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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
See also: Birds of the Snares Islands
Earlier Te Papa blogs on prions: