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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Critters of Taumaka (Open Bay Islands)
Life through a burrowscope lens (Part 7) – subterranean Taumaka (Open Bay Islands)
Wildlife of Hautere/Solander Island
Birds and mammals of Takapourewa / Stephens Island
The gecko seems to be surviving in the presence of weka … or better get the gecko described before it becomes extinct 🙁
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.
Great reading for those of us who are unable to get there. Thanks.
Any possibility the decline in burrow-nesters is linked to the presence of Weka?
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.
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
Thank you very much Alison and Blair for your kind comments. There are no plans for a book at this stage!
My ignorance is further diminished by your article, Colin. Your photographs, as always, are superb, some of them almost three dimensional eg the seals.