Mountains of Sea-birds
Blogger: North Island Conservation Manager, Mark Bellingham
The oft-quoted phrase of Captain Cook’s naturalist, that the sound of NZ ‘birdsong was deafening’ is one of those throwaway lines of a colourful diarist not a detail-orientated natural historian.
Birders, like myself, would have given a royal sum for a little more information on the constitution of this avian choir.
Of course in today’s (or maybe tomorrow’s) world he would have pulled out his IPhone4, selected the programme birder’s version of shazaam and then raised it to the heavens.
The programme would untangle the song, and give a breakdown of the various choral members –
Bellbird x 7
Robin x 3
Black-faced petrels x 20
Gannets x 14
You see, chances are this song was filled with its fair share of squawkers – and by that I mean seabirds. Prior to human occupation, this place was sea-bird-central, and they weren’t just found on the coast.
Black petrel survived on Mount Taranaki until the 1960s and all types of petrels were found around Mount Ruapehu and Tongariro National Park.
This has been reduced to one hardy colony of black-backed gulls that breed on the southern flanks of Ngaruhoe. It is New Zealand’s most inland seabird breeding colony.
One of the major benefactors of these inland sea-bird colonies were our forests – each day they’d get a fresh aerial application of nutrient-rich, high protein dropping as these sea-birds returned from a day’s fishing.
Remove these sea-birds and the natural fertility declines and whole forest ecology starts to change.
So why did we lose so many of our sea-birds? The usual suspects can be fingered – rats, cats, dogs, and mustelids (stoats and ferrets). The diaspora was pushed out to the coast – where vermin find it hard to find them.
Now Forest and Birders, community groups and Maori landowners are out there restoring seabird colonies around our coasts.
Leading the way are the new Huttons shearwater colony on the Kaikoura Peninsula, the Places for Penguins programme around Wellington, and the growing grey-faced petrel colonies along the Waitakere coastline, Mt Maunganui and Whakatane.
These are building on the success of the traditional titi management work by the owners of the Titit Islands off Stewart Island and predator control by Maori island owners around Coromandel and Northland to restore their seabird colonies.
The process is simple, and so far pretty effective – all you need to do is clear the area of pests, broadcast their call from a cliff-top and wait for some avian traffic to come your way.
Perhaps our next challenge is to look at eliminating pests off our larger islands – such as Great Barrier, D’Urville and Chatham Islands. Imagine that – gaggles of noisy grey-faced petrel, shearwaters and black petrels instead of rats.
The only hurdle then is to ensure that they’ve got fish-filled seas to sate their appetites