The Glorious Primitive Crane Fly

(Patagonia’s Untold Stories)

Scraping sand grains and pebbles for nutrients, it has wandered the river bed for ten months.  After hiding from predators under submerged rocks it is time to leave the safety of the river behind.

Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus)  collection site. PHOTO BY R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Among the rarest species of insects in the world, Araucoderus gloriosus belongs to one of four primitive crane fly species found in South America. Is its rarity a result of what is happening?

Its instincts drive it in search of entangled root mats of marginal vegetation. For that, it must cross a hazardous field of exposed cobblestone. Its body is being pulled against the moist rocks. The unfamiliar sensation of gravity is sobering.

Devoid of legs, it pulls its heavy body forward with its mandibles.

Dawn enshrouds the river bank with a dense mantle of fog. There, not too far from the river’s edge, partially compressed between two fist-sized rocks, the putrid pupal remains of another of its kind is being consumed by scuttle fly larvae; an ominous sign of what lies ahead.

The chaotic arrangement of the rocks and the impoverished diatom film covering them, laid evidence of a violent recent flood, a humbling reminder of the power of the elements.

If it is to survive, the larva must hurry. The morning sun’s rays will soon dissipate the fog, exposing the migrating larva to predators.

It has begun. Hungry ground-dwelling birds scout the surface, while other small passerine birds circle above looking for an easy meal. Deadly parasitic wasps are in search of prey; their young will consume their host from the inside out.

The fourth molt allowed the eyeless larva to develop light-metering primitive eyes, an elemental predatory avoidance tool.

Scanning Electron Micrograph of Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) larval head capsule. Photo by R. Isaí Madriz

Halfway from the marginal vegetation, it begins to burrow into the moist sand.

As I observe sitting motionless on top of a large rock I ask myself: Was the drastic behavior change triggered by the continuous sensation of morning rays? Is the larva aware of the constant danger from predators? Perhaps it senses imminent risk of desiccation.

As the day passes by I wait patiently. The night belongs to bizarre creatures. Found only in Patagonia, stoneflies over two inches in length are taking over the night. Emerging in mass, they invade the land in search of a safe place to complete their transformation to adulthood.

At last, the larva reached the entangled root mats of the marginal vegetation. It searches for a secure moist area to begin its transformation. Pupation is the most vulnerable stage in its life cycle.

Its larval skin has been shed. The thin and translucent pupal skin presents a unique view to its internal organs. Highly sensitive long hairs arranged in crucial areas of its body alert of changes in its surroundings.

Safe in the moist microhabitat, its clear skin darkens with the passing days. Within, its organs reorganize for the last time.

A few days pass by and the pupa’s skin is hardened, a promising indication of a successful metamorphosis

Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) pupa habitus ventral (left) and lateral (right)view. Illustration by R. Isaí Madriz

High above, recent snowfall failed to remain on the mountaintop. An unexpected flood engulfs the river bank, dislodging the pupa from its shelter. Trapped in the increasing current, the river gradient steepens, as whitewater fills the increasingly narrowing channel.

Unable to move its developing appendages, the pupa relies on buoyancy for survival. It must keep the two respiratory organs on its head above the water or it will drown.

Several hundred yards downstream, in a small foamy pool in the splash zone of a 20ft waterfall, a newly emerged adult male hangs on to the vertical side of a small rock, its discarded pupal skin floats among plant debris. With luck he will spread his wings for the first time.

Nearby, holding on to the exposed roots in the undercut riverbank, a female completes her metamorphosis. At the same time, hanging from the marginal vegetation, camouflaged by their exquisite coloration, males wait for receptive females to take flight.

The male at the base of the waterfall flies away in search of a warmer, drier place away from the cold mist. As I wade through the river, following the male’s path, I feel the soothing sensation of the sun warming my skin. The male’s adult body is being illuminated by the sun for the first time. Does he feel the same calming sensation as I do?

Its dull flight pattern and slow speed diversify, as the morning rays stimulate a graceful aerial dance revealed for the first time before my eyes. I stand motionless in the middle of the river, in awe. The exquisite wing pattern is complemented by an iridescent hue reflecting the sun’s rays. This fly is indeed glorious.

