Ghostbusting the “Extinct” New Zealand Storm Petrel

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!

Catching a New Zealand storm petrel (by Abby McBride)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 with New Zealand Storm Petrel (by Abby McBride)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.

Read more about the rediscovery of the New Zealand storm petrel and learn how to support conservation efforts for this species.

Measuring and banding a New Zealand storm petrel (by Abby McBride)

Originally posted 2018-03-12 05:22:44.

Top 25: Wild Birds on the Edge

Wild Bird Trust presents this week’s Top 25, Wild Birds on the Edge. With 1 in 8 wild birds listed as at-risk on the IUCN Redlist, we dedicate this week’s Top 25 to these birds, on the edge of extinction. The IUCN Redlist is the leading authority for categorising at-risk species, they use a number of criteria including extent of range, population trend and rate of decline to decide which category to place a species in. Their at-risk categories range from Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered and finally to Extinct in the Wild and Extinct. Here we present 25 of the best wild bird photographs. As society becomes more aware of the plight of threatened birds, more attention and funds are directed towards conserving these species. Thank you to everyone who submitted photographs this week, your photographs are so important for telling the story of these beautiful birds!

We will announce the theme for next week’s Top 25 this Sunday so keep at eye on our Facebook page! For more wild bird updates, check out our Instagram and Twitter accounts, as well as our Youtube channel.

A critically endangered White-backed Vulture in the Serengeti, Tanzania. Vultures worldwide are under threat because of toxins in the carcasses they eat, these toxins include veterinary drugs, lead and poison laced within carcasses to kill predators or sometimes vultures themselves (Owen Deutsch)These critically endangered Waved Albatross breed mainly on the Galapagos island, Española. The main threat facing this species is being caught as by-catch on long-line fisheries (Melissa Penta)The Critically Endangered Hooded vulture is native to sub-saharan Africa. The hooded Vultures are Smaller than many other African vulture species, such as the Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures, and as a result they are usually dominated by other species at carcasses (Goutam Mitra)The Kashmir Flycatcher is considered vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist. This is due to habitat loss in their breeding range- the forests of the Kashmir region in northern india (Dr. S. Alagu Ganesh)The Near-threatened Grey-headed Bulbul is a restricted range species, found only in the western ghats. the protected areas in this region, like the thattekad bird sanctuary, are very important in keeping this species from declining further (Sekar PS Photography)An endangered saker falcon photographed in Bikaner, India. These birds are mainly affected by the loss of grassland habitat, electrocution and trapping for falconry (Pinakin Patel)This endangered South Island Takahē of New Zealand was rediscovered in 1948 after being thought to be extinct. They are protected within the Fiordland National Park and have also been translocated to a number of New Zealand’s islands which are considered safe habitat (Michal Richter)The Sociable Lapwing is considered Critically Endangered because of loss of steppe habitat in central Asia where they breed. They are also hunted on their flyways as they migrate to north Africa and India (Pinakin Patel)A vulnerable Schneider’s Pitta photographed in Kerinci Seblat National Park, Indonesia (Mohit Kumar Ghatak). This park should be a safety net for this restricted range species but hunting and snaring is common within the park itselfAn endangered Steppe Eagle takes flight in Little Rann of Kutch, India (Soumitra Ghosh). These eagles have declined because of conversion of their steppe habitats to agriculture, as well as persecution and electrocution on powerlinesA Near-threatened Great Thick-knee calling. Breeding success is low in these birds because of human disturbance at their nests and people collecting the eggs (Pallabi Mitra)The Redwing is generally common but recent declines in Europe of between 25 and 30% have led to them being listed as Near-Threatened. They are affected by climate change and illegal trapping in the Mediterranean (John Parkinson)in the early 1990s The MacGueen’s Bustard was nearly hunted to extinction in the Middle East. Here the meat is considered an aphrodisiac. Now hunting is more regulated and there is a bustard captive breeding program, however the wild population continues to decline, they are listed as vulnerable (Jobin J Valiyaparambil)While the Greater Flamingo is very common, the Lesser Flamingo is declining. This is because they only have a few breeding sites across Africa and many of these are threatened by human activities like mining (Pallabi Mitra)The Lesser Adjutant used to be widespread but due to unregulated harvesting of eggs and chicks in some parts of Asia it is now vulnerable (Debtapas Das)The endangered Lappet-faced Vulture is the largest vulture in Africa, they will often be dominant at carcasses (Ganesh Rao B)These beautiful African Grey Parrots are endangered because they are harvested in the wild for the pet trade (Elaine Henley)There are only between 300 and 500 critically endangered Great Indian Bustards left in the wild. Hunting and loss of grassland habitats are the main cause of decline. These birds were photographed in the Desert National Park, India, this park is a stronghold for the species (Suranjan Mukherjee)The Great Hornbill of south-east Asia and the Western Ghats of India is near-threatened due to the loss of its forest habitat (Prashanna Photography)The near-threatened Ferruginous Duck has declined as their river habitat is disturbed and altered by humans. In addition an estimated 1500-2500 birds are shot every year as they migrate through the Volga Delta to Africa (Anirban Roychowdhury)The Nilgiri Pipit is endemic to the western ghats of India. Due to a declining population, related to their restricted range and disturbance in their grassland habitats, they are considered vulnerable on the IUCN redlist (Pallavi Sarkar)The endangered Elfin Wood Warbler can only be found in the forests of Puerto Rico (Raymond De Jesús Asencio)One of the most striking of the vultures, the Egyptian Vulture. They are endangered and declining over most of their range, although in Spain the population appears to be increasing (Pinakin Patel)The vulnerable Blue-capped Kingfisher is found only in the montane forest of the Philippines, a habitat which is increasingly disturbed and fragmented (Mohit Kumar Ghatak)This beautiful bird is a Bali Myna and it is critically endangered, with only 50 birds in the wild. This species only occurs in two small areas of Bali, thanks to captive release programs the status of this species has improved in the last 10 years (Arun Samak)

