Satire, the closer to the truth, the better it gets:
In the world of applied conservation even the successes can be failures. Almost a decade ago the New Zealand government committed to eradicating pests (stoats and red deer) of Secretary and Resolution Islands, two huge in-shore islands, nearly 30,000ha of remote and mostly extreme forested terrain.
This grand effort to rid these islands of their invasive pest species was not made on a whim (although the political back-story makes interesting telling); conservationists saw the potential of these islands to hold robust and ecologically meaningful populations of species now extinct on the mainland. Those conservationists weren’t just the late 20th century types either. Back in the 19th century Mr. Richard Henry, an Irishman, via Australia, saw both the wonder and beauty of New Zealands strange endemic biota and also the potential roles that the large islands like Resolution might play in cheating their extinction. Henry had witnessed the release of mustelids into NZ at the behest of the pastoral lobby to control rabbits, and within a decade of the event had observed the steady eradication of species such as kakapo and whio (blue duck) as the introduced predators swept across the mainland. Diligently, he set about translocating kiwi and kakapo onto Resolution Island in the belief that the introduced predators sweeping the mainland would be held at bay by the ocean current. Sadly, in the early 1900s stoats arrived on Resolution Island and Henry called it quits. One can only imagine the depression such a realisation would bring after many years of remote hardship apparently all for nothing.
Over 100 years later and the eradications are well under way, but the same cause of Henry’s abandonment, the stoats ability to swim amazing distances in rough cold oceans, still plagues progress. Despite extensive trapping that is serviced 4 times a year, new immigrant stoats still arrive. Sometimes there may be a lull, sometimes a spike, but rarely a year goes by that individuals to dozens of stoats are not being removed from the island.
With such small numbers of stoats left on the islands it’s easy to see why conservationists want to start releasing threatened species as even the most sensitive could possibly recover if predation is kept to a minimum and only a small handful of predators roam the vast islands. So it was that in 2008 and 2009 that kokako, 26 in all were released onto Secretary Island. It was the first wave of species reintroductions and special in itself as North Island kokako, which were to be used for the release were ecological surrogates for the now extinct South Island kokako. Whilst sightings were not common, in early 2011 what we all hoped was a sure sign of success, the first Secretary Island fledged bird was observed. Wattles still a glorious mauve, the bird came to our recorded calls and hopped around us for over half an hour.
We were ecstatic. My partner especially as she had fund-raised and managed the complex politics and logistics of getting these birds from their North Island forest homes, safely down to Fiordland. That very afternoon it was resolved: we needed to thoroughly survey the whole island to understand the full extent of successful establishment before supplementing the population with a further translocation to ensure a genetically robust founder population.
Fast-forward to March 2013 and the survey is underway, with 8 kokako experts and tough conservationists ready to spend a week with gps and call recorders scouring the islands suitable habitat to take a census of the kokako. The weather, in a very un-Fiordland like manner turned to clear blue skies and virtually no wind for the whole week. The on-going deer and stoat eradication gave the team amazing access to helicopter and boat transport. Perfect except that in a long week of searching absolutely no sign of kokako was recorded. Not a single note heard. As if that was bad enough, South Island robin, released onto the island the same year (2008) were nowhere to be seen either. The team also noticed that the introduced blackbird was significantly less abundant than in previous yrs. A look at the data when back in the office confirms this. The robins are as much of a mystery as the kokako. For 2-3 years they seemed to be doing well, spreading across the island and breeding. Other bird species seem to be on the mend, bell bird and weka numbers have certainly recovered post 2006.
This is bad news. Conservation dollars are very hard to come by, we don’t waste them. To not waste the time, money and effort expended to put kokako on Secretary Island we need to understand why it failed. The habitat seems good, and was proven good enough for a least one pair to raise a chick to fledging. Predator numbers are extremely low but there are in addition to stoats, both falcon and weka on the island. But in their North island strongholds kokako recover in the presence of both falcon and stoats probably at higher abundances than on Secretary. Secretary island is free of rodents and possum, so could it be some strange predator-prey relationship? But then it’s hard to imagine that stoats would kill more than the incubating females and maybe naive fledglings. Weka surely couldn’t eradicate a bird with limited but perfectly functional abilities of flight? What about climate? Well whilst these islands are hundreds of kilometers south of their original home, the climate of these islands is ameliorated by the oceans that surround them. Disease? This is certainly a possibility. During their translocation health screening detected haemogregarine parasites that were previously unknown to science. These hypotheses need data and those data aren’t cheap. But conservation is a science, all be it a very practical science where many of the best practitioners are pragmatists and ‘get it done’ types.