Stacked image of the Primitive crane fly (A. gloriosus) adult hanging from a Magellan’s beech (Nothofagus betuloides) branch. Photo by R. Isaí MadrizR. ISAÍ MADRIZ collecting A. gloriosus larvae. PHOTO BY Gregory R. Curler

In a blink of an eye the magic dissipates. The male is tackled out of the air and onto the overhanging vegetation by a dragonfly several times his size. The predator perches on a broad leaf a few feet away from where I stand. I watch in shock, as it slowly consumes the primitive crane fly, discarding the legs and wings as it gradually devours the thorax. Several thoughts run through my head: How does the fly process pain? Does he? What thoughts would be passing through the fly’s brain? Does he have any?

In the upcoming days little more is revealed of this species’ secretive adult behavior. The population size is a fraction compared to what it was two years prior. With adults becoming increasingly harder to find, their short adult life span and the ever-changing weather make the task at hand troublesome.

With the season passing, the adult population vanishes. It is cold, but the mountaintops have yet to retain any snowfall. Weather fluctuations turn what should be snow into rain, preventing accumulation of snow and consequently scouring the riverbed through the intensifying glacial melts that feed the river. Can this species survive the ongoing climatic challenges, or will it embrace the imminent fate of the bleeding glaciers that it fully depends on?

* The story above is an accurate assemblage of observed field events from 2013­–2018 complemented by a scientific investigation on the species depicted.

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.

Originally posted 2018-04-21 04:19:01.

Turn the Plastic Tide—for Seabirds, the Environment, and Human Health

When the United States Embassy in New Zealand asks if you’ll do an Earth Day post about impacts of mismanaged waste on the global environment—with a focus on seabirds—what do you do? Quick, call Lilly Sedaghat and Steph Borrelle!

Sedaghat is one of my four fellow Fellows (2017-2018 Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, that is), currently studying waste management in Taiwan. Borrelle is a seabird researcher I’ve worked with during my own storytelling project in New Zealand. She’s based in Auckland but will soon head to Canada as a Smith Fellow focusing on mitigation of plastic pollution.

This week Borrelle, Sedaghat, and I had a group video chat about the plastic problem: what’s so bad about the situation we’re in (for seabirds, humans, and the environment), and what we can do about it. Our conversation about this massive topic is massively simplified below…

Lilly Sedaghat, Steph Borrell, and Abby McBride

How does plastic pollution affect humans and the environment? (And how do seabirds fit into that story?)

Plastic is flooding into the ocean with ever-growing speed: around 8 million metric tons of it entered the sea in 2010, projected to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. Besides being disturbing to think about, that gargantuan amount of nondecomposing material does all sorts of damage. One of plastic’s most insidious roles, Borrelle said, is as a sponge for toxins. When animals eat microplastics and are in turn eaten by other animals, those toxins get passed up the food chain and concentrated in apex predators—like seabirds, and humans.

In some parts of the world, including New Zealand, humans may actually ingest toxin-laced plastics through seabirds. As we speak, there’s a traditional annual seabird harvest happening on the southern New Zealand islands, just off of Rakiura (where I’m stationed right now). About 400,000 sooty shearwaters—known by Māori as tītī—are harvested on these islands every year, Borrelle said. She is working on a project involving the passage of toxins from plastics to seabirds to humans, and has colleagues studying how that phenomenon “is being translated into human health impacts.” It’s an issue particularly in need of investigation, she noted, because these indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by other negative social and economic factors.

Unsurprisingly, plastic can also harm the seabirds themselves. Toxins carried by ingested microplastics can be absorbed into body tissues; many such chemicals are estrogen mimickers that can cause reproductive problems. Larger plastic fragments pose other problems with fatal results—they can damaging internal organs when eaten, or simply entangle and drown wildlife. The biggest problem, Borrelle said, is when parents feed chicks a regurgitated meal containing plastics, which ends up killing the young birds through starvation and dehydration. Zooming out to the population level, a lot remains to be studied. Borrelle is in the midst of a project looking at the factors that might influence seabirds to ingest plastic, to see if it’s possible to predict the risk for species we don’t have data on yet. She has hopes to get more studies running, with the collaboration of groups such as the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, to find out more about plastic ingestion and the impacts on wildlife in understudied regions.

