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 looms above the forest clearing, blurred by mist and striated with rain, shooting upward from a floodlight on the ground. 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 comes into focus as a Cook’s petrel, the most abundant bird breeding on this island. But we’re looking for a star that becomes another kind of seabird: a storm petrel.
The New Zealand storm petrel, thought to be extinct for the entire 20th century, 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 (Illustration: Abby McBride)
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-old 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.
Wild Bird Trust presents the Top 25 Migratory Wild Birds. Approximately 40% of the world’s birds migrate, which means there a lot of birds on the move! Migration is primarily a strategy to optimize living conditions by moving to areas which are warmer and have more food. Migrant birds can be especially difficult to conserve as different countries need to cooperate to ensure birds are conserved across their range. Birds are also vulnerable on flyways as they are often hunted en masse. If birds are conserved in their breeding habitat but their wintering habitat is degraded this makes it a sink for the population as a whole. This is why international agreements such as the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Animals have been put in place- to foster cooperation between countries, allowing birds to be conserved with the big picture in mind.
We hope you enjoy our selection this week and we encourage you to submit image for next week’s Top 25- the theme will be announced on our Facebook page this weekend. You can also have a look at our Twitter and Instagram for regular bird updates!
The Black-tailed Godwit is listed as near-threatened due to various pressures on the population’s breeding grounds in central Eurasia and wintering grounds in Asia, Africa and Australia. These pressures include intensification of agriculture and degradation of wetlands (Asutosh Pal)This Black-headed Bunting was photographed in its wintering range in Bosipota, India (Sujoy Sarkar)In some migratory species there is variation in whether or not a population will migrate. For example Blue-tailed Bee-eaters in south-east Asia migrate south for the winter but Blue-tailed Bee-easters in Australasia do not migrate (Dr S Alagu Ganesh)A White Stork photographed at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania by Sharon TemplinThere are no ringing records to document the migration of Brown-breasted Flycatchers but their distribution changing from south-east Asia in the summer, to India and Sri Linka in the winter, indicate that these birds do migrate (Vishwas Thakker)Migration can be risky, as every now and then a bird will be blown off course and end up somewhere way out of their range. This happened recently to a Citrine Wagtail that was seen in Cape Town, South Africa, they normally overwinter in southern Asia! (Asutosh Pal)Common Hawk-cuckoos are mainly resident across India but populations in the higher latitudes will migrate seasonally (Kanchan Das)A Common Redshank foraging in a mangrove along the Zuari River, India (Kishore Reddy)Eurasian Wrynecks breed in central Asia where they prefer woodland habitats, whereas they prefer more open habitats in their over-wintering ranges in Africa and southern Asia (Ravi Shankar)A Great White Pelican off the coast of Namibia. Most pelicans just spend the winter in Africa but some of them have made it their home year round! (Suranjan Mukherjee)Lesser Redpolls are called irruptive migrants, their migration patterns are irregular and unpredictable, their movements are usually in relation to where food is available (Edwin Godinho)The Western Yellow Wagtail overwinters in India and Africa, in African savanas they are often associated with game animals (Bhargavi Gokarna)The Loggerhead Shrike is migratory within North America. This bird is considered Near-threatened, the reasons for this are not clear but are thought to be linked to the introduction of the West Nile Virus in the late 90s (Jola Charlton)Calliope Hummingbirds breed in north-western North America and spend the winter in Mexico. Ringing records show that these birds often return to the same sites, there is no place like home! (Tim Nicol)A Eurasian Spoonbill foraging in the Dighal Wetlands, India (Vishesh Kamboj)The Mountain Bulbul is what we call at altitudinal migrant, they move to lower altitudes in the winter to escape the cold (Deepak Sharma)A Northern Harrier in its wintering range, in Fremont, California (Sutapa Karmakar)A male Northern Shoveler in flight. This highly migratory species breeds in the northern latitudes in April and May (Vishesh Kamboj)The Peregrine Falcon is one of the world’s most widespread raptors, in the higher latitudes these raptors will migrate south to find more favourable conditions (Nishant Vyas)The Rainbow Bee-eater is native to Australia, they winter in Australasia and breed in southern Australia (Janis Otto)The name Red Knot may seem a little confusing when looking at this grey wader. This bird undergoes an amazing transformation during the breeding season where there plumage changes to a deep rufous colour (Antonis Tsaknakis)Sandhill Cranes breed in Alaska, Canada and Russia, migrating to wetlands and meadows of southern USA and Mexico for the winter (Leslie Reagan)The Siberian Rubythroat breeds in the Taiga forests of Russia (Sujoy Sarkar)This dainty little bird is a Snow Bunting, which breeds in the Arctic and over winters in central North America and Asia (Melissa Penta)The Snowy Owl became well known because of the Harry Potter films which featured a Snowy Owl by the name of Hedwig (Sharon Templin)
Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.
We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!
