Sketches from Seabirdland

July 17 2017

I'm a sketch biologist sketching my way through the "seabird capital of the world"—New Zealand. I'm living out of a car and tent, hitching boat rides to remote islands, climbing down sea cliffs, and being chased by sea lions while pursuing penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Meanwhile I'm joining New Zealanders in their extraordinary efforts to save seabirds, the fastest declining group of birds worldwide.

July 17 2017

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Mission Underway

Voyage of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Part 2)


Day 4: All Aboard

At 9:00 a.m. the penguin-monitoring group arrived, with a van full of “fish bins” (which seem to be a standard packing container here in New Zealand) and duffel bags.

We made a human chain from the dock to the boat to get everything aboard. The rule was not to put anything on the ground, because it had all just undergone intensive quarantine, to make sure there were no stray seeds or other living things that could hitch a ride to the vulnerable Auckland Islands.

alt Bluff, New Zealand

The volunteers are mostly retirees. There’s a family doctor, an engineer, a pilot who introduced herself as Peanut, a forestry guy, and an American expat. There’s also a mid-career teacher from Tolaga Bay Area School, sponsored by the Sir Peter Blake Trust. There’s a Ph.D. student and master’s student from Massey University, who will stay out on one island for the whole New Zealand summer. Then there are the Department of Conservation rangers, four intrepid women from a few different towns in the southern South Island. On the crew are a retired captain who is a trustee for the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, a deer farmer, a recent university graduate, and me.

Yes, it’s a colorful group. Several people are wearing rainbow-striped tights under their shorts.

Leading us is our distinguished captain Steve, originally from England. He purchased this ship in 1984, having never set foot on a sailboat before, and has since built a life and career around Evohe.

We all gathered in the outdoor cockpit behind the enclosed wheelhouse. “It’s going to be rough ride,” Steve told the group. We departed the South Island and headed into Foveaux Strait, where a weirdly blue-gray sky loomed over an aquagreen sea.

alt Foveaux Strait

I watched seabirds with binoculars until the boat motion became prohibitive, and then I lapsed into opportunistic birding, which is an interesting experience in these conditions. An albatross would pop into view alongside the boat, at eye level and practically within arm’s reach, before disappearing as abruptly as it came. Then we’d heel over and suddenly I’d be looking straight down at two cape petrels sitting on the water.

alt Cape pigeons

After a few hours we came alongside Stewart Island and its satellite muttonbird islands, the final outpost of “mainland” New Zealand before the wide open sea. We pulled into Port Pegasus in the evening to spend one more night in a sheltered cove.

I keep having the slightly disorienting experience of arriving and leaving places while sequestered in the galley below. This time I missed our arrival because I was making chocolate chip cookies. The New Zealanders were not terribly familiar with this type of baked good, but it put me in good standing with the other American on board.

In our nice calm cove, shipboard life seemed pretty pleasant. Little did we know what was in store for us the next day.


Day 5: Onward from Pegasus

It all started benignly enough: we passed a peaceful hour in the cove by Port Pegasus, with terns diving to catch fish and Salvin’s mollymawks coasting around the boat. We even glimpsed our first yellow-eyed penguins and got excited to see more of them on the Auckland Islands.


And then…the passage began.

Evohe departed Port Pegasus with two sails up and the motor running for maximum speed. She immediately encountered rollicking seas, all day long and into the next, as we headed in the direction of Antarctica—into an immense, frigid ocean with no other boats. It didn’t take long to start thinking that maybe this whole thing was a crazy idea.

At one point crew member David catapulted across the wheelhouse and silently returned to his seat. “What are you doing, Dave?” asked fellow crew member Hamish, facetiously. David gave a sort of rueful shrug with his eyebrows. “You could ask the same of all of us.”

The boat adopted a permanent 45-degree average tilt to port, compounded by a lot of rocking as a confused sea smashed into the starboard beam. In the bathroom mirror I noticed my hair was also standing at a 45-degree angle, as was the towel hanging on a hook on the wall.

“It’s just part of the adventure, I suppose,” said DoC ranger Juzah, unconvincingly, as we braced ourselves against the thousandth lurch of waves crashing into the beam. “You have to deserve the penguin monitoring,” agreed fellow ranger Flo.