It pays to investigate these effects on seabirds, and not just for their own sake. Being long-lived and slow-reproducing animals that spend their lives on the ocean, seabirds are particularly good bioindicators of ocean health. “They’ve been telling us about these sort of plastic pollution levels since the 1970s,” Borrelle said. “New Zealand was one of the first places we found plastic in birds,” specifically in fairy prions washed up on the beach. In the northern hemisphere, she said, a study on northern fulmars is “one of the longest and most extensive plastic ingestion monitoring programs for any species,” but much more study is needed in the southern hemisphere. Seeing Antarctic albatrosses coming from the southern ocean with plastic in them, Borrelle said, brings home the direness of the situation.

What can people do to turn the tide of plastic pollution?

To combat the plastic problem, individual people can take responsibility for their trash—in terms of choosing and using materials, as well as channeling those materials onward to waste management systems. Sedaghat is leading by example: she is currently video-blogging her 12-day zero-plastic waste challenge, and on an ongoing basis is providing resources for people to understand waste management systems and how best to use them (e.g. “7 things you didn’t know about plastic and recycling“).

But in order to navigate that complexity, people have to care—enough to pay attention and change their habits. Borrelle has encountered plenty of resistance while working to make the city of Auckland plastic-bag free. “People like convenience,” she said. “A lot of people tend to resist change when they think it’s going to affect their quality of life.” One way of convincing people that the effort is worthwhile: putting the unsavory effects of plastic into the forefront of public consciousness. Sedaghat is currently working on ways of doing that in Taiwan. “A lot of the challenge has to do with people not visually seeing or being affected personally in their own lives by the results of plastic over the long term: how it affects sea animals, how it affects the human body.”

So educating individuals on consumption, disposal, and effects of plastic is vital. But individuals’ ability to control their own plastic use and disposal depends on many factors, including what products are available to them and what waste management systems are set up where they live. A recycling symbol, Sedaghat notes, is by no means a guarantee that waste is being recycled. In both New Zealand and Taiwan, a lot of “recycling” is currently going straight to the dump (more so now that China has stopped accepting imports of plastic waste), simply because there are insufficient facilities and systems in place. “Recycling companies are only effective if there’s money to be made off those recycled products,” Sedaghat said.

That concept holds true at the production end as well as the disposal end. “Everything comes down to the market, and the price in the market, and what people want in the market,” Sedaghat said. Real change comes from governments pushing against the big industries that have control over the market—which in case of plastics is none other than the petroleum industry. So how can individuals play a role in that change? How can you make a dent in the sea of plastic packaging that greets you in the supermarket, or a city-wide waste system that channels your recycling to the dump?

I asked if community groups provide that much-needed bridge between individuals and the larger political and economic game, and Sedaghat and Borrelle concurred. “Community groups have been the strongest leaders in actually pushing forward these kinds of initiatives,” Borrelle said. She cited the case of New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, where islanders had their own system with “an incredibly high quality of recoverable waste” that was in high demand for overseas buyers.  “That kind of grassroots movement is really important for providing evidence to governments that people actually want to see change.”

Steph Borrelle, Lilly Sedaghat, and Abby McBride

What’s the outlook for the plastic problem?

There are parallels between the anti-plastic mission, Borrelle said, and the crusade against smoking that began in the 20th century. Notably, each of those movements has involved standing up against the marketing and lobbying of a giant industry. “Plastic and oil are intimately related,” she said. “Eight percent if not more of the oil extracted every year is turned into plastic products—so you are fighting against this massive propoganda machine.”

That battle includes dispelling fear-mongering rooted in industry interests. “The idea that you would ‘lose jobs’ is a scary thought, but the reality is that people will adapt to what the market desires,” Sedaghat said. She described a situation in Taiwan where plastic manufacturers—many of them small family businesses—adapted instantly to a demand for corn starch plastics by overseas companies. “They literally just take the same system, same machines, and they just insert the corn-based pellets versus the oil-based pellets into the machines to create the plastics,” she said.  “And they’re able to do that because there’s money that’s made.”

