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.