Sketches from SeabirdlandJuly 17 2017
I'm Abby McBride, a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow in New Zealand, home to the world's most diverse and endangered seabirds. 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 meandering my way around the country from north to south and back (twice). Meanwhile, I am exploring the extraordinary efforts people are making to reverse centuries of harm to penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Through art and stories I hope to convey a sense of the beauty and value of seabirds — the fastest declining group of birds worldwide.
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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.
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.
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 on the Tawharanui Peninsula.
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.
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.)
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.
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).