A Te Papa team recently visited the Snares Islands Nature Reserve, 105 km south-southwest of Stewart Island, where they completed a range of seabird and plant research projects. Here, Antony Kusabs (Collection Manager Sciences) describes his first impressions of the Snares Islands, his first trip to a New Zealand Sub-Antarctic island group.
Watch Science Live: Expedition Snares Islands to find out more about our scientific research on the Snares Islands.
My first landfall on a New Zealand Sub-Antarctic island was unique, considering it was onto one of the least visited corners of the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands UNESCO World Heritage Area. We were destined for Toru Islet, the largest of five main, barely vegetated, rock stack islets to the south-west of the main Snares group. We had waited two days for perfect conditions, and travelled through the night to reach this spot. It was a calm, quiet early morning which only heightened the butterfly activity in my stomach. We needed to scale a steep cliff face to get to the rare wildlife that occupied the tops. Luckily for us, we were assisted by a series of rock ledges and Te Papa Curator, Colin Miskelly knew the way.
On Toru, we took measurements and blood samples from fulmar prions to determine species limitations between this species and the closely related fairy prion. The fulmar prions breed in rock crevices, amongst colonies of Salvin’s mollymawks (Thalassarche salvini) and Snares crested penguins (Eudyptes robustus). Oh, and there were some weird marine slugs (Onchididae) to search for too. Six hours later we had completed the mission and it was on to the main island group to be dropped at a collection of three small huts that would be home for 15 days. The main islands presented themselves as a well vegetated landscape, masking its low plant biodiversity. The Snares flora is dominated by plants with a southern New Zealand distribution and a standout would have to be punui (Stilbocarpa robusta) which grows from herbfields to forest understorey and provides a very luxuriant, even tropical, flavour to the plant community.
Upon landfall, I was immediately confronted by the feeling of being outnumbered by wildlife. This began with our first encounters of New Zealand sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri), who provided an intimidating ‘customs check’ on arrival, and the large colonies of Snares crested penguins which provided the dominant background chorus by day.
Venturing out onto headlands required caution as the brown skua (Catharacta antarctica) protect their nests by dive bombing and they can get extremely close. One of our initial (and least glamorous) research tasks was scouring these coastal headlands for skua prey remains (often skulls) to ascertain the frequency that various species ended up in the skua diet. Our collected skulls and other bones were identified by Te Papa Curator, Alan Tennyson.
The Snares were named by Captain Vancouver of the ship HMS Discovery as he considered the steep and scattered island group a hazard for shipping. Once you start moving around the island the name becomes equally relevant. The main tree daisy forest species is undermined by sea bird burrows and this, combined with wind pressure, causes the trees to collapse. They continue growing which results in a tangle of horizontal branches. Travelling through the forest, I often felt like I was in a snare and found myself wishing for a good thicket of supplejack to climb through instead.
By dinner time I felt as though I’d had some incredible wildlife encounters without really venturing anywhere. But then, the titi (or sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus)) started arriving home from their fishing grounds. The main Snares Islands are definitively a land for these noisy, flying, diving machines. Titi numbers build and cover the sky in a multi-layered haze as the birds seem to traverse the island to get their bearings.
The activity climaxes as the sky is darkened by tens of thousands of birds and they start landing (or crashing) through the canopy. The noise above and below the canopy is quite deafening, and you need to apply caution to not disturb birds as they group on the forest floor and scuttle around hunchback style, presumably looking for their home burrow. Te Papa Photographer, Jean-Claude Stahl, took some amazing footage of these scenes, but it is something else to experience this event first hand. For the first time I was able to truly appreciate what has been lost on the coastal mainland of New Zealand.
Thank you to the Department of Conservation who made our research work on the Snares Islands possible.
I look forward to sharing more at our Science Live event on Tuesday 18th March.
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