Before we charge into fund-raising to answer these questions there is one other species to check up on. Rock wren, New Zealand’s only true alpine bird and a member of the once numerous (and largely flightless) Xenicus genera that are basal to all modern passerines. This species is vulnerable to nest predation by both rodents and stoats and in an effort to offer them some security a founder population was released onto Secretary Island in 2009-2010. We know they bred initially but what of their fate three yrs on. Time to go and check.
The team have just arrived back in Bluff Harbour but before disembarking Alison Ballance has posted another update from the trip and will no doubt post more once the information gathered has been given more consideration:
Awesome, amazing, and any other amount of A words describe our trip to the southern end of the Auckland islands. After we had completed our morning penguin count on Ewing Island it was a three hour-or-so journey down the east coast of Auckland Island to Carnley Harbour. Then Jo Hiscock and I parted ways with the rest of the team, heading up to the top of Adams Island for a spot of wandering albatross work, while the others remained on yellow-eyed penguin duty, heading out along the north coast of Adams Island to sort out their penguin watching spots for the following morning.
Adams Island is a remarkable place. It’s the largest pristine island in New Zealand – even though sheep were farmed for a while, no other introduced mammals ever arrived there. Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott have been carrying out a long-term study of the Gibson’s wandering albatrosses, which breed only on Adams Island, since 1991, as well as researching another sub-species, the Antipodes wandering albatross, which is found only on the Antipodes Island. Their field season in the subantarctic is January-February, at the beginning of the breeding season when birds are laying eggs and chicks are starting to hatch. Kath and Graeme need to put leg bands on the young albatrosses before they fledge and leave the colony so they can identify them when they return after a few years at sea – but by the the time Kath and Graeme return the following year many of the chicks will have already flown. So, they enlist the help of passing DoC staff such as Jo to band the chicks once they have reached adult size, and since the job takes two people I was keen to volunteer.
The study began because there were concerns that the albatrosses were being caught as by-catch in the longline fishing industry, and it was important to establish the size of the population and the breeding success. In the early 1990s the annual breeding success was 67%, but in the last few years it has dropped to a worrying 40%, and Kath and Graeme report that a concerning number of adults are also failing to return.
The evening we arrived in the study area Jo and I headed out to make the most of the long summer evening, as we had nearly a hundred nests to check. I was clad in head-to-toe yellow PVC (very attractive) as I had been warned that the young albatrosses were highly likely to regurgitate a fishy oily slurry over me (their only means of self-defence), and I wore light leather gloves as protection against their large sharp bills, which they clack fiercely when anyone approaches.
It was an incredible opportunity to get close to one of the largest birds in the world, with a wing span of 3-metres. The chicks were already as big as their parents, and although they had grown most of their adult feathers they were still covered in varying amounts of the lightest powder-puff white down. The banding procedure is quick and simple – my job was to hold the bird, which is so large that I could only just fit my arms around, with one hand holding its bill firmly, and my other arm keeping its long wings tucked in. Jo had two leg bands to put on – the usual metal numbered DoC bird band, and a plastic band with large letters and numbers that Kath and Graeme would be able to read at a distance using binoculars. Jo quickly had both bands on, and then an indignant albatross was released with a volley of bill clapping and grumpy calls. Not every nest had a chick greeting us – many were sad and empty, and a handful still had the bones and feathers of recently dead chicks.
As the evening light began to fail we retired for the night to the small bivvy and the following morning Jo and I carried on nest checking and chick banding while the the penguin counting contingent assumed position along the island’s northern shore. We worked in the albatross colony into the afternoon by which time the penguin team were off on their own albatross adventure at South-west Cape, visiting a colony of white-capped albatrosses (a kind of shy albatross) nesting on ledges on the cliffs. These smaller mollymawks are just starting to breed at the moment, so when we made it back to Evohe just on dark, after a cold wet walk back over the island, we were greeted with x-rated reports of goings-on on the cliffs as well as excited reports about adventures trying to find several of the historic sites.
The slightly less good news was that the Gibson’s wandering albatross chick survival so far this year is just 40%, and more chicks will likely die before this breeding season is over. And the yellow-eyed penguin tally for Adams Island was a rather meagre 21 birds, compared to 52 birds in 1989. Hmm, lots to think about until we bring you more news tomorrow.
