Riders of the storm – the severely depleted next generation

Riders of the storm – the severely depleted next generation

2011 was a terrible year for New Zealand seabirds. The Rena oil spill in October received the most media coverage and provided dramatic images (see Rena oil spill blogs). More insidious were the impacts of the Japanese earthquake and ensuing tsunami in March. A plume of radioactive fallout from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant contaminated the North Pacific feeding grounds of several New Zealand-breeding species, including flesh-footed shearwater, sooty shearwater (muttonbird), Buller’s shearwater and mottled petrel.

Fluttering shearwaters killed by the Rena oil spill. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

However, the most extreme mortality event for any single species was a severe July storm estimated to have killed several hundred thousand broad-billed prions (see Riders of the storm – thousands of seabirds perish on New Zealand shores). The broad-billed prion is a poorly studied species. There are no well-monitored populations, and so there are few opportunities to determine the impact of the storm at a population level.

Prions killed during the July 2011 storm event. Photo: Alan Tennyson, Te Papa

In the New Zealand region, broad-billed prions breed on small islands in the Chatham Islands, Fiordland, and around Stewart Island, and on the Snares Islands. A few breed on islets and stacks off Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, north-west of Stewart Island. I visited tiny Trig Island (a known broad-billed prion breeding site) there on 8 December, and found a ghost town.

Trig Island, off the east coast of Codfish Island. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa, December 2011

The peaty soil was honeycombed with an estimated 500 burrows, but 90% looked like they had not been visited at all this season. In early December, most burrows should contain large chicks, but I found only four in about 50 active burrows inspected, and estimated only about ten chicks to be present on the island (i.e. about 2% of burrows contained chicks).

Broad-billed prion chick, Trig Island, Codfish Island, December 2011. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

The storm that killed so many broad-billed prions hit 6 weeks before broad-billed prions begin to lay. The large number of active burrows on Trig Island that did not contain chicks may be due to an imbalance in the sex ratio of birds that survived the storm, or those that lost a mate may not have had time to find a new one before it was time to breed.

Feather samples taken from the four chicks handled, along with older skeletal remains found on the island, will be used as part of a Te Papa genetic study seeking to determine where the vast numbers of birds killed in July came from. Efforts will be made to collect genetic samples from other breeding sites as part of this study.

Additional information on the wildlife of Codfish Island can be found on https://blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2011/12/13/codfish-island-1934-and-2011-in-the-footsteps-of-edgar-stead-part-4/ and http://www.birdingnz.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1516

By Colin Miskelly, Curator Terrestrial Vertebrates


  1. By the time radioactive fallout from Fukushima fell across the Pacific ocean it was so diluted as to be negligible. Only a tiny fraction above normal fell near the Japanese coast and almost nothing at all over the rest of the Pacific. The chances of ourbirds picking up radioactivity is abou zero. Test at the Radiation Lab in ChCh couln’t detect any radioactivity in our migrating birds.

  2. This is terrible! natural disasters damage the fauna and also the people activities finishes it. Pray to God that in New Zealand and around the world nature recovered of these shocks

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