Western Chain, Snares Islands – 1929 and 2013 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 10)

Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly is researching the life and work of the Canterbury naturalist Edgar Stead (1881-1949). This includes re-taking Stead’s photos from the same photo-point, taking other images to illustrate his diaries, and describing how the ecology and wildlife of each of 11 islands has changed since Stead’s visits.

The previous blogs in this series have all been about islands that Edgar Stead landed on. This one is a little different in that Stead never set foot on the Western Chain (part of the Snares Islands, about 100 km south-southwest of Stewart Island), though he did pass close offshore twice. In January-February 1929, Stead and his wife Irene were passengers on the last government steamer to service castaway depots on the Snares and Auckland Islands. The Tutanekai under Captain John Bollons landed passengers on the Snares Islands on 31 January, then sailed close past the islets of the Western Chain, 4 km to the south-west. Stead took the image below from the deck of the Tutanekai, more than 84 years before our visit. Matching the images was a challenge, as the original was printed back-to-front in Stead’s photo album (now in Canterbury Museum).

Top: Toru Islet, Western Chain, Snares Islands, viewed from the south, January 1929. Image: Edgar Stead, 2001_59_307_Toru_islet, Canterbury Museum. Below: The same view in November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Top: Toru Islet, Western Chain, Snares Islands, viewed from the south, January 1929. Image: Edgar Stead, 2001_59_307_Toru_islet, Canterbury Museum. Below: The same view in November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Stead was a poor sailor, and on his next visit to the Snares he was too ill to come on deck when offshore from the Western Chain on 23 November 1947. The 1947 Snares expedition was sponsored by the New Zealand government and the American Museum of Natural History, and was ashore from 23 November to 6 December. The expedition was led by Robert Falla, the Director of the Dominion Museum. On 4 December, Falla made the first landing on the Western Chain by a naturalist (on Rua Islet), confirming that the islets were a breeding site for Cape petrels.

Rua Islet from Toru Islet, with the main Snares Islands group in the distance (north East Island on the left, Broughton Island on the right), November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Rua Islet from Toru Islet, with the main Snares Islands group in the distance (North East Island on the left, Broughton Island on the right), November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

A Cape petrel on its nest on Toru Islet, November 2013. Image: Alan Tennyson, Te Papa.

A Cape petrel on its nest on Toru Islet, November 2013. Image: Alan Tennyson, Te Papa.

The birds of the Western Chain are different to those on the other islands in the group. Cape petrels are now known to breed on the main islands also, but within the Snares Islands, Salvin’s mollymawks and fulmar prions breed only on the Western Chain, and the Snares crested penguins there breed six weeks later than on the main islands. The Te Papa visit to Toru Islet was primarily to collect genetic samples from fulmar prions, as part of a review of the relationships within this group of small seabirds.

Salvin’s mollymawk and chick on Toru Islet, November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Salvin’s mollymawk and chick on Toru Islet, November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Hundreds of thousands of prions were killed in a severe storm that hit New Zealand in July 2011 (see previous Te Papa blogs linked below). Identifying where these birds came from and which populations were most affected requires reference samples from breeding colonies, as well as population estimates. The Te Papa prion research programme has developed to include a wider study of relationships within the prion group. Our brief landing on Toru Islet provided a rare opportunity to collect blood samples from fulmar prions, the most poorly known of the six prion species. Two other species (broad-billed prion and fairy prion) breed on the main islands, and were both studied later in the trip.

Fulmar prion on Toru Islet, Western Chain, November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Fulmar prion on Toru Islet, Western Chain, November 2013. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa.

Alan Tennyson (left) and Colin Miskelly collecting a blood sample from a fulmar prion on Toru Islet, Western Chain, November 2013. Image: Antony Kusabs, Te Papa.

Thanks to the Department of Conservation for permission to land on the Snares Islands Nature Reserve (including Toru Islet), and the crew of F.V. Awesome for safely getting us on and off the islet.

Other blogs in this series:

Taranga / Hen Island – 1933 and 2010 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 1)

Nukuwaiata / Inner Chetwode Island – 1936 and 2011 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 2)

Kundy Island – 1929 and 2011 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 3)

Whenua Hou / Codfish Island – 1934 and 2011 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 4)

Rerewhakaupoko / Solomon Island – 1931 and 2012 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 5)

Taukihepa / Big South Cape Island – 1931 and 2012 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 6)

Pukeokaoka / Jacky Lee Island – 1932 and 2012 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 7)

Green Island – 1941 and 2012 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 8)

Ruapuke Island – 1941 and 2012 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 9)

Snares Islands –1947 and 2013 – In the footsteps of Edgar Stead (Part 11)

See also:    Birds of the Snares Islands

 

Earlier Te Papa blogs on prions:

Riders of the storm – thousands of seabirds perish on New Zealand shores

Riders of the storm – the severely depleted next generation

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 1. Come join us!

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 2. What’s in a name?

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 3. Prion lice

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 4. Sinister Fairy Prions

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 5. Prion foraging ecology

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 6. A bird’s-eye view

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 7. Storm warning

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Part 8. Prion evolution

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. The Prequel: Influx of Prions to Wellington Zoo

Science Live: Whalebirds – the mystery of the storm riders. Success!

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