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.

Quick Stop at the Petrel Station

I drove through Punakaiki recently.

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.

Westland sunset by Abby McBride

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.

Westland petrel by Abby McBride

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.

Un Enfoque Divertido para los Educadores para Involucrar a los Estudiantes en Biodiversidad de Insectos & Cambio Climático

LOGOTIPO DEL JUEGO. DISEÑO R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Los insectos generalmente no son muy atractivos a los ojos de muchos, fuera de las coloridas y “carismáticas” mariposas y escarabajos. ¿Cómo mostrar a las moscas y “gusanos” de una manera interesante y atractiva? El secreto está en exponer las vidas secretas de los insectos. ¿Sabías que puedes usar “gusanos” para ver si el agua del río es buena para beber? ¿Sabías que hay zancudos primitivos que han sobrevivido sin muchos cambios desde la época de los dinosaurios (período Jurásico)? ¿Y qué pensarías si te dijera que hay familias enteras de moscas que parasitan arañas tan grandes como las tarántulas? ¿O qué hay larvas de moscas acuáticas que poseen ventosas hidráulicas ventrales las cuales las mantienen firmemente agarradas a las rocas sumergidas

¿Cómo se puede involucrar a mentes jóvenes en temas complejos como el cambio climático, la conservación, el endemismo y los bioindicadores en un paquete divertido?

Este juego gratuito está destinado a servir tanto a niños en desarrollo típico como a niños en desarrollo atípico (como aquellos con autismo leve y otras necesidades especiales). Los materiales abarcan palabras escritas que el niño o el maestro pueden leer en voz alta, fotos para la representación visual y piezas táctiles para mejorar la comprensión.

Hay dos componentes principales de este enfoque educativo: 1) el juego y 2) reflexión intelectual (el rol del educador).

El Juego

Los estudiantes participan en una combinación de temas que incluyen descubrimientos de especies, endemismo, cambio climático, especies introducidas y biomonitoreo a través de la exploración, el descubrimiento y el pensamiento proactivo.

El tablero de juego es una composición  artística de imágenes satelitales de la geología y hábitats de la Patagonia (Aysén, Chile).

Tablero de juego con explicación de figuras. Diseño R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Como “exploradores”, los jugadores parten hacia una tierra desconocida, por donde viajaran a diferentes hábitats en busca de especies de insectos raras y nuevas, las cuales deben ser adquiridas a través de herramientas específicas para cada especie (red de insectos, pinzas, etc.) Estas herramientas sólo pueden obtenerse respondiendo preguntas sobre la biodiversidad. Las preguntas variarán según el grupo de edad de los jugadores.

Durante el juego, los exploradores se encontrarán con especies introducidas y aprenderán sobre su impacto en el medio ambiente (cómo se desplazan /superan las especies endémicas). Asimismo, aprenderán sobre el microhábitat donde habita cada especie.

El enfoque de bioindicadores es simple y tiene como objetivo proporcionar a los estudiantes una sencilla comprensión de su uso como bioindicadores, así como una visión simplista de cómo identificar a los grupos.

En su andar, los jugadores pueden adquirir, a través de la adquisición de un comodín, una “especie invasora” y tratarán de encontrar una manera de “lidiar con” (controlar) las especies invasoras que se establecieron en la nueva tierra del jugador.

El juego está destinado para tener un enfoque de grupo. El jugador con más especies no es el ganador, por el  contrario, el objetivo del juego es discutir e interpretar los diversos insectos y su información de hábitat para crear un equilibrio.

Los insectos seleccionados para esta primera versión del juego son una combinación de especies nuevas, carismáticas y poco conocidas. La información sobre insectos proporcionada se basa en información de publicaciones científicas y en relatos precisos e inéditos de la historia natural de la especie seleccionada.

Tarjeta de especies con explicación de figuras. Diseño R. Isaí Madriz

Reflexión Intelectual (el rol del educador)

El maestro no necesita ser un experto en entomología para usar este juego con los estudiantes. El rol de el es facilitar el aprendizaje antes y después de jugar el juego. Antes de iniciar el juego, el maestro puede dar una introducción a temas generales, como la biodiversidad, los ecosistemas, etc. El enfoque del juego puede ajustarse a los requisitos del plan de estudios del aula.