Here is Alison Ballance’s latest update from the expedition:
Sorry about the short break in communication, folks, but we’ve been having a super busy time down here. We feel like we’ve been on the go for 10 days rather than 5, but we’ve realised that’s because every day is effectively two days: we get up at 4 am, and get back to the boat by late morning, which is one day, and then we have a busy afternoon and late evening which counts as our second day. And mealtimes are erratic so they’re no guide to the passing of time! Most of us are short of sleep, and every time Evohe relocates many take the opportunity to nap for an hour or two.
Since Blog 7 we’ve counted yellow-eyed penguins on Ewing Island, Adams Island and Waterfall Inlet on main Auckland Island, and after two nights at the southern end of the islands we’re now back in Ross Harbour at the north end. O and a few Gibson’s wandering albatross chicks have been banded (I know that they’re not penguins but they are equally magnificent seabirds, and I’ll tell you more about them and other southern adventures in tomorrow’s blog).
Ewing Island is a small island not far from Enderby Island, but it is quite different as it is covered in Olearia forest, rather than the rata forest that blankets everywhere else. Our penguin watching day on Ewing Island was straight-forward – Jo and Dave A. had scoped the island the previous day and marked all the landing sites with reflector tape so they were easy to find in the early morning dark. I had a spot on a little headland, from which I could see a small harbour on each side, and another headland that we thought might be a penguin highway. The wind was quite strong (but nothing compared to what the usual gale force wind conditions down here), and it rained steadily for about an hour, but fortunately I had my back to it, and I was well rugged-up. Judging by all the remains of small seabirds lying about my headland was a popular skua hang-out, and indeed two birds came and went all morning, happily settling themselves a metre or so away from me. All up I saw six yellow-eyed penguins, but only two went into the water during my official four hour watch. Three birds came down to a rock shelf about 4 metres above the water and hung out there for about an hour. They began with a refreshing dip in a freshwater pool, then spent their time displaying to one another, having a couple of small fights (flapping their flippers at each other), and engaging in a bit of mutual preening.
The grand result from Ewing Island was that between us all (which amounts to 40 hours of observations) we recorded 61 birds – which, amazingly, is exactly the same number recorded in the 1989 survey. The results from Matheson Bay and North Harbour, on the main Auckland Island which I wrote about in Blog 7, are not quite so reassuring – in 1989 they recorded 30 birds, whereas our intrepid commandos only counted 4. And in North Harbour we counted 49 yellow-eyed penguins, which compares to 72 counted in 2009, and 88 counted in 1989. What those differences mean it’s hard to say – are we seeing a decline in yellow-eyed penguin numbers, or is is just random day-to-day variation in the numbers of penguins going out to sea each day. Regardless, we are following the same survey protocol as in 1989, and it’s the best we can do in the time and people available. And the yellow-eyed penguin watchers we have on board are great – it’s a motivated, hard-working team and we’re having a really good time, especially since the weather continues to be astonishingly calm and pleasant for these parts of the world. That’s all for now and I’ll be back tomorrow with more yellow-eyed penguin tales from the southern end of the Auckland islands, along with a few albatross anecodotes.
While some yellow-eyed penguins head straight out to sea to feed others hang around on the shore, keeping the penguin watchers in a state of suspense – will they or won’t they leave in time to be counted! (Photo Alison Ballance)
The latest update from Alison Ballance on the Yellow Eyed Penguin expedition to the Sub Antarctic Islands:
Well folk, we’re finally in the business of counting penguins! And that involves getting up earlier than the earliest birds – yesterday the crew had us on the go at 1.30 am, motoring around the north side of Enderby Island. By 4 am the first five penguin watchers were doing their best commando impersonation over the side of the yacht in the pitch dark into the waiting dinghy. They were off into Mathiesson Bay to position themselves strategically around the edges in prime penguin watching spots. That, at least, was the cunning plan. The sheer bluffs around most of the bay (invisible until the dinghy nosed up to them) quickly put paid to that idea, and the penguin commandos ended up settling in the dark into the three available sites, waiting for the official start time of 5 am.
Bluffs and cliffs might be unpassable for a yellow-eyed penguin, but they make great nesting sites for Auckland Island shags. Photo Alison Ballance
Evohe, meanwhile, headed further along the coast of the main island to North Harbour, dropping anchor about half-way up the harbour in 20 metres of water. Loaded with three penguin commandos the dinghy headed further up the harbour to serve as a floating spy base, while two of us remained on board the mothership, using her as our strategic lookout point. It was still pretty dark by 5.30 am, and moderately gloomy when I saw our first penguin – or rather our first four penguins – just before 6 am. The next three hours were spent scanning our stretch of shore with binoculars, trying to catch the fast penguins before they bolted out of the bush and straight into the water, and attempting to keep track of the slow penguins who loitered amongst the dark black rocks, blending in and sometime disappearing from sight.
