A Bird in the Hand: How to catch a Westland Petrel

The last vestiges of light are fading over Paparoa National Park, Westland in the South Island of New Zealand. As the skies darken, a magnificent silhouette can be seen soaring above a small group of scientists. Soon one silhouette becomes many and within fifteen minutes of the first sighting, birds begin to plummet down into the bush, hitting the ground with a disarming crash. There ensues a cacophony of sound as birds call to their nesting partners, or perhaps to each other – a wild kind of party on the forest floor in this remote part of the country.

I am here along with scientists Colin Miskelly and Jean-Claude Stahl, documenting a research project by Susan Waugh on the Westland Petrel. This area is the only breeding site in the world for these magnificent seabirds. It is hoped that information retrieved from GPS loggers will provide more insight into the foraging activities of the petrels during the nesting period.

A Westland Petrel photographed on the forest floor at night (Paparoa National Park, Punakaiki, New Zealand)

A Westland Petrel photographed on the forest floor at night (Paparoa National Park, Punakaiki, New Zealand). Photo: Kate Whitley, 2015 © Te Papa

When we return during daylight, the multitude of burrow holes give the appearance of a miniature Hobbit village. Retrieving the GPS loggers is not an easy task. Moving carefully, Jean-Claude gently lowers the burrowscope into the burrow to determine whether the bird on the nest has a logger attached. If this is the case, there begins the tricky process of extracting the bird from its burrow.

Jean-Claude, Te Papa scientist, lowers the Burrowscope into the nest of a WEstland Petrel

Jean-Claude, Te Papa scientist, lowers the Burrowscope into the nest of a Westland Petrel. Photo: Kate Whitley, 2015 © Te Papa

Jean-Claude then extends his hand into the burrow. The ‘intruder’ is detected and the bird attacks. Westland Petrels have a sizable beak with a very strong ‘bite’ which is partly why this isolated group of birds have been able to fend off predators and remain one of the few burrowing seabirds still breeding on the mainland. Seizing Jean-Claude’s finger the bird doesn’t let go. Above ground, the ferocity of the bird’s defense can be seen as Jean-Claude’s body recoils and some French expletives are released. Gently removing his hand with the bird still attached, Jean-Claude then disengages the bird’s beak, weighs the bird, records the bird’s identity number, then removes the logger. The whole process takes only minutes and the bird is soon returned to its burrow.

Jean-Claude gently removes his hand from the burrow with the bird firmly attached to his finger

Jean-Claude gently removes his hand from the burrow with the bird firmly attached to his finger. Photo: Kate Whitley, 2015 © Te Papa

Seeing these birds at such close range is a beautiful experience, and a rare one. Spending most of their lives at sea, the birds are probably not immediately recognized by most New Zealanders. However the local community are embracing the fact that they have a unique Petrel colony on their doorstep, and this year launched the inaugural ‘Return of the Westland Petrel’ festival. The highlight of the festival was a beach parade where locals could witness the birds soaring in overhead on their return to the nesting site. Leon Dalziel, festival organiser and local conservation volunteer, says “only people that are connected with conservation specifically knew about the petrels, and we’ve reclaimed them as our own on the coast. Thousands more people are [now] aware of the birds”. Hopefully raising the profile of the Westland Petrel will help ensure they continue to return to this spectacular part of the country to breed, for a long time to come.

A Westland Petrel is gently held by Te Papa scientist Jean-Claude Stahl after being weighed.

A bird in the hand: A Westland Petrel is gently held by Te Papa scientist Jean-Claude Stahl after being weighed. Photo: Kate Whitley, 2015 © Te Papa

Related Links:

What is burrowscoping? Read Colin Miskelly’s blog.

Want to immerse yourself in petrel colony sounds?

One Response

  1. Raoul

    Hi Kate, very interesting documentary that illustrated to me how scientists and people from the local community can share the same enthusiasm for a particular project. Your blog on this topic is a great example of science communication. Wishing you and the team success with the project, Raoul

    Reply

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