Birdlife of Taumaka (Open Bay Islands)

Taumaka is a 20 ha Māori-owned island lying off the South Westland coast. Administered by the Taumaka me Popotai Trust, the island is well-known as a breeding site for kekeno / New Zealand fur seals and tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins. Both species were studied on the island by students from the University of Canterbury between 1968 and 1992, and a small hut was built on the island by the university in 1969. More recent visits to the island have mainly been by the Department of Conservation and the island’s trustees, to monitor and tag fur seals, and to monitor the rare coastal cress Lepidium naufragorum.

Taumaka viewed from the east, with Popotai in the background. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Taumaka viewed from the east, with Popotai in the background. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

New Zealand fur seals on the limestone rocks of Taumaka. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

New Zealand fur seals on the limestone rocks of Taumaka. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The dominant vegetation on the island is a dense tangle of kiekie, providing limited habitat and food for land birds. The only species that we saw every day were weka, fernbirds and silvereyes (all common) and a few dunnocks and starlings. Vagrant land birds seen or heard during our visit included swamp harrier, spur-winged plover, tui, blackbird, song thrush and redpoll.

A dense tangle of kiekie covers most of Taumaka. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A dense tangle of kiekie covers most of Taumaka. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Weka foraging on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Weka foraging on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Weka were introduced to the island on at least two occasions between 1905 and 1912, with genetic evidence for the birds having been sourced from both the North Island and South Island. We observed them eating kiekie fruit, a wide range of invertebrates (including amphipods, weta, spiders and caterpillars), tawaki eggs and chicks, and adult prions. They were at various stages of the breeding cycle, with three pairs seen mating, and at least three broods of downy chicks seen.

An adult weka feeding a dead tawaki chick to its brood of three young chicks. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

An adult weka feeding a dead tawaki chick to its brood of three young chicks. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The fernbird / mātātā population on Taumaka is notable as being the only island population of South Island fernbird. As with other forms on more southern islands (i.e. Stewart Island fernbird, Codfish Island fernbird and Snares Island fernbird), the fernbirds on Taumaka live in shrub/forest rather than wetlands. Mainland populations of fernbirds are mainly confined to wetlands – possibly due to there being fewer predators there, or fewer competing insectivorous birds. Although common and vocal on Taumaka, their ceaseless movement and preference for dense vegetation made photography a challenge.

Fernbird on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Fernbird on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The main focus for our visit was nesting tawaki, which we were tracking as part of an international collaborative study of winter-breeding New Zealand seabirds. Our September visit coincided with peak hatching in tawaki, with males guarding the young chicks while their mates made 1-2 day-long foraging trips.

A male tawaki / Fiordland crested penguin broods its young chicks on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A male tawaki / Fiordland crested penguin broods its young chicks on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A female tawaki with a GPS tracking tag attached to its back returns to the sea, Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A female tawaki with a GPS tracking tag attached to its back returns to the sea, Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Other pelagic seabirds nesting on Taumaka included little penguins, fairy prions and sooty shearwaters, although we saw little evidence of the latter, which had not yet returned from the North Pacific to start breeding. These burrow-nesting species have evidently declined on Taumaka in the last 45 years, as Colin Burrows (who visited in 1969 & 1970) stated that “petrel burrows are abundant in the soft soils”. We found few burrows, and those we did find were mainly in inaccessible crevices at the back of caves and overhangs, rather than in exposed soil.

A fairy prion departing from its nesting crevice before dawn, Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

A fairy prion departing from its nesting crevice before dawn, Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Spotted shags were nesting on the cliffs on the south-east side of the island, and were busily collecting nesting material. Other birds around the shore included at least 12 variable oystercatchers, 3 little shags, noisy flocks of red-billed gulls, southern blacked gulls and white-fronted terns, and a single reef heron, bar-tailed godwit and Caspian tern.

Spotted shag colony on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Spotted shag colony on Taumaka, September 2016. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Australasian gannets, white-capped mollymawks and northern giant petrels were seen offshore on most days. Northerly storms brought a wider diversity of albatross species close to shore, along with Cape petrels, Westland petrels and surprisingly large numbers of Kerguelen petrels – a species rarely seen in New Zealand coastal waters. Perhaps this Indian Ocean-breeding species is a regular visitor to this part of New Zealand in winter, as I saw at least two hundred of them from the island during my first visit in August 1985.

Kerguelen petrel, South Atlantic. Image: David Boyle, NZ Birds Online

Kerguelen petrel, South Atlantic. Image: David Boyle, NZ Birds Online

The winter-breeding seabird project is a collaboration between Te Papa, Deakin University (Melbourne), and CNRS, Chize, France, and is led by PhD candidate Tim Poupart.

Related blogs

Critters of Taumaka (Open Bay Islands)

Life through a burrowscope lens (Part 7) – subterranean Taumaka (Open Bay Islands)

Wildlife of Hautere/Solander Island

Birds of the Snares Islands

Birds and mammals of Takapourewa / Stephens Island

Landbirds of Ohinau Island

Seabirds of Ohinau Island

Birds of the Poor Knights Islands

8 Responses

  1. Stuart Nicholson

    The gecko seems to be surviving in the presence of weka … or better get the gecko described before it becomes extinct 🙁

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Hi Stuart
      There are about two dozen species of New Zealand geckos that have yet to be described and given scientific names (compared to about 17 species that have been named). Lack of formal names is a huge impediment to awareness of these animals’ existence and support for conservation programmes for them. The science of taxonomy is fundamental to conservation, yet few universities offer courses on the topic. There are many post-graduate researchers who can use genetic techniques to demonstrate the distinctiveness of un-named species, but few who have the skill or interest needed to write a formal descriptions.
      Cheers
      Colin

  2. Marie-Louise Myburgh

    Great reading for those of us who are unable to get there. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Denis Asher

    Any possibility the decline in burrow-nesters is linked to the presence of Weka?

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Kia ora Denis

      Yes, the presence of weka on Taumaka is the most likely reason for prions (at least) being much scarcer than they were 4-5 decades ago. We disturbed two weka with live adult prions in the beaks, which they let go when a head-light was shone on them.

      Kind regards
      Colin

  4. Blair Mcleod

    Thank you for your wonderful and very informative articles on these offshore islands which you visit. Have you thought of getting them published together? If you ever did I would be keen to purchase a copy.
    Looking forward to the next article, Blair

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thank you very much Alison and Blair for your kind comments. There are no plans for a book at this stage!
      Kind regards
      Colin

  5. Alison Barwick

    My ignorance is further diminished by your article, Colin. Your photographs, as always, are superb, some of them almost three dimensional eg the seals.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)