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!!

Edited by Christie Craig, Campaign Manager

Top 25 Wild Birds Against Spectacular Landscapes

Originally posted 2018-02-09 16:27:32.

Red pandas, climate change, and the fight to save forests

This is a troubling scenario, as nearly 70% of suitable red panda habitat in Sikkim is located outside of designated protected areas. How much habitat will be available to accommodate potential range shifts is unknown. Human activities are taking a toll on local forests. And unless these forests are secured, red pandas may have an uncertain future in a changing climate. 

WWF is helping communities in Sikkim protect forests and ensure that, even with rising temperatures, the red panda has a secure place to call home. Specifically, WWF and its Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund are working to decrease human impacts on Sikkim’s forests through use of improved cookstoves, sustainable harvesting of forest products, and reducing the risk of forest fires.

In communities bordering red panda habitat, most households rely on firewood from the forest as their primary source of cooking fuel. To combat the loss of trees, project staff have now trained 23 families in the manufacture and installation of new cookstoves that require less fuel. Residents have noticed a change: the new cookstoves reduce fuelwood use by up to 35% per household, cut cooking times in half, and significantly lower indoor air pollution.  

Originally posted 2018-04-10 12:00:00.

Top 25 Migratory Wild Birds

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)

Top 25 Wild Waterbirds

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!!

Edited by Christie Craig, Campaign Manager

Originally posted 2018-03-09 20:13:02.

Conservation on the move

One muggy morning, a group of uniformed fifth graders files from their classroom and forms a circle in the grassy common of State Elementary School 192. At their center, wielding a microphone, a compact, energetic man named Samsuardi counts them into groups of three, and announces their roles: Ones and threes will grasp each other’s shoulders, representing large, shady trees in the forest; twos are elephants, which must hide under the trees for shelter.

The elephants dutifully find trees to crouch beneath. “HUNTER!” Samsuardi shouts, his high-pitched voice ricocheting off the compound walls. The elephants scurry out from under the trees to the edge of the field. He calls them back, then bellows, “LOGGER! LOGGER!” This time the trees flee, giggling as they miraculously uproot themselves and leave the elephants exposed.

The game looks like anything you’d expect to see on a playground, until Samsuardi ends it with a mini conservation lesson. “It’s important to keep elephants and trees together,” he tells the students, his tone serious now. “If there is no forest, the elephants will suffer.”

Originally posted 2018-02-07 13:00:00.

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