Once a year this west coast town holds a festival to welcome the Westland petrel back home to New Zealand after its 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.
It was sunset when I parked in the driveway and followed Bruce Stuart-Menteath into the inland forest. In the gathering dusk we ascending 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, as 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 forest all around us and shuffling along the ground to their burrows. Watching the dimly lit sky through a gap in the trees and ferns, 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 to tumble dramatically onto the ground. I felt a whoosh of air, a brush of wings, and fortunately no puncture from that fearsome ivory beak.
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.
Shortly after sunrise on April 2nd we successfully navigated Mir back to her mooring in Banyuwedang Bay in northwestern Bali after over three months at sea— a three months that brought us clear across the Indonesian archipelago and back, covering over 2,500 nautical miles along the way, all in the name of adventure and conservation.
Calm day on the Banda Sea. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Did That Really Happen?
The crew aboard Mir made it safely back to Bali, and our long-anticipated voyage to Raja Ampat has sadly come to an end. As can happen with any slice of time, this adventure is already beginning to take on a dreamlike quality in my mind — did that really happen? Was I truly just traveling through the most biologically-diverse marine ecosystem on the planet on a 108-year-old ship? The surest way for me to verify that it wasn’t all just a dream is by closing my eyes and reliving some of the moments from these past three months, knowing full well that my imagination could never have conjured these otherworldly visions on its own — visions of looking up from eighty feet below the water at thousands upon thousands of fish circling above me in such perfect unison they appeared to be one single, gargantuan, cyclone-shaped, super-organism. Visions of standing on the bow as we slowly approached a remote island at sunrise and expecting to see pterodactyls swooping off the turrets of stone as the land came into focus to reveal steep, jagged cliff faces speckled with broad-leafed plants overflowing out of any little spot that could hold a cup of soil. Visions of being on watch late at night and looking over the side of the ship at long ribbons of bioluminescence streaming and twisting away from Mir’s hull as she cut through the otherwise pitch-black waters. And one especially wild vision of diving in a tidal “river” between two islands where the current was so strong that when everyone else grabbed ahold of a boulder to stop themselves, and I missed it, I had to dig my hands into the sandy bottom where I was dragged away from the rest of the team while “gusts” of water threatened to tear my mask from my face and it felt like I was on a gravity-free planet about to get blown into outer space, never to be heard from again. But of all the things we saw in Raja Ampat, the most spectacular was what we went there to see in the first place: the vast trove of healthy coral reefs, all of which hosted a chaotic profusion of sea life on and around them.
Fish tornado. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
Voyage Back to Bali
We left our final anchorage in Raja Ampat on March 10th to begin our long voyage back across those big blue spots you may have seen on maps of Indonesia. Although we were sad to leave a place we had come to love so much, our adventure in no way diminished once we did; on one of our first nights underway between Raja Ampat and Sulawesi, an electrical storm came so close to the ship that the thunder was already clapping while the lightning was still spiderwebbing pink and welding torch-white across the skies beside us, causing us to throw our hands up to our ears. The four of us who were up at the time all thought the power had gone out on the ship before realizing we had each been momentarily blinded by the flash.
We saw many of these eerie, floating fish attractors in the seas around Sulawesi. Our presumption is that these scarecrow-like paddle people have a double purpose: 1) to keep birds from landing on them so fish aren’t dissuaded from gathering below, and 2) to make them easier for the fisherman to relocate. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
After spending a few days diving in Wakatobi National Park off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi, we continued on to the small island of Moyo, where the Biosphere Foundation has an ongoing “Friends of Moyo” project. There, we were reunited with our hero, Sutama, and his wonderful and hilarious wife, Wayan, who flew in to meet us from Bali. We spent a week in Moyo transplanting broken corals, and adding many small moorings to the beautiful reefs off the coast of the island. Sutama led us in these efforts, while also training the local dive leaders of Moyo who are eager to carry on the critical work of protecting their reefs from anchor damage, destructive fishing practices, and pollution.
From left to right: Sutama, Dolphin, Wayan, and Nadia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere FoundationSutama and Wayan Chandra transplanting corals near Moyo Island. Photo by Kitty Currier, Biosphere FoundationLaser and Sutama tying a mooring buoy line to the rocky substrate. Photo by Nadia Low, Biosphere FoundationSutama certifying local Moyo divers: Chandra, Herwin, and Arif as Biosphere Foundation Coral Reef Stewards. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation.Gorgeous waterfall on Moyo Island — it felt incredible to swim in fresh water after months of salt. Photo by Sam Keck Scott, Biosphere Foundation
While in Moyo, we also visited a local school where we met with nearly 150 students, teaching them about the detriments of plastic pollution and the importance of healthy coral reefs. We sang and danced with them, and performed the same skit that we put on in Mansuar, where once again I played a sea turtle who nearly chokes to death on a plastic bag that I mistake for a jellyfish. In Bahasa Indonesia, jellyfish is “ubur ubur,” and apparently my pronunciation of the word is so hilarious that now every time I see one of my Indonesian friends, they yell: “ubur ubur!” in a drawn-out and exaggerated accent and then burst into laughter. Just now a boat filled with Balinese dive leaders spotted me where I’m typing this and all shouted “ubur ubur!” in unison and then nearly fell overboard with delight.