Everyone started out on the upper deck, in the cockpit and the wheelhouse, enjoying the view and fresh air. But numbers dwindled as people made their way below to their bunks, with varying degrees of control over their stomach contents.

alt Anxiety levels currently stable

Even people who had never been seasick before found themselves ill, including the retired sea captain. Supposedly there were only five of us who didn’t throw up. (Below, watch a one-minute excerpt of a many-minute voyage.)

Knowing I had to get up in the middle of the night to go on watch, I went to bed early. Getting into that bunk felt great.

I did my best to ignore the loud clangs of pots and dishes in the nearby galley, and the disconcerting phenomenon of my bedside porthole going underwater every now and then. Whenever there was a particularly violent tilt, I spent a few seconds wondering if we would come back up again.

At 11:57 p.m. I fell out of my bunk (more or less intentionally) to begin my watch.

Day 6: Hellish Passage to Paradise

As midnight struck I staggered up to the wheelhouse. The ship was pitching wildly and pitch black, but for some colored lights blinking on nautical devices. I spent the next four hours doing my best to stay awake and maintain control over my vivid visions of capsizing.

It had been hours and hours since we’d encountered another boat. We kept ploughing headlong through a vast, dark ocean toward nothing but some tiny islands, still hours and hours away.

At one point my watchmate, Hamish, and I realized the autopilot had stopped working and we’d been going the wrong direction for a minute or two. Fortunately it had just blown a fuse.

It was indeed a hellish night. By the end of the watch the seas seemed to have calmed just slightly. At 4:03 a.m. I fell back into bed and slept for most of the eight hours until my next watch, at noon.

A million years later, sitting lethargically around the wheelhouse, we finally saw land. “Land ho?” said volunteer Sharon, hopefully, looking around at the rest of us for confirmation. “Land! Land!”

And what interesting land it was. The rolling hills appeared to be coated with an unbroken canopy of large broccoli: rātā trees. I didn’t expect such a profusion of vegetation here.

I bundled up and went out on deck, feeling the keen breeze of the subantarctic and the keen relief of leaving a confined space. A delicate red-billed gull glided around the boat twice, within arm’s reach as it passed. We were in a cove encircled by the main Auckland Island, with smaller Rose and Enderby Islands off to the north. The afternoon sun illuminated the nearby mountain called “Sarah’s Bosom.”

alt Auckland Islands

Then a whale spouted—my first southern right whale! They breed here in Port Ross, but this was the first time the crew had ever seen one at this time of year.

Now the sun is low in the sky and the cold blue-green-gray landscape is warmed with yellows and pinks. It’s a subantarctic paradise, a place that few people ever reach. I feel almost like a real naturalist explorer.

Stay tuned for Part 3 (when we meet the yellow-eyed penguins of the subantarctic)…

Voyage of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin

Yellow-eyed penguins are heading toward extinction on mainland New Zealand. Their only other breeding habitat is hundreds of miles to the south on a handful of islands. In this multi-part story I join a surreal voyage to the all-but-inaccessible Auckland Islands, where we’re trying to find out how this gravely endangered penguin is faring in the subantarctic.


DAY 1: Shipping Out

I stood next to my car at the Fryatt Street dock in Dunedin, looking for a ship called Evohe. She was bound for the subantarctic Auckland Islands, 300 miles south of New Zealand.

My slot on the crew had fallen into place at the last minute. Since this was more or less the chance of a lifetime, I begged my feeble station wagon, Indy, to take me from Auckland in the North Island to Dunedin in the South Island in three days. With a slight assist from the Interislander Ferry, Indy pulled through.

A 25-meter sailing vessel sounds big, but when you see it in real life and contemplate your imminent departure toward the Antarctic Ocean, wow does it look small.

The captain and the rest of the crew showed up an hour after I did: they had been at the grocery store buying five trolleys‘ worth of produce (five grocery carts, in American). We transferred copious amounts of fruits and vegetables onto Evohe, squirreling it all away in compartments under floorboards and cupboards built into bunks.

Then we went back to the store for five more trolleys of dry goods.

The other three crew members are local, and apparently we’re not actually departing until tomorrow, so they’ve gone home and I’m the only one in the aft crew cabin this evening. I’ve crawled into my coffin-like bunk on the port side. Waves are slapping on the stern.

DAY 2: Bound for Bluff

The vaguely lobster-shaped Auckland Islands are ridiculously remote, have globally unique wildlife, and hold a reputation as a stronghold of the yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho in Māori), possibly the most endangered penguin in the world.

