning light we could see people ‘doing something’ and stopped to try to work it out.

We wonder what's happening (2005) photo by Linda Werk
We wonder what’s happening up there in the mist! (2005) photo by Linda Werk

As we stood there, one of them came down. We’re told it was the Department of Conservation (DoC) and volunteers feeding baby birds sardine smoothies in their artificial nests.

The Hutton’s Shearwater chicks had been translocated from their mountain colonies to this newly formed colony as security. Their two mountain colonies are at risk from wild pigs rooting through the area, predators killing young chicks, or an earthquake destroying their habitat.  I later learn more.

In the meantime my American friends are impressed that someone emerged from the mist to explain what was happening: some of the women decided they needed to move to New Zealand if the local DoC staff were so handsome and friendly!

These 2005 photos are by Linda Werk.  The Sierra Club members were hiking in New Zealand for a couple of weeks.

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Since that surreal encounter I have learnt more about this amazing little seabird that lives in burrows in the mountains. This is the only seabird that nests in snowy mountains – in fact this bird only nests here so is absolutely, ‘Kaikoura’ s own bird.’ The species is classified as ‘nationally endangered’ because of its rapid rate of decline.  (For more info see this DoC site)

The artificial nest: they enter by a tube to replicate the burrow they usually build
The artificial nest: they enter by a tube to replicate the burrow they usually build

In April 2014 I was in Kaikoura for the weekend for Kaikoura Seabirds, Shearwaters, Science and Seaweek.  As well as a photography workshop with Peter Langlands, lectures and presentations, I also returned to the translocated site to “Farewell the Hutton’s” as they left for their winter holiday – mostly off the coast of Western Australia.

The ceremony required another early morning walk to the top of the peninsula where Brett Cowan (Takahanga Marae and DoC Kaikoura) led us through a moving event which concluded with us releasing feathers that had been gathered from the nests. He was wearing a new cloak made for DoC by a local PlayCentre woman.

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Brett Cowan with the new cloak
Brett Cowan with the new cloak

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A predator fence and eradication project has been successful and a trust was been set up to help these birds survive. Nicky McArthur, who owns Shearwater Lodge and the land in the Valley of the Gods, where the second mountain colony is, is the driving force behind the trust and this event.  See more and help save these endangered birds here.

 

We also saw a short film about Geoff Harrow. The Hutton’s shearwater/tītī were first described in 1912 but it was not until 1965 that their Seaward Kaikoura mountain breeding grounds were re-discovered by Harrow, an amateur Christchurch ornithologist and mountaineer.  It was lovely to meet such a charming man, who at 88 is still full of life.

Andrew Cutler President Forest & Bird with
Andrew Cutler President Forest & Bird with Geoff Harrow and a crash-landed Hutton’s Shearwater

 

Heather with
Heather with Geoff Harrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I learn more: the adult birds’ travel about 20 kilometres to the Pacific Ocean, to eat fish and krill to feed to their young.  On their downhill flight they travel at up to 154 km/h, reaching the ocean in as little as seven minutes. The return trip, 1200 metres uphill and with a full tummy, takes around 38 minutes.

When the young fledge, in March and April, they then migrate to the fish-rich waters off the Australian coast. Young birds stay there for three or four years then return to Kaikoura to breed at five or six years old.

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From late-March, some Hutton’s shearwater chicks flying from the mountain colonies for the first time crash onto the land around Kaikoura. It’s thought that these young birds become disoriented by fog and town lighting.As these birds cannot take off from land, they need help from the local community.

NOTE: The first record they have of a translocated bird returning to the peninsula colony was in December 2008. More birds returned in summer 2009-10 and in November 2010 the first egg was laid by one of the translocated chicks. The years since have increased the success rate.

NOTE2: More blogs soon about Kaikoura. (e.g. Albatross Encounter, Kaikoura gains a green eco-award etc.)