Al final del juego, el maestro guiará un intercambio intelectual entre los jugadores con el fin de ayudarse unos a otros a lograr “un planeta en equilibrio” basado en los insectos que recolectaron. Se sugiere el fomentar discusiones adicionales para que los estudiantes reflexionen sobre lo que aprendieron y por qué es importante.

El objetivo de la reflexión intelectual es estimular a los estudiantes a que expliquen su razonamiento sobre cómo jugaron el juego y su estrategia de crear un ecosistema diverso y saludable. Hay un gran potencial para lograr diversas perspectivas y resultados, lo que crea un proceso de aprendizaje más valioso.

R. Isaí Madriz adquiriendo información sobre moscas de torrente para el juego. Foto Anand Varma.

Nota: Esta herramienta de aprendizaje fue inspirada por diez años de trabajo en educación, conservación y experiencia científica colaborando con distintas comunidades en todo el continente americano en temas de conservación para ayudar a los educadores a involucrar a sus alumnos y llevar las maravillas de la exploración y los descubrimientos científicos al aula.

Este juego y sus componentes se pueden adaptar a cualquier parte del mundo en dimensiones tan pequeñas como un municpio hasta un un continente y más allá. Además, se puede adaptar para diversos estilos de aprendizaje y actualmente se está desarrollando en español e inglés.

* Para obtener más información, incluidas las reglas del juego y el acceso a archivos PDF de los componentes, comuníquese por medio de la sección de comentarios de este blog o mande un mensaje a [email protected]

Sigue a Isaí Madriz en InstagramFacebook or Twitter.

El equipo usado para este proyecto de nueve meses es cortesía de Fulbright, National GeographicIridiumAlpacka RaftAqua-BoundBoo BicyclesKokatatSeal LineOsprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Just a Seagull? Nope.

There’s no such thing as a seagull, according to certain pedantsHow can that be?

Because it’s a gull—actually, one of about fifty gull species living in habitats all over the world, oceanic and otherwise. They range from the size of a dove to the size of an osprey, with all sorts of differences in appearance and behavior. Three of those species live here in New Zealand—including the river-dwelling black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world. When I took my sketchbook and went looking for nesting gulls, I found some nests inches from the ocean and others 50 miles inland, which is about as far from the coast as you can get around here.

So…what’s wrong with calling a sea-affiliated gull a seagull? Sigh. Nothing, I guess. But by using more precise terms you can help discourage a tragic misconception: that there’s one kind of seagull, and it’s a rat with wings. In a single week I’ve watched a motorist drive casually into a flock of endangered black-billed gulls resting on the grass, cringed while a recreational fisherman traipsed through one of their breeding colonies on a river island, and heard stories about people shooting them for fun. They’re just seagulls, after all—they’re everywhere, all making a nuisance of themselves. Right?

Nope. Endangered or otherwise, each gull species is unique and deserves to be recognized as such, in my humble opinion. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to New Zealand’s gulls.

RED-BILLED GULL (Larus novaehollandiae)

The dainty red-billed gull is known as tarāpunga or akiaki in Māori. It’s the most common gull on New Zealand’s shores, so some people think of it as a pest. But in fact its population has been plummeting in response to things like invasive predators and changes in krill abundance caused by climate fluctuation. I think the red-billed gull is one of the dandiest birds around: sparkling white, with brilliant red accents and an attitude well out of proportion with its size.

BLACK-BILLED GULL (Larus bulleri)

The black-billed gull also goes by tarāpuka. Closely related to the common but declining red-billed gull, it’s of similar size and spunk but with a more elongated body, a more attenuated bill, and more of an emo expression. It nests in dense colonies on river islands and is the most endangered gull in the world. I generally avoid talking about politics, but I voted for the underappreciated black-billed gull in the New Zealand Bird of the Year elections. More about this gull in my next story.

SOUTHERN BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus dominicanus)

The southern black-backed gull is found all over the southern hemisphere, where it’s usually known as the kelp gull. Here in New Zealand it goes by karoro or simply “black-back”. Opportunistic scavengers, black-backed gulls have gotten more common in conjunction with human impacts on the landscape. Even among bird aficionados they have a villainous reputation, thanks to their habit of dining on eggs and chicks. But just look at how cute that black-backed gull family is…

In the next episode I’ll take you to a special gull colony I stumbled on. Meanwhile, remember: good or bad, a gull is never just a seagull.