This species is well on its way toward disappearing from mainland New Zealand, thanks to a host of threats on land and at sea. Nobody is really sure how the rest of the population is doing on the subantarctic islands, because they’re so hard to access. That’s where this voyage comes in, the sixth of its kind in as many years.

I had the ship to myself all morning. Later I learned that skipper Steve spent the morning flying to Wellington and back to take care of paperwork for the voyage. Eventually he and the other crew members reappeared.

Our first stop will be in Bluff, the southernmost port of the South Island, where we will pick up two graduate students, four Department of Conservation rangers, and six penguin-monitoring volunteers. Then it’s off on the harrowing journey through the Southern Ocean. It’s much easier to get to Antarctica than it is to New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, I’m told.

First we had to get out of Dunedin. It seemed we were almost ready to embark. Just for good measure we went back to PAK’nSAVE for yet another five trolleys full of food.

At last, as the sun went down, we motored through the long, skinny Otago Harbour, leaving my car behind on the Dunedin dock to rest (and possibly lose all of his battery charge, based on recent experience). So long for now, Indy.

A rainbow stretched across the craggy landscape along the water, rainbow-adorned scenery being the norm in these parts. Just before getting out to sea we passed the famous northern royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the only mainland albatross colony in the southern hemisphere.

When we approached the red and green lights marking the channel, the mnemonic “red right returning” leapt familiarly to mind, before I saw that red was actually on our right as we departed. Everything just has to be different in New Zealand…

DAY 3: Ready About

We were underway all night, and still chugging along the coast until afternoon, passing the Catlins and other landmarks of the South Island. In the afternoon we arrived in the port of Bluff.

As we approached the dock I was assigned to leap from the boat and grab the lines. On cue, the skies opened up and poured. A few minutes later, when we finished tying up, the sun shone as if nothing had happened.

We spent the rest of the day washing the deck, refueling, cleaning the interior, and making up bunks. I went below to make potato leek soup and salad. Meanwhile the boat was moved three times, until we were finally in our rightful berth. Ready for tomorrow’s guests and final departure.


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Preparation Stage

Last-minute call to join a voyage to the subantarctic islands, to count yellow-eyed penguins!

I’m surprised and pleased to report that my feeble '98 Toyota station wagon, Indy, got me from Auckland to Dunedin in three days (with a necessary assist from the Interislander ferry, pictured at left) without breaking down once. And I made it in time to catch this boat.

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Sounds like fun!

What an adventure! Enjoy your time with the penguins!

Like much of New Zealand, Goat Island should be an ideal place for nesting seabirds. It even sits inside a marine reserve—the first such reserve in the country, established in 1975.

But the island has rats.

When Edin and I kayaked over to it, the first thing we found was neither an invasive mammal nor a seabird. It was a New Zealand fur seal snoozing in an inlet. Exhibit A, below.

But we quickly got down to business: our plan was to bushwhack all over the island, so Edin could monitor ("stick her arm into") all of the Grey-faced Petrel burrows where she had observed breeding activity earlier in the season.

"This is slightly depressing," she said after the first few minutes. "There were birds incubating in both of these burrows, and there's nothing in there now."


Not too long ago, the only mammals in New Zealand were marine mammals like that sleepy seal, plus a few bats. But thanks to human colonization and everything that came with it, native seabirds now have to contend with a slew of invasive mammals on land—damaging their breeding grounds and eating their babies.

As we looked in on burrow after empty burrow, we also came across some of the traps installed to keep rat numbers in check. Unfortunately, those wily rodents keep on swimming over from the mainland.

Finally Edin reached into a burrow and pulled out a ball of gray fluff with a beak. "I watched this one hatch!" she said, starting to weigh and measure it. "I'm super glad it's still around." In total, we found seven fluffy chicks, which was better than zero. We also found more rat traps, doing their job.

The last thing we found, before kayaking back to shore, was the seal—still snoozing.

Left: petrel chick. Right: me and my inflatable kayak (photo by Edin Whitehead).

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Apart of your whole expedition and will to document and do what you love (yes, I spend the last minutes reading about your expedition), this video made me chuckle and brought a ear to ear smile to my face. 100% relaxation time!
I will keep monitoring this Expedition for sure, amazing work!

Thank you! That seal was very committed to his nap.

Hey Abby!

I am a new follower of yours and I am enchanted by your expedition thus far!

