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How to Seabird in the Dark

I’m on a clifftop in the dark, on a remote island in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf. An inky sea lies below, unfamiliar constellations glitter above, and a bird has just flown straight into my hand.

Other pale squeaking shapes are brushing by me and bumping into me. A few minutes ago one smacked me in the eye. They started whirling in from the ocean at nightfall, forming a helter-skelter cloud over the vegetation on the cliff: a storm cloud of white-faced storm petrels.

White-faced Storm Petrel (Illustration: Abby McBride)

Surprised to be holding a seabird, I lift my hand into the beam of my headlamp (which I should remember to call a “headtorch” while I’m in New Zealand) and look at the small creature lying quietly on my palm. It has a brown back, a brown-streaked face with a white eyebrow, and a white belly that gleams ghostly in the darkness. Its beak is topped with an odd little tube, involved in filtering salt from the seawater it drinks. Folded against its body are long black legs and yellow-webbed feet. This is a bird that hops from wave to wave, nabbing beakfuls of krill while fluttering along the surface of the ocean.

Just a moment of looking, and then I shift my hold on its soft and delicate form, releasing it into the air to join its fellows. Storm petrels spend most of their lives at sea, but once a year they start paying nocturnal visits to certain islands, islands that are safe from the predators prowling the mainland. They’re about to carry out the annual business of nesting.

That’s why the birds are here. As for me, I came to Burgess Island yesterday on a boat with four seabird conservation scientists. We’re staying in a hut on the other side of the island, next to a lighthouse. Today we trekked over to these cliffs in the late afternoon, arrived just after sunset, and had a peaceful few minutes staring westward out to sea. Until dusk fell and this happened:


Yes, I could have used an audio clip, but then you wouldn’t get to see how dark it was…

Apparently this “whooping” technique is a standard way of luring seabirds to land. Either it worked on the storm petrels, or they were headed here anyway. Maybe some of both.

Now, an hour after their frenzied arrival, the birds are gradually settling to earth, milling around in the low-lying shrubbery that conceals a whole neighborhood of nest burrows. Auckland Museum curator (and lead seabird vocalist) Matt Rayner is weaving through the fragile colony with care. He checks the storm petrels for numbered bands, placed on their legs in previous visits, to keep tabs on how the population is faring. It’s faring unusually well.

Not long ago, Burgess Island had hardly any seabirds left, thanks to invasive predatory rats and to the nest-trampling livestock owned by the lighthouse keepers. But by the time the lighthouse was automated in 1980, the keepers and all of their cows, pigs, goats, and sheep had vacated the island. Ten years after that, Burgess was the site of the world’s first-ever helicopter drop of poison for rat control. Then it was finally safe for seabirds to start returning.

And return they did. Something like five thousand white-faced storm petrels share the island with chunky northern diving petrels, big grey-faced petrels, and nine other species of seabird.

Northern Diving Petrel and Grey-faced Petrels (Illustration by Abby McBride)

Nearby on the clifftop, Auckland University researcher Brendon Dunphy and grad student Edin Whitehead are sitting on a patch of rocky ground with diving petrels in their laps. They’re weighing these small, heavy birds by the light of their headlamps (headtorches!) and extracting blood samples, identifying ways to assess the health of the ocean by paying attention to seabird health. Auckland Council scientist Todd Landers is roaming around and capturing petrel sounds, part of long-term acoustic monitoring studies. All in the name of helping these birds, which are essential members of a maritime ecosystem we all depend on.

In New Zealand and everywhere, seabirds lead a precarious existence, victims to introduced predators, changing oceans, entanglement on fishing lines, and all sorts of other knotty problems on land and sea. The recovery of Burgess Island is a bright spot in the darkness: a flicker of hope that these birds still stand a chance.

Coming face to face with one of them tonight was startling and special, like learning a secret. The next time I stand outside at nightfall, with or without a headtorch, I’ll be picturing a cloud of storm petrels sweeping in from the ocean—wild, precious, and at our mercy.

 

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

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is exploring New Zealand with support from the Auckland Museum, sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in the “seabird capital of the world.” 

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