As the smoking status quo has taken decades upon decades to shift, we can expect a similarly prolonged time frame for improvement in plastic waste management. “Social change can be super slow,” Borrelle said, yet it snowballs as people are influenced by the shifting attitudes of their peers. In another parallel, methods that proved effective in changing attitudes about smoking can be applied to plastics. One such strategy for inducing change—particularly at the legislative level—is focusing on human health impacts, which are closely tied to environmental health impacts particularly where plastics are concerned.

Despite the rampant overuse of plastic bags and other single-use products that will never decompose and really shouldn’t be brought into the world by sane humans, it’s important to remember that plastics are invaluable for certain purposes, Borrelle said. Among other things they can offer crucial benefits in medical fields, furnish vital access to clean water and food, and help save the day after natural disasters. But plastic production and use needs to be accompanied by an infrastructure that can actually handle the waste, without the egregious environmental damage we’re seeing right now.

“It’s always more complex than these really simplistic ideas that get bandied about,” Borrelle said. “But if we don’t do anything, the long-term impacts are going to be incredibly severe.”

This has been a very superficial dip into a deep issue that I’m just starting to learn about. To really dive into it, follow Steph Borrelle and Lilly Sedaghat as they each investigate how to turn the plastic tide—for the benefit of seabirds, humans, and everything else.

Originally posted 2018-04-20 03:00:08.

Seabird Riches on the Poor Knights Islands

In the far north of New Zealand lie the rugged Poor Knights Islands, off-limits to terrestrial tourism, but surrounded by a stunning marine reserve containing one of Jacques Cousteau’s top ten dive sites. Why are these prismatic waters so rich with life? One likely factor is the abundance of seabirds that breed here, bringing nutrients they’ve consumed at sea and depositing them on land—with a cascade of effects on the coastal ecosystem.

It’s a rare privilege to see the underwater world around this archipelago, but even luckier is being part of a research expedition with a special permit to go ashore. Along with the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust and Radio New Zealand’s Alison Ballance, I caught a ride on a dive boat to one of the Poor Knights Islands to study its influential (yet elusive) seabird inhabitants.Aorangi Island (Illustration by Abby McBride)

Buller’s shearwaters or rako are slender seabirds that traverse the Pacific and can be seen off the California coast (where they’re sometimes called New Zealand shearwaters), but their only nesting place worldwide is right here. Aside from enriching the Poor Knights ecosystem with their guano, the birds have also used their clawed feet to engineer a unique landscape. The forest floor here is largely a forest crust, with a vast city of burrows beneath.

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Visiting the home of the shearwaters is a multi-sensory experience. You land in a dinghy on sharp volcanic rocks with a surge and a splash. You spend a couple of hours lugging loads of gear across the craggy shoreline, encircled by a 360-degree technicolor vista of towering cliffs and sun-filled waters. You climb into the shady forest and set up your tent, smack in the middle of a neighborhood of musky-scented nest burrows. (They seem to be deserted during the day, but you know better).

You spend mornings and afternoons struggling up and down steep forest slopes, tracking down audio recorders to switch out their batteries and SD cards—meanwhile walking above thousands of shearwater burrows and taking great pains not to break through their roofs. You lie face down in the leaf litter and reach your entire arm into many of those burrows, each time hoping to feel a spirited nip from the fluffy chick you’ll be measuring, rather than the reptilian bite of a lurking tuatara.

Aorangi Island (Illustration by Abby McBride)

But perhaps the most remarkable sensory dimension of a Poor Knights seabird expedition is the soundscape. When the sun goes down and darkness falls, the adult shearwaters fly in from the ocean, crashing through the canopy and landing with spectacular thumps on the forest floor. After scuttling to find their burrows and feed their chicks, they spend the rest of the night making a grand old racket of yelps and cackles all around your tent. Just before daybreak they climb up boulders and trees, launching themselves back through the trees and out to sea, leaving stillness behind—soon broken by the musical dawn chorus of bellbirds.

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If you’re wishing you could experience this for yourself, great news! Ballance has produced a transportive RNZ episode about our trip. Take a few moments to listen in (and don’t miss her written story, which includes some photos of the resident sketch biologist).

Originally posted 2018-04-16 13:43:32.