Your latest post reminds me about my time exploring the Galapagos Islands a few years ago. The islands have a dark history regarding invasive species. Colonization, trading, and other factors have contributed to a plethora of negative transformations in the endemic wildlife. It is great to see you are accounting for factors such as these while conducting your research!

The seal video is so endearing as well. You do an incredible job of illustrating all your surroundings, even if certain animals are not the focus of your expedition. Looking forward to reading more!

Hey Megan! I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it. New Zealand sometimes reminds me of the Galapagos too – there are a lot of similar threats toward the native wildlife, that's for sure.

The voyage to and from rugged, rodent-inhabited Rakitū Island was marked by cetacean sightings. On the way out, bottlenose dolphins. On the way back the next day, an unusual glimpse of five blue whales. (Scroll down for illustrations.)

Within the steeply sloped forests of Rakitū itself, I found myself struggling through what may be the densest jungle I've ever attempted to traverse. At one point I gave up and tried crowd-surfing a thicket. I made it across.

After hours of scrambling—guided by weak GPS signals, spottily placed neon flagging, and a blurry map—we miraculously found each of the audio recorders we were looking for. (I less miraculously lost my water bottle in the process.)

In a barely accessible landscape like this one, acoustic recordings are one way to keep track of wildlife populations. Scientists use that kind of information when planning a conservation initiative—for example, an island-wide purge of invasive rodents.

Rat-ridden Rakitū is slated for an eradication in several months' time. Once the rats are gone, native wildlife—seabirds in particular—will be able to return to the island.

Left: Rakitū Island sketch. Right: In which I photobomb a notable whale sighting (photo by Edin Whitehead).

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After an afternoon trek along the coast, a group of us climbed the steep slopes of the Tawharanui Peninsula (video below) and settled into the grass, waiting for the sun to go down and the seabirds to fly in for the night.

During the climb I felt a bit sorry for Edin—appearing toward the end of the video—who was wearing yellow PVC overalls. But those overalls had already proven their worth. Edin was making frequent stops at seabird burrows to weigh the fluffy chicks hidden inside, and some of those chicks were projectile vomiting all over her.

Seabirds can nest here because Tawharanui is a "mainland island," more or less free of invasive mammals that prey on native birds, thanks to a special 2.5-km fence that cuts across the base of the peninsula. This protection is invaluable for land birds too. (Later that night, I heard some rustling in the bush and caught a glimpse of a kiwi in my headtorch.)

Waiting for the nightly seabird influx. Apparently I even sketch in my sleep. Photo by Chris Gaskin of the Seabird Trust.

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Always love reading your entries and seeing the corresponding sketches. They compliment each other so well.

Thanks, David! Very glad to hear it.

Fantastic! That you for sharing!

I'm told that little Maria Island—one of the Noises Islands in New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf—is the site of the first islandwide eradication of invasive rodents. That happened in the 1960s, and since then pest removal has saved native species on islands around the world.

When I visited Maria Island with Noises owner Sue Neureuter and seabird scientist Matt Rayner, we couldn't land the boat on the rocky shore. So I swam over to take a look. I climbed out of the cold water, up the barnacle-covered rocks, and onto the grassy slope.

But I didn't make it far up the hill. There was nowhere to step! The ground is riddled with the burrows of storm petrels and diving petrels that have returned to the island since it became rat-free.

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Music video or science documentary? This is both! We took a GoPro-rigged buoy out into New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf, where multitudes of hungry seabirds were tracking swarms of fish and krill just below the surface of the sea. The video below features Darlingside’s “The Ancestor” from the album Birds Say and underwater footage courtesy of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust.

Here are some of the things you’re seeing:

  • Clouds of wriggling krill among massive schools of blue mackerel
  • Fluttering shearwaters casually flying around underwater in pursuit of the krill
  • Thousands of fairy prions, Buller’s shearwaters (which breed on a single clump of islands in New Zealand, and nowhere else in the world), and other tubenose seabirds in flight
  • Cameo of a northern giant petrel coming in for a close look at our GoPro buoy

Now that we’ve established the “music vidocumentary” as a genre, let’s go behind the scenes. What are these GoPro-wielding scientists up to? Chris Gaskin of the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust wants to understand how commercial fishing affects seabirds. Not just how it snags them on hooks, already a hot-button topic, but how it changes their food supply.