Abby McBride (Photo: Edin Whitehead)Photo by Edin Whitehead

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Originally posted 2018-02-01 02:26:32.

A Fun Approach for Educators to Engage Students in Insect Biodiversity & Climate Change

Game logo. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

Insects are not generally appealing to most, outside the “charismatic” colorful butterflies and beetles. How can flies and “maggots” be presented in an interesting and appealing way? The secret lies in exposing the insects’ secret lives. Did you know that you can use “maggots” to see if the water from a stream is good to drink? That there are primitive crane flies that have survived seemingly unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs (Jurassic period)? What if I told you there are entire families of flies that parasitize spiders as big as tarantulas? Or that there are fly larva living in rivers with ventral hydraulic suckers that keep them firmly attached to the submerged rocks?

How can you engage young minds in complex topics like climate change, conservation, endemism and bioindicators of environmental health in one fun package?

This free game is meant to serve both typically developing children and atypically developing children (such as those with mild autism and other special needs). The materials encompass written words which can be read by the child or out loud by the educator, photos for visual representation, and tactile pieces to enhance understanding.

There are two main components to this educational approach: 1) the game and 2) facilitated discussion (the role of the educator).

The Game. 

Students engage in a combination of topics including species discoveries, endemism, climate change, introduced species and biomonitoring through exploration, discovery and proactive thinking.

The game board itself is an artistic composite of satellite images of geological features and habitats of Patagonia (Aysén, Chile).

Game board with Explanation of Figures. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

As “explorers” the players set off into an unknown land traveling to different habitats looking for rare and new species of insects, which must be acquired through species-specific tools (insect net, tweezers, etc.) These tools can only be obtained by answering questions about the biodiversity. The questions will vary according to the age group of the players.

Along the way, players will encounter introduced species and will learn about their impact on the environment (how they displace/outcompete endemic species). Likewise, they will learn about the microhabitat of where each species inhabits.

The bioindicator approach is simple and aims to provide the students with a broad understanding of their use as bioindicators as well as a simplistic view of how to identify the groups themselves.

Along the way, the players may acquire, through the draw of a wild card, an “invasive species” and they will try to figure out a way to “deal with” (control) the invasive species that established itself in the player’s new land.

The game is meant to have a group approach. The player with the most species is not the winner, rather the object of the game is to discuss and interpret the various insects and their habitat information to create a balance.

The insects selected for this game prototype are a combination of new, charismatic and poorly known species. The insect information provided is based on scientific facts from peer-reviewed publications and accurate unpublished accounts of natural history of the selected species.

Species Card with Explanation of Figures. Design by R. Isaí Madriz

Facilitated Discussion (the role of the educator).

The educator does not need to be an expert in entomology to use this game with the students. The educator is meant to help facilitate the learning before and after the game is played. An introduction of broad topics such as biodiversity, ecosystems, etc. can be presented prior to playing the game. The focus can be based on how the game’s material fits with the curriculum requirements of the classroom.

At the end of the game the educator will guide a discussion among players to help each other to achieve “a planet in balance” based on the insects they collected. Further discussion is encouraged so that students reflect on what they learned and why it is important.

The goal of the facilitated discussion is to encourage the students to explain their reasoning for how they played the game and their strategy of creating a diverse, healthy ecosystem. There is potential for many perspectives and outcomes, which creates a more powerful learning process.

R. Isaí Madriz acquiring torrent midge information for the game. Photo by Anand Varma.

Note: This learning tool was inspired by ten years of education, conservation and scientific experience working with local communities across the Americas in conservation topics to help educators engage their students and bring the wonders of exploration and scientific discoveries into the classroom.

This game and its components can be adapted to any part of the world in dimensions as small as a county to as large as a continent and beyond. As well, this game and its components/content can be adapted for diverse learning styles and is currently being developed in Spanish and English. 

*For more information including rules of the game and access to PDFs of the components, please reach out through the comment section of this blog or write to [email protected]

Follow Isaí Madriz on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Equipment used for this nine month project is courtesy of Fulbright, National Geographic, Iridium, Alpacka Raft, Aqua-BoundBoo Bicycles, Kokatat, Seal Line, Osprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

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