I saw 12 penguins, most in a rush-hour between 6 and 7 am, but they were too far away for me to tell if they were adult or juvenile birds. Marcy, on duty on the other side of Evohe saw a dolphin, convinced herself for a brief while that the white belly of a shag was that of a penguin (an illusion that was shattered when it flew away), and finally logged her first penguin just four minutes before the survey ended at 9 am.
The dinghy team were in yellow-eyed penguin heaven, counting nearly 40 birds between them. Many of their birds were taking their time, with one group of hanging about together for several hours before they finally took to the water en masse.
Back in Mathiesson Bay the pickings were a little leaner with just five birds, one per person, but that was not surprising really given how much of the harbour was ringed with unpassable bluffs, and that enthusiastic sealions were making access difficult on the one small beach.
There are plenty of bonuses apart from yellow-eyed penguins – the haunting calls of light-mantled sooty albatrosses serenaded us this morning, and we’ve see the first Anisotome flowers of the season opening on the bluffs. Photo: Alison Ballance
So what did the team make of their first morning’s work? Despite the light but persistently wetting rain for about half of the time, the chill of sitting in one place for four hours, and some slight queasiness from using binoculars in a rocking dinghy the verdict was unanimously great. Sharon declared it the best wildlife experience of her life (until she remembered just how much she loves New Zealand dotterels!). The mysterious whales sighted on the way back round to Sandy Bay in seas that can only be described as glassy added to the day’s quota of enjoyment – we’ll be pulling the whale chart out soon to try and identify the slow square-nosed whales with the tiny dorsal fins, but before then there’s another island to recce and mark with strategic reflector tape, so that our next landing in the dark isn’t quite such a mission into the unknown!
So the voyage progresses. Klick on the yellow-eyed penguin trust link on the previous post or read Alison Ballance’s report below:
We arrived in the Auckland islands today! The forecast was looking promising on Monday so we set sail from Bluff at 9 pm, and had a smooth sailing, arriving at Enderby Island just on dawn, after an uneventful 31 hours. O joy and thanks to the weather gods for such a pleasant passage!
After an early (and much needed!) breakfast we began shuttling supplies for Dave Houston and Leith Thompson ashore at Sandy Bay, as well as extra supplies ready for the sealion team who arrive next month for their summer of work.
Dave H. and Ranger Leith are staying on Enderby Island, and we’ll pick them up at the end of the trip. Their job involves putting up remote cameras at several key penguin landing sites, to automatically count all the penguins coming and going from the sea. The pair will then head into the bush to look for nests – when they find a nest they will put a small paint mark on the back of the bird, which they’ll then be able to see on the cameras. The proportion of marked (painted) to unmarked birds they see will help Jo work out how the number of birds we count compares to how many nests we can expect.
It was too late to carry out any morning penguin counts, so while Dave and Leith began their work the rest of us set out around Enderby for a recce and much-needed leg-stretch. It drizzled in a very classic subantarctic manner for maybe an hour – although it wasn’t windy – and then to our amazement the rain stopped, and the sun came out. We saw about 15 yellow-eyed penguins on our way round, young birds loafing around together and enjoying the warmth, as well as lots of sealions, an elephant seal, skuas, dotterels, pippits, and even a couple of snipe and Auckland Island teal.
Jo, Dave A. and Megan are out in the dinghy at the moment, working our penguin counting sites on Rose and Ewing islands. Then the plan is for an early night, as at 2 am Steve the skipper will up-anchor and head out north around the exposed coast of Enderby Island to get us to North Harbour by 4 am. Then we’ll be dropped off at our counting sites by torchlight, and settle in for our first penguin count. Here’s hoping the glassy calm seas we have at the moment will continue!
Somewhere between New Zealand and the last unpopulated and (largely) unexploited continent on the planet- Antarctica, lies the Sub Antarctic Islands. Amongst those islands are the Snares and the Auckland Islands. These islands lie right in the middle of the Antarctic Polar Front, where the icy polar waters mix with the warmer waters flowing from the north. This creates weather, you’ve probably heard of the roaring 40s, well the Snares and the Auckland Islands sit in the furious 50s.
There’s a very good reason for heading down to these tiny specs of islands, despite the generally horrendous weather it’s the disproportionate wealth of wildlife that they hold that is the alure. Penguins, albatross, seals, sealions not to mention whales and a wealth of endemic mega-herbs and marooned snipe, parakeet, fowl and other little birds all evolving their way to flightless island specialization. These islands are the last stronghold for many of these species yet, despite their isolation, all is not as it should be. Sealion numbers continue to dwindle and the more we learn about albatross and penguin population trends the worse the picture gets.
