Solander: Kingdom of the Birds

Steeped in history, Solander Island stands as a reminder of how beautiful it once was in this land which once was the kingdom of the birds.

Monday 6 May

Our party of 3 comprising Dr Dominique Filippi, Director Sextant Technology Ltd, Jean Claude Stahl (photographer scientist) and myself (Michael Hall) spend time readying for the trip. Comprehensive checks of our bags at the Invercargill Doc office, to ensure no stray flora or fauna make it to the island, are carried out along with safety briefings  and last minute words of advice.

Tuesday 7 May

We head off to the rendezvous point with the chopper, Clifton, a blip on the map south of Invercargill and are greeted by Rob, former pilot for the famous Jacques Cousteau and almost as famous boat Calypso.

Flying over the sea in the chopper, the steep cliffs of Solander loom out of the mist like a latter day Kong island.  Once home to a band of hapless sealers for five years, forgotten by their employers and left to fend for themselves, this looks like no place for an extended stay! 

Approaching Solander, accessible only with permit and as weather permits. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Approaching Solander, accessible only with permit and as weather permits. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Hovering above our landing spot seals scatter in all directions, a flurry of noise and activity sees our provisions for the next few days unloaded and then, in a moment the chopper is gone, silence bar the crashing waves and honking of seals.

Jean Claude points us towards our new campsite not far from the landing spot. I stumble along the beach doing my best to keep up with the two Frenchmen,  alas my city legs are no match for them as they steam ahead.

When I finally arrive at the site two tents are nearly up. Several large rocks fall from the cliffs above and we decide it might be wise to move our site elsewhere.

econd campsite in the colony. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Second campsite in the colony. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Our new campsite, higher up a small gully, is right in the middle of the action.

The first thing I notice is the chicks. Looking like little furry dodos they sit high in the nest waiting for their next feed. As you near the nests, the  chicks make a clop, clop sound; if get too close they spew,  nice!

Buller's albatross chick. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Buller’s albatross chick. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Pairs of the bigger birds resplendent with their striking yellow beaks and dark grey markings set against white plumage, waddle around each other awkwardly, nodding and rubbing beaks in a ritualised mating dance, while singles sit patiently, waiting to be noticed.

Above us the sky is filled with birds,  this is where the albatross is truly king.

Wheeling high above they hug the cliffs, riding the eddies and updrafts with ease. At sea they skim the surface, often glancing a wing into the water, but still never seeming to flap, mesmerizing.

Albatross in flight. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Albatross in flight. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Weds 8 May

Time is spent attaching the loggers to the birds, these will record flight details, and also proximity to boats, useful information when looking at ways to understand and preserve these amazing creatures.

Close up Buller's albatross, or mollymawk. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Close up of a Buller’s albatross, or mollymawk. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Jean Claude informs me one recorder showed a flight of 3000km  over a 32 hour period, that’s an average speed of  nearly 100kmh, and again over water.

After two relatively fine days taking photos attaching loggers and enjoying extensive 3 course banquets on the camp stoves, our honeymoon with Solander is about to end.

Attaching logger to bird. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Thursday 9 May

The day breaks looking a little more ominous, the sea is getting big as a front closes in from the southwest. By midday we are holed up in our tents the wind is screaming, rain , hail, thunder and lightning, this is the Solander Island  I was warned about. Still the birds are happy.

Albatross at home on rough seas. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Albatross at home on rough seas. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Friday 10 May

 The weather has cleared and time for this city boy to take his leave, the hardened scientists are staying on to retrieve the loggers.

At the copter landing site I stare out to sea. A convoy of Albatross rises effortlessly on some unseen current, and glide  over me, a fitting send off from this remarkable place.

Driving back to Invercargill in the DOC van we stop at McCracken Rest. A rusted signpost points out to sea ‘Solander Island 72km’ I look hoping to glimpse the island but see nothing.

Signpost, McCrackens Rest, 'Solander Island 72km'. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Signpost, McCrackens Rest, ‘Solander Island 72km’. Photo credit: Michael Hall © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

I would like to thank the following people for their help and support on the trip;

  • Sharon and Janice from Doc, Janice for the ride back into town.
  • Terry Nicholas from Hokunui Runanga, for his Hospitality and Hot shower.
  • Rob and Sam the Helicopter pilots for getting us there safely.
  • Dominique and Jean Claude for their companionship and for watching out for me.
  • Susan Waugh for sending us down.

Further reading;

4 Responses

  1. jyotika

    Thanx for the awesome article on Solander the kingdom of birds

    Reply
  2. Gordon Wardrop

    How does logger tell proximity to vessels? I fished Solanders for 30 years and never saw mollys feeding naturally, only off boats, do they feed at night?

    Reply
    • tepapamuseum

      Kia ora Gordon,

      Thanks for your comment – it’s a good question! Our albatross expert is currently out in the field doing research. I have sent your comment to her and will let you know her response.

    • Michael Hall

      Hi Gordon, here is the reply from Susan Waugh about the loggers and how they work, regards Michael;
      The loggers work by detecting the signal of the radar emitted by vessels. At present it would tell us if a vessel was within 20 or so km of where the bird was, not how close they were. To get distance and bearing you’d need two birds with loggers simultaneously, or to have VMS data from the vessels to calibrate. As the loggers are prototypes, there is a lot of work to go yet to get really precise data about the interaction of vessels and birds, but for many species, especially rare birds exposed to risk from many causes, just knowing they were in proximity to vessels would be a big improvement in the information about the birds, so even imprecise information is useful.
      If there was only one vessel around, then the signal would increase in strength as the bird and vessel got closer to one another, but we couldn’t be sure of that if we were just taking data from one bird at a time.

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