New Zealand is home to some pretty strange birdlife. With the support of the Osprey Adventure Grant, Jacqui and Isobel headed to Great Barrier Island to hike the multi-day Aotea track to find and photograph the Black Petrel, an endangered seabird. The mission was clear, shine the spotlight on a threatened species that needs much greater awareness. 


After going our separate geographic ways we weren’t sure if we’d ever get the dream duo back together again, but finally, after months of discussion, multiple flights and aligning of leave, we made it to Great Barrier Island. Our objective: to find and photograph the elusive Black Petrel.

The Black Petrel (or tāiko in Maori) is a native New Zealand seabird which has become frighteningly uncommon. Hirakimata mountain on Great Barrier Island is one of only two breeding sites in the world for this seabird, so it’s extremely rare to see these birds in action.

The Trek To Hirakimata

Following a four-hour ferry (which I’d warn against if you get seasick), a half-hour drive and walking the constant uphill of day one of the Aotea Track, we finally got there. We began our second day with incredible views of the island from Mt Heale Hut, just an hour walk from Hirakimata (Mt Hobson), the roosting location for black petrels and the highest point on Great Barrier Island. This was it, the day that would make or break our adventure.

To spot one of these guys in the wild is pretty special. There are only 2000 breeding pairs in the world, and they can only be found in the wild in New Zealand over the summer months. These birds are pretty well-travelled, and can be spotted in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, and even the Galapagos Islands.

But when coupling up, nothing beats the romantic Great Barrier Island for Black Petrels to get their breeding game on. This isn’t just a honeymoon. Once their eggs hatch, these hard-working parents begin the daily grind of spending their daylight hours at sea finding fish, only to return to their nests at dusk. This time is peak traffic for Black Petrels on Hirakimata, and our best bet for capturing a photo.

High Hopes For The First Sighting

We started the day with some recon up on Hirakimata, their main breeding location. We wanted to find the spots before returning later to spot them going into their nests. We can’t see these birds at sea, and we can’t photograph them in their burrow, so there is a very small window of time which you can spot them!

Luckily for us, the Department of Conservation has been doing ongoing population monitoring of the Petrels since 1995, and known roosts were clearly marked with tags and visible from the Hirakimata walkways. Walkways are there to protect Petrel burrows and prevent erosion of the mountain, so always stick to the path!

At sunset, we climbed back up Hirakimata for the second time – by which point our legs were starting to hate us. At the summit, we were treated to a surprising panoramic view of the beautiful island, but there was one thing still missing – the birds we’d come for! We may have been slightly optimistic in our planning, we hadn’t really thought of the possibility that the Petrels could just not show up.

What if the nests were old? What if hardly any birds come to the island? What if we miss it altogether? Without a single Black Petrel in the sky, a slightly more than mild panic set in. So as the sun set that evening, we hurriedly discussed backup plans and the failure article we’d write if we came back with empty cameras.

Spotting The Black Petrel

Dusk became total darkness, and just as we were about to throw in the towel, from the depths of a burrow came a little squeak. Bingo! From its underground burrow, we could hear a chick calling out, giving us hope that we could be next to an active burrow – one that we knew parents would return to.

With renewed hope, we continued to wait. What felt like hours passed. Then we heard a crash in the forest as if a branch had fallen from a tree. We looked down the mountain to find that a Black Petrel had careened through the canopy straight to the ground, in what looked like a crash-landing  (turns out this is their normal landing technique). Wings may be great for flying, turns out they’re a bit of a hindrance as these birds hauled themselves, beak first, up the mountain.

The mountain came alive as we strolled back to the hut, with Petrels calling and falling out of the canopy as they strove towards their chicks. The whole event was like a mass crash landing all over the forest on Hirakimata.

In their determination, they crawled right past us over the tracks, completely unbothered by our presence. We made sure we didn’t disturb them by sticking to the path at all times, remaining quiet, and giving them plenty of space in their crawl up the mountain. I can’t say I’ve ever seen such a clumsy entrance, and at times it was difficult to stifle our laughter as these guys struggled with their quest to their burrows.

Even those who get stuck in peak hour on their way home from work would sympathise with the ant-like crawling pace of the Petrel parent’s commute. The hours ticked on and close to midnight the Petrels began to find their nests and settle in for the night, with only a few hours until they had to get up and do it all over again!

The Conservation Challenge

Although we managed to find heaps of Petrels at Hirakimata, sadly this sight is increasingly becoming a rarity. Seabirds and other native New Zealand birds need our help. One of the main threats to the Black Petrel is marine bycatch – when fishing vessels accidentally harm or catch species other than fish by accident.

Currently, the Department of Conservation and other agencies are working hard to track where Petrels are being caught, but in the meantime, we can all help the survival of this species and other Seabirds. Firstly, if you want to see these guys in the wild, always stick to the track and give them space – if they’re disturbed or their burrow gets destroyed this may mean the Petrel won’t come back to the burrow to feed their chick. Secondly, help support Southern Seabird Solutions, who work with commercial fisheries to reduce bycatch, helping them to find and implement new technologies to avoid bycatch.

The Black Petrels are under threat, along with much of the wildlife in Australia and New Zealand. The utmost care needs to be taken with these birds in the future – having seen these birds in the wild, we were completely charmed by their determination and complete goofiness.

 

This adventure was made possible by the Osprey Adventure Grant. A huge thanks to Osprey for supporting important awareness of the Black Petrel.

 


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