Exactly why these species are declining is unclear. Commercial over-fishing for squid and other oceanic resources and climate change are fairly high up on the suspect list. In an effort to at least gather good data on these processes and shed a little public light on the situation, a team from New Zealands Department of Conservation and the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust are making their way down to the islands for a week of survey work. What makes this trip special is that rather than just send a boatload of crusty conservation biologists, this team also consists of volunteers, keen and enthusiastic individuals who have paid handsomely for the privilege of assisting the conservationist team in their effort. Some folks might spend their holiday savings on a trip to the Gold Coast or some other environment developed precisely to satisfy the consumer, but not these people. They’re keeping a blog of their progress, Alison Ballance in updating it daily so you can follow their progress, I certainly will be following as my better half is on the voyage. You can go to the source:
or read on:
Wahoo – the weather forecast is looking more promising that it has for quite a while, we’ve finally all met one another, and we’re off!
We’re a varied bunch, that’s all I can say. We range from a retired engineer to a mid-20s woman who works for Ravensdown and spends her days talking to farmers. And that’s just the penguin team – the yacht crew is an equally eclectic group of folk (more on them tomorrow). But what unites us all is a shared passion for the subantarctic and its wildlife, especially yellow-eyed penguins. Some of us are subantarctic newbies, while others of us find ourselves returning again and again.
The team in the quarantine office in Invercargill ready to set sail: (back row from left to right) Marcy, Sharon, Leith, Jo, Rachel, Dave H., Dave A., Megan; (front row from left to right) Alison, Katie, Alistair, Alan
Expedition leader is Jo Hiscock from the Department of Conservation in Invercargill. She’s been the one sweating all the details for the last few months – letting everyone know what they need to bring, deciding just how much food to put in the emergency buckets that go ashore with each party on the off-chance they can’t get back on the yacht, working out the survey methods, and worrying about the weather forecast.
Leith Thompson is a ranger with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in Dunedin. He and Jo are veterans of the 2009 expedition which laid the groundwork for this trip. He’ll be dropped off, along with the Department of Conservation’s Dave Houston, to conduct an intensive nest survey on Enderby Island. That will involve lots of time on hands and knees under the scrub, looking for nests, and in the case of Leith, keeping a constant eye out for sealions (he had some memorable encounters on his previous trip!).
Dave Agnew from Dunedin and Megan Willans from Te Anau make up the remainder of the DoC team – they are both wildlife experts, with lots of experience working on remote islands.
What makes this trip unique is that it is not just made up of wildlife professionals. Working alongside them will be six volunteers, who have each paid to come along on this ‘trip of a lifetime’. Alan Magee is a retired Invercargill engineer, who has spent time in Antarctica, and has a strong interest in history – he’s keen to visit some of the historic sites that relate to shipwrecks and Second World War coast-watching.
Katie Underwood works as a real estate agent in Wellington but fills every spare hour with conservation volunteering – she is an eel feeder, kiwi counter and night guide at the Zealandia sanctuary, and following a stint weeding on Raoul Island she’s looking forward to adding to her growing list of islands.
Formerly from the UK but now living in Australia, Rachel Downey is an Antarctic biologist more used to working on creatures such as sponges. After her time on the ice I’m betting she’ll find the subantarctic weather positively mild!
I’m also betting that Sharon Kast won’t have any problems living on the yacht and coping with the trip down – she’s already got more than 10,000 sea miles under her belt, having sailed from her native USA to New Zealand. New Zealand dotterels are her passion, but she’s already feeling a strong affinity for yellow-eyed penguin, reporting that when she has all her thermal layers on she waddles a bit like one!
Alistair Robinson is a weekend yacht racer in Sydney but he reports that being a keen sailor doesn’t mean he has good sea legs. By day he is a funds manager, and the rest of the time he’s involved in organisations such as the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. He’s been ‘in training’ at the Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin to get his fitness up.
Marcy Taylor was brought up on a farm, and spends most of her day talking to farmers on the phone. It’ll be interesting to see if hoiho supplant kakapo as her favourite bird by the time this trip is over!
The trip down should take us about 48 hours, and for much of that time most of us will be in our bunks keeping to ourselves. But one thing is certain – once we get to the islands and in the confined living conditions of the yacht we’ll very soon be much more closely acquainted with one another!