Lots of seabirds feed on krill. Fish eat those tasty little crustaceans too, and their feeding frenzies (called work-ups) seem to bring krill up toward the surface within reach of the birds. “We want to document that, but also record out what else is going on within these work-ups,” Gaskin said. So Gaskin and skipper James Ross have been voyaging regularly into the Gulf to get a better look below the waves—which is where the GoPro-bedecked buoy comes in. Kiwi ingenuity at its finest.

The trick is finding the filming location, because work-ups are always on the move. Heading out into the Gulf on Ross’s boat, we scanned the horizon until we found a promising cloud of birds in the distance. As we got closer, we started to see a rough patch in the water, evidence of the maelstrom of marine animals hunting and fleeing from each other just below the surface. We started to hear and smell it too: it sounded like rapids in a river, and smelled (to put it generously) something like strong seafood.

Three of us hopped from the boat into a small dinghy (see the photo below) and headed straight into the middle of the action. Or tried to. Those birds and fish were all over the place—one minute just out of reach, and the next minute half a kilometer away. At last we caught up with them, I dropped the buoy, and the cameras rolled. When the work-up moved on, we retrieved the buoy and motored the dinghy back to Ross’s boat.

The footage we captured adds another piece to a complicated food-web puzzle. Gaskin and colleagues will work with the Department of Conservation and the University of Auckland to put that puzzle together. Their project, in turn, is just one piece in a network of essential seabird conservation efforts going on throughout the Gulf and around New Zealand.

I’m still reeling after being surrounded by more seabirds than I had previously seen in my life, many of them unique to this small corner of the world. But at current rates of seabird decline, this astonishing abundance and diversity of birds won’t last—even here in the seabird mecca that is the Hauraki Gulf.

We should protect seabirds for all sorts of practical reasons. We should save them for their critical role within the marine food web. We should save them for their unique ability to convert fish from the sea into nutrients for the land, and for their value as indicators of ecosystem change.

But I also think we should save seabirds because…well, just look at them!

Photo (by Tony Whitehead): Wielding a GoPro-studded buoy, I accompany Chris Gaskin and Edin Whitehead into the seabird cyclone. See original post.


Below, watch a thrilling video of a sketch biologist sketching a little blue penguin specimen from the collections of the Auckland Museum—my host institution in New Zealand—at ever-so-slightly-faster-than-actual speed (you can tell by the breathing).

Also, read the museum's Q&A about my project.


Although my project will take me all around New Zealand, I'm lucky to be hosted by the Auckland Museum and curator Matt Rayner while in Auckland. One perk is getting to sketch seabirds from the collections, as pictured below. I find that stuffed specimens stay put while being drawn, which is a novelty. (And yet my sketching remains slapdash. Such is the power of habit.)

Top: fluttering shearwater, Australasian gannet. Bottom: Pycroft's petrel, little blue penguin.

But sometimes even specimens move: in the video clip below, Matt wheels a cart full of seabirds down to one of the galleries, where I got to give a brief talk under some eerily-lit skeletons hanging from the ceiling. The Museum worked with Fulbright New Zealand and the U.S. Embassy to put on this event introducing my project.

In a fun twist, I got dizzy and almost fell over in the middle of my talk. I later realized this was because I had a concussion from hitting my head on a rock earlier in the week. (Seabirding: an extreme sport.)

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This is Rua the New Zealand Conservation Dog, introduced in my previous post. Rua has just sniffed out a grey-faced petrel nest and is intently watching the burrow entrance while awaiting further instructions from his handler, Jo Sim. (As Jo points out, this angle makes Rua's butt look big. Sorry, Rua!)


I joined Rua the seabird detection dog, his handler Jo Sim, Jo's partner Brook Mells, and Auckland Council scientist Todd Landers for two days of searching out Grey-faced Petrel nests on the steep coastal slopes of Muriwai and Piha. Check out New Zealand's Conservation Dogs program and learn more about Jo and Rua.

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I've been in New Zealand exactly two weeks. Here's a breakdown of adventures and misadventures so far.


  • Arrived in Auckland with a heavy backpack, heavy carryon suitcase, heavy checked suitcase, and heavy duffel bag containing a kayak. On more than one occasion during the multi-day trip from Maine, had the pleasure of carrying/propelling all four items simultaneously.
  • Successfully drove around the city on the left side of the road with a lefthand stickshift in a borrowed car. Fellow Auckland drivers may not fully agree with that statement.
  • Bought my very own 1998 Toyota Caldina station wagon from a sleazy car salesman posing unconvincingly as a regular retired guy who had owned the vehicle for ten years. Obtained insurance. Began working on solutions for the foul-smelling interior (professional cleaning service? bowls of vinegar? coffee grounds?). Struggled to find parking. Started hearing clunking sounds when I brake.