Schoolchildren of Labuhan Aji village on Moyo Island, Indonesia. Photo by Gaie Alling, Biosphere Foundation
On the Horizon
We’re living at a critical moment not only for humanity, but for all life on Planet Earth — a moment when many say it’s already too late to steer us off our current crash course with environmental destruction. Coral reefs are a strong indicator of overall ocean health, and alarmingly, they are projected to be nearly gone in the next thirty years if ocean temperatures continue to rise at current trends. After seeing the spectacular underwater ecosystems of Raja Ampat, those of us aboard Mir are more motivated than ever to not sit idly by as our elegant biosphere slowly fades out, and whether it’s too late to change our species’ destructive course or not, the truth of the matter is that these reefs still exist today, and that means there’s still hope. If we lose our reefs for good, there’s no getting them back, so now is the time to act; our grandchildren won’t be given the same opportunity if we do nothing.
Mir crew, 2018. Photo by Woody Heffern, Biosphere Foundation
Though our expedition to Raja Ampat is now behind us, the work of the Biosphere Foundation is only gaining momentum; as of this week, Sutama officially became the head of our NW Bali Marine Stewardship Program where he will continue to develop programs to educate local people — including officials from the local Nature Parks, and Indonesia’s National Parks — in simple, yet effective, methods to protect their oceans. Also on the horizon is the Biosphere Foundation’s new educational center that will soon be built in northwest Bali where both local and international students can participate in our land and sea environmental stewardship programs. We hope you’ll join us.
North Atlantic right whales are facing a breeding and survival crisis, due in large part to entanglements in fishing gear. Humpback whales are dying in unprecedented numbers off the Northeastern U.S., some are also casualties of entanglements while others have fatally collided with ships, and the causes of death of others are unknown. Vaquitas face an almost certain extinction thanks to the use of gillnets used for fishing, which indiscriminately trap and kill these small porpoises.
North Atlantic right whales. Photo: Lauren Packard / Flickr
When President Trump had the opportunity this year to make a difference in the lives of these imperiled marine mammals, he didn’t. He wanted to cut funding in the Federal 2018 Budget for the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act 46 years ago, which is responsible for advising U.S. policy decisions affecting marine mammals and establishing a conservation ethic through sound science. Over the years, the Commission has helped prevent the deaths of millions of marine mammals from human activities such as oil drilling, mining, transportation, seismic blasting and fishing bycatch. Since the Marine Mammal Act has been in existence, no marine mammals have gone extinct in U.S. waters.
While the activities the Marine Mammal Commission performs are critically important to protecting millions of animals, they are not expensive to carry out. In fact, its 2017 budget of $3.4 million cost American taxpayers just one cent that year. But Trump thinks Americans’ pennies could be better spent elsewhere, on the U.S. military or building his wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Two weeks ago it looked like the Marine Mammal Commission would be slashed. But thanks to thousands of concerned people criticizing Trump’s plan in letters to the U.S. government and a few decisive budget compromises, the Marine Mammal Commission will be funded through another year. It will maintain the same budget as last year, $3.4 million, which advocates for the Commission say should be sufficient to fund its essential activities.
Pacific white-sided dolphin. Photo: Erica Cirino
“Of course, additional funds are desirable to match the increasing costs and competing interests,” said Sheri Pais, a paralegal at Perkins Coie LLP who was involved in helping the public prepare and send letters about the importance of funding the Marine Mammal Commission to the Federal government. “But, the Commission has demonstrated in the past that it has been effective at this level of funding.”
While the Marine Mammal Commission has survived another year, Trump is still working to dismantle protections for the oceans and the life they contain—putting big business interests before the health of the environment. He’s working to open coastal waters to oil drilling, overhaul rules on seismic oil exploration in the oceans and fast-track other exploitative activities associated with the petrochemical industry that imperil marine life.
Trump has quietly managed to push two bills through the committee to a vote: the Streamlining Environmental Approvals, or SEA, Act and Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy, or SECURE, Act. These bills target important aspects of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which regulates exploratory seismic blasts used to find oil and gas. Seismic blasts are known to harm and disrupt the natural activities of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans to the extent that it impairs their survival.
Risso’s dolphins. Photo: Erica Cirino
Ocean advocates urge the public to place steady, strong pressure on the Trump administration when it comes to safeguarding the health and safety of the sea. Keep tabs on Trump’s latest efforts to slash funding and support for groups and activities that protect the oceans by checking the Safina Center’s Ocean Issues webpage frequently for news, and actions you can take to make a difference.