Bird Heroes

I loved this You Tube review of New Zealand Nature Heroes by Charlotte.

Lance Richdale was her favourite Nature Hero and, like her, I think the work he did to protect albatross and yellow-eyed penguins was amazing. There are so many bird heroes it was hard to pick which ones to include. I could have filled a whole book with them. There are scientists and volunteers working all over New Zealand with our native birds. Whether its preventing kākāpo from extinction, rescuing injured kārearea, or moving birds from one location to another (translocation).

White-faced storm petrel translocation

I recently took part in a white-faced storm petrel translocation along with many other volunteers. We worked with some incredible Nature Heroes who spent long days and weeks in remote places to look after these tiny birds.

Volunteer humour: the bird pictured here is a diving petrel

Hear the Nature Heroes: Cathy Mitchell, Helen Gummer and Shane Cotter talk to Alison Ballance about this and other seabird translocations here:

Radio New Zealand Producer Alison Ballance put together this programme while also volunteering on the project. 

My story

Mention ocean-going birds and the mighty long-winged albatross comes to mind. But the ball of fluff I hold in my hands is no heavier than a pompom and not much larger. 

White-faced storm petrel chick

Weighing in at just 40-50 grams, white-faced storm petrels are a small miracle. The chick is so tiny, so delicate. But when I loosen my hold, the Jesus Christ bird rockets out, its long legs springing it off into the bushes. Once fledged this bird will be walking on water, its long legs and webbed feet bounding across the waves. For now though, I must wrangle it safely back into its burrow.

It’s February 2021, I’m volunteering for a week on Te Mana o Kupe (Mana Island), assisting with the translocation of white-faced storm petrels, takahikare moana – also known as Jesus Christ birds because the adults really do look like they’re walking on the waves. 

This chick has lost most of its down and is closer to fledging

My job is ‘runner’, although I’m careful not to actually run. These birds are too precious for me to risk tripping on a tree root and dropping the specially adapted carry-box. We runners collect chicks from their burrows in number order and deliver them to the feeding caravan. A general health check follows, they’ll be weighed, have their wings measured and then crop fed a teaspoon-sized serving of sardine smoothie. Then we carefully return them. Our handling training has taught us how to protect their long dangling legs and at the same time prevent them from springing out of the box, our hands or their burrows. 

It’s anxious work. My movements are careful, deliberate, each step thought out. I kneel at each burrow, prepare the box, work out my strategy before I lift the lid. Even then I lift it only enough to see where the bird is, where its head is, just in case I need to reassess my strategy. The only time I relax is when the bird is back in the burrow.  

A moment of stillness as the chick waits to be fed

It’s a relief to sometimes take a turn in the caravan as ‘recorder’, writing down weights, wing-lengths, feed quantities and other data. It’s an opportunity to see the big picture, how many birds have fledged, how many are ready to have have their tunnels unblocked so they can venture out, which birds might need a second feed. 

As I do my rounds I’m in awe of the amount of volunteer energy and dedication required to get this project underway. Each of the hundred burrows has been hand dug, the box and tunnel within have been built to specifications. Sandbags (weight for lids and burrow insulation) have been filled by hand. Removable barriers to block the tunnels have been created out of number 8 wire, mesh, needle and thread. 

All this effort isn’t to rescue a species. Takahikare moana aren’t a rare seabird, over one and a half million live on Rangatira in the Chatham Islands where these chicks were translocated from. It’s to rescue an island. Mana Island needs the guano-rich diggings of seabird colonies to help restore its ecosystems. 

Evidence of a rich eco-system. Even in an artificial burrow – guano, 
leaf litter, geckos, insects, spiders and other invertebrates abound

Because most adult seabirds return to the nest in the colony they fledged from, the strategy of translocating chicks can be a successful way of establishing a new colony. Sooty shearwaters, tītī; fluttering shearwaters, pakahā; fairy prions, tītī wainui; diving petrel, puaka are all established or becoming established on the island. 

More information about the translocation I took part as a volunteer for Friends of Mana Island. There’s an overview of this and other white-faced storm petrel translocations on the Friends of Mana Island Website

Related Blogposts: Volunteering on Fairy Prion translocations on Mana Island