  • Prevailed on the seemingly boundless hospitality of (Auckland Museum curator) Matt Rayner and his family for several days. Thank you, Rayners!
  • Stayed for a week in a dingy hostel dormitory. Somehow got a room otherwise occupied exclusively by a rotating cast of middle-aged men. All very polite, and all horrific snorers.
  • For the duration of my short stay in Auckland, moved into a delightful flat on Gribblehirst Road. You heard that correctly.


  • Made a list of precisely 17 stores I will visit to obtain the project supplies I didn't have room for in my plane luggage. Ordered a new computer to replace the new computer I bought last month, which had an inexplicable meltdown the day before I left the States.
  • Had problems using all three of the payment cards I brought. Opened a New Zealand bank account.
  • Obtained staff access to the Auckland Museum. Met several dozen interesting and friendly people involved in New Zealand wildlife conservation. Continued the process of planning nine months' worth of expeditions and storytelling all over the country.


  • Joined a three-day expedition to the dramatic Mokohinau Islands. Spent time with the penguins, petrels, diving petrels, storm petrels, and shearwaters that nest there.
  • Peeked at a kiwi in its burrow on the Tawharanui Peninsula ("wh" being pronounced "f," by the way) and then enjoyed a torrential rainstorm while catching grey-faced petrels on a clifftop in the dark.
  • Spent a day on a boat in the Hauraki Gulf and watched all sorts of seabirds flying around, including albatrosses and giant petrels and the long-lost New Zealand storm petrel, which for the entire 20th century was thought to be extinct!

So far, so good.

Photo: Oscar Thomas holds a grey-faced petrel chick that Megan Friesen has extracted from a nest box, while monitoring seabirds at Tawharanui.


This is a little story about coincidences. (Title: "Only in the seabird research world.")

Three months ago, a boat picked me up from Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine. On this boat were some people I didn't know, who were about to spend two months on the island.

One of them was named Alyssa.

Today, a boat picked me up from Burgess Island off the coast of New Zealand. On this boat were some people I didn't know, who were about to spend two months on the island.

Except I did know one of them! It was Alyssa again.

Photo by Todd Landers.


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.

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: [See video below. And yes, maybe 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.

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.

See original post.


Landing on Burgess Island to study seabirds! (Left photo: Auckland University grad student Edin Whitehead, Auckland Council scientist Todd Landers, and Auckland Museum scientist Matt Rayner. Right photo, taken surreptitiously by Edin: my Burgess Island birthday handstand.)

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Testing out new sketching gear, at the mudflats in the Tamaki River. First sketch of New Zealand.


I knew I needed a New Zealand bird guide for this trip.

I did not know I would find one in a pile of secondhand books being sold from a table outside the Maine Audubon center in Scarborough Marsh, right before embarking on my travels.

Seems like a good omen.

Expedition Background

I'm Abby McBride, a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow. I'm spending the better part of a year in New Zealand, writing and illustrating stories about penguins, prions, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, albatrosses, and all sorts of other birds that spend their lives on the ocean.

Seabirds are declining faster than any other group of birds in the world, which is very worrisome indeed. Besides being beautiful and fascinating in their own right, these too-often overlooked birds play an indispensable role in connecting marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and act as coal mine canaries to warn us about problems in the environment.

Why go to New Zealand? This small island country holds by far the most seabird species of any country in the world. It also happens to be a global leader in solving the plethora of problems afflicting seabirds, caused by humans past and present.

Take the New Zealand storm petrel, one victim of the rats that followed human colonists to New Zealand. So scarce it was thought extinct for the entire 20th century, this tiny seabird recently showed up nesting on an island 50 miles from Auckland. It owes its second chance to New Zealanders, working hard to control predators throughout the country.

I aim to capture a sense of this seabird-saving grit and gumption and help pass it on. So I'm roaming the New Zealand coastline for nine months with my not-so-trusty station wagon, my coffin-sized tent, and my inflatable kayak. I'm hitching rides on boats to offshore islands. I'm sketching seabirds and taking part in seabird conservation and telling stories about it all.

Left image: Abby with petrel chick (photo by Edin Whitehead). Right image: the "extinct" NZ storm petrel (watercolor by me).

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