Hunting the New Zealand Storm Petrel on Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island

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In April 2014 I was given the unique opportunity to hunt the New Zealand Storm Petrel for 5 days on Hauturu. By hunting, I mean trying to find the burrows of these elusive little seabirds. The New Zealand storm petrel (NZSP) was thought to be extinct until an individual was randomly caught by a fisherman, who happened to be an ex-wildlife ranger, who happened to be on a fishing vessel off the coast of Hauturu in 2003. Since then, nearly 200 birds have been tagged and burrows have been located on a steep valley. Earlier in 2014, the team found the first NZSP egg. We know little about this cryptic little bird, mostly how did it survive the presence of kiore (Pacific rats; Rattus exulans), and cats (Felis catus), which arrived with the early Maori explorers and European settlers to New Zealand.

Hauturu was designated a Nature Reserve in 1894. The island is rich in history of Maori occupation and management by the crown in the years following the designation (you can read the rangers diary’s going back to 1934 in the library on the island, which makes for some sporadic and interesting reading). Cats that were bought over by some of the islands residents, and the rats that had arrived with the Maori were removed from LBI in 2004 and 2007 respectively. It was an arduous job, which took years of planning, and at huge expense to the government and Hauturu supporters. You cannot argue that the effort and money was not worth it, not by any stretch of the imagination. Hauturu is magic.

After the quarantine routine, where a DoC bio-security staffer meticulously picks through every item of clothing and piece of gear you have neatly organised, it is re-packed in sealed plastic bins to be transported to the island via a bio-security approved boat. All measures are taken to avoid the invasion of rats, or other vermin, and the transport of weed species (particularly seeds) from the mainland. There is a yearly contingent of weed teams that head out to the island to pull out already established weeds, working hard to minimise further spreading and the establishment of species that would out-compete native species.

Stepping foot on Hauturu feels like a trip back in time, to when the effects of human settlement hadn’t yet begun. A cacophony of birds echoes through the valleys.

There are Tuis, Saddlebacks, Bellbirds, Kereru, Fantails, Robins, Kaka, and more, and there are Kokako feeding on the last of the figs, right outside the bunkhouse. Someone forgot to tell the kiwi that they are nocturnal, because they seem to not mind foraging in the bright daylight hours. The birdsong on Hauturu is so loud that sometimes it drowns out the silence.

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The forest is full and diverse, and magnificently alive. The undergrowth lush and vibrant, thick with ferns, mosses, epiphytes, orchids, astelias, collospermums, and more, unlike the mainland bush that is browsed and trampled by possums, goats, rats, deer, pigs and people. Towering above the sub-canopy of broadleaved species, kanuka, and tree ferns are majestic kauri, and hard beech. Fantails and hihi dart around your head and robins lead you, softly treading across the moss-covered tracks.

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In the evening, the warm, red sunlight seeps through the branches, transforming the magic of the Hauturu into something otherworldly. The smell of the forest takes your breath away.

NZSP’s spend their days walking on water, foraging in the outer Hauraki Gulf and further (we don’t really know exactly where they go to forage). In the evenings they fly not quite silently back to their burrows to feed their chicks. They are not easy birds to find. We spent our evenings and late into the night perched on steep cliffs, kauri and beech towering above us, quietly whispering with the breeze. At night the forest is commanded by the calls of bats, kiwi, morepork, and kaka. The occasional flutter of wings was the most exciting sound, and eagerly we lit up the canopy in hope of seeing one of the little storm petrels flying past.

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The infra-red cameras stealthily set up outside a couple of the known burrows recorded our elusive NZSP’s shooting into their burrows, quicker than the blink of an eye (4 seconds to be precise). Although we didn’t see them, we know they are there. The hot coffee, complete with a splash of whiskey kept our resolve to stay a little longer, until we finally gave up and clumsily clambered up the steep slope. The track was illuminated by the bright piercing glow of our headlamps. The haunting echo of morepork hunting their prey, and kiwi snuffling through the undergrowth. Treading through the dew soaked grass flat, it’s best to keep your eyes open for Tuatara star-bathing on the track, and ungraceful kiwi stomping through the undergrowth searching for dinner, from the veritable buffet of invertebrates that prosper here. When you stopped for a moment and looked to the heavens, it was illuminated brightly by the  milky-way.

On our final day on Hauturu, a kokako popped by for morning tea on the grass outside the bunkhouse, then we hiked up to a NZSP burrow site and had a look inside. Opening the top cover of the burrow we discovered a small, light grey fluff ball. It was a NZSP chick. I fail to find the words to describe the sheer amazement of the experience and how privileged I felt, perched on a cliff of one of the most magnificent islands I have ever seen holding that tiny bird. The cryptic New Zealand storm petrel, once thought to be extinct, is breeding on a magical island in the Hauraki Gulf.

 NZSPChick

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