Finding the World’s Most Endangered Gull

When I set out to find a nesting colony of the most endangered gull in the world, I fully expected to fail. Not that it should be hard to find if you’re in the right place, and I was—the river-crossed interior of New Zealand’s South Island. The black-billed gull (which is not a seagull) nests mainly on gravel river islands in the far south, feeding on little critters in the rivers and nearby farm fields.

Still, I suspected I might not run into any black-billed gulls at all, because I’m a haphazard naturalist and my usual technique is to bumble along and see what I see. This time I bumbled my way to the unassuming town of Lumsden, where there was a camping area near the Oreti River. Thanks to a tip from nature filmmaker Bill Morris, I knew this was one of the rivers where black-bills had nested in previous years. He’d asked me to let him know if I found a colony, because he was keen to film one. I’d said I would, omitting my fairly confident prediction that it wasn’t going to happen.

The black-bill is the only gull in the world classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Ten years ago the population was estimated at 90,000 adults, but it’s been dropping precipitously for decades. Some of the culprits are invasive predators, invasive weeds encroaching on nest habitat, invasive people driving cars through active colonies, and effects of ocean warming on the fish and marine invertebrates that black-bills eat in the nonbreeding season.

It was late afternoon on Christmas Day when I arrived at my Lumsden campsite to search for some of these beleaguered gulls. I had spent the previous night sleeping in my car on a mountain pass (ignoring the stares of several bemused sheep) and at that point I was pretty hungry and tired. But like a committed finder of endangered species, I walked straight over to the river, eyes on the alert for small, pale, long-billed gulls. I found a vast gravel expanse, completely devoid of birds.

Oreti River (by Abby McBride)
No gulls here


Any spark of optimism that I may have been indulging died away immediately. Fortunately, my hopes had been so low that I wasn’t very disappointed. I reverted to my usual abstracted state and started strolling down the river, with an eye out for anything that might come along. I strolled until I couldn’t stroll any farther, having reached a point where two streams converged from either side of me. I strolled back upstream until the gravel beach shrank to nothing and the river was flush with the wall of streamside shrubbery. Oh well, at least I’d tried, I thought. I was about one second away from heading back to the campsite to eat and sleep.

Then I saw something in the distance—upriver, near a distant highway bridge to the north. A handful of white birds flying around. They couldn’t be. I raised my binoculars. They were.

With visions of food and a nap slipping away, I scurried back to camp and got in my car, drove to the highway, and parked at the bridge. I saw no trace of the birds. Where did they go? Maybe they were following a school of fish down the river, I thought, ruing my ignorance about their feeding habits (ahem: haphazard naturalist). I started walking south along the river, with my hopes dying down again. But I rounded a bend and saw them: a dozen or so black-billed gulls wheeling around.

I would have been happy getting a glimpse of a single black-billed gull, and here was a great look at a whole bunch of them, alive with sound and motion. It was thrilling. Then, as I got closer, I noticed the ground beneath them. It was completely white with gulls. This was no mere feeding frenzy: I’d stumbled onto a breeding colony.

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There were hundreds and maybe thousands of birds on the ground. It was hard to tell how many because they were packed on a flat gravel island, raised above the stream level and shielded by some grasses. I was shocked to have actually found what I was looking for.

My Christmas dinner (pasta and leftover snacks) tasted particularly delicious that night. My sleeping bag was especially comfortable.

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The next morning Bill showed up and we spent a full day with the black-billed gulls. I sketched and he filmed, and later he cautiously sent his camera drone over the colony. “You can see tire tracks from cars driving through,” he said. “Wonder if they’ve been going through while the gulls are there—I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had.”

After we’d spent hours moving slowly toward the edge of the colony, a guy with a fishing pole appeared and walked right through it, scattering gulls right and left. I half expected him to ask us what we were doing, and I half hoped he would. “Well, we’re observing the most endangered gull in the world; what are you doing?“ I wouldn’t have actually said that.

But really, I’m reasonably sure that the fisherman didn’t realize the impact of his actions. Would anyone treat this bird and its habitat differently if they knew it wasn’t just a seagull, but a unique and endangered species? I think many people would.

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.

Black-billed gulls (by Abby McBride)

Originally posted 2018-02-10 06:49:32.

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.

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