Loose feathers – memories from a year of seabird research

By Edin Whitehead

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Sitting in the dark on a seabird island, the air is full of sound. The trees rustle and thrash as birds come crashing through the canopy. There are purrs and whistles, growls and groans, a raucous chorus of seabird song. There are footsteps in the leaf litter that at times sound almost human. Stars blink through gaps in the branches overhead, and the hushing sound of the sea encircles us as rhythmic and constant as breathing.

“OOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOWOOOO”

And then there’s war-whooping, the traditional technique to lure unsuspecting petrels in. We’re not sure why they’re attracted to the sound of our voices, but they love it. A brief whoop, and there’s a flurry of movement in the leaf-litter, and more birds come rocketing through the canopy to land at our feet. On our feet. On us. It’s bizarre.

The first Oi (Grey-faced petrel) that I hold is the same age as me – twenty-three. Her smoky grey feathers are like satin, large eyes dark and intelligent, and her heavy black bill wickedly hooked at the tip. She’s beautiful, and I am enchanted. I’ve been waiting for this moment for years – the beginning of a year-long project studying the physiology of these birds for my master’s research. In the dark, feeling the bustling life of a thriving petrel colony around me, I am perfectly happy.


There’s a bird suddenly dancing around the berley bag hanging of the back of our boat. It’s black and white and has legs that go on forever. A delicate bill, and a streaky tummy. It’s a New Zealand storm petrel – thought extinct for over a century and rediscovered on our doorstep in the Hauraki Gulf. For a moment, I freeze. I drink it in with my eyes, hands frozen on the camera that hangs around my neck.

And then I remember why I’m here, and up swings the lens, down goes the shutter, and I’ve taken my first ever photograph of a bird that I’ve longed to see for fourteen years. Since it was rediscovered. It doesn’t have any bands on its legs – which is what I’m there to check – but that doesn’t matter to me. The sun is blazing on a sea so flat and blue and perfect that anything else in the world ceases to exist, for that moment. There’s just me, a blue blue sea, and a beautiful bird that is skipping along the surface, almost within arm’s reach.

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The air is full of salt tang and the musty, warm smell that I’ve come to love – the smell of seabirds. In a small inflatable, we’re tipped up and over swells of glassy grey water, reflecting the heavy clouds above. In the troughs, the sea is quiet. As we float over another peak, there’s the unmistakable rushing of water-on-water, a boiling, frantic sound. And all around us, engulfing us, are the rapid wingbeats of thousands of petrels – fairy prions, fluttering shearwaters, Buller’s shearwaters. They’re heading for the boil-up ahead, the writhing mass of a fish-school chasing planktonic prey to the surface. It’s a feeding frenzy, in its truest sense.

The sheer density of life is beyond anything else I’ve ever experienced. Who would have thought, nearly in view of New Zealand’s largest city, would be such a bounty of wildlife. Te Hauturu-o-Toi, Little Barrier Island, looms darkly in the mist. It’s an island sanctuary for our precious and endemic wildlife, harbouring populations of Kakapo, Tuatara, and Wetapunga that could never survive on the mainland. It’s also the home of New Zealand’s miracle bird, the New Zealand storm petrel. And some day, if I’m lucky, I will visit and see them in their forested home.
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I think I’m about to lose my arm. I’m face down in the mud, contorted so that I can reach into a burrow we’ve just discovered to try and find out what’s inside. It’s so twisted and root-bound that I think I’ll need an extra elbow to have any chance of reaching the end. But then there’s fluff tickling the end of my fingers, a faint squeak of protest, and a sharp nip on the tender skin at the base of my thumbnail. I retrieve my hand, slowly, and clamped on to my fingertips is a rather disgruntled and extremely fluffy Oi chick.

I weigh it and take measurements – wriggling tarsus, flapping wing, and snapping beak. And then it curls into my lap as I write everything down, seemingly content. As I lift it to return it to its cozy, subterranean home, it unleashes a torrent of white guano all over my pants. But after a week of petrel-wrangling, that’s just another layer – and I’m extremely thankful that it’s not the thick oily vomit that’s impossible to wash out.
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I’ll admit to being half asleep on the job. After a week of regular 9-5 work (that’s 9pm to 5 am), even the excitement of being on Hauturu, the famed island, can’t quite keep me awake. A small impact brings me back to the present – something has landed on me. I’m lying in the leaf-litter, in the pitch black of a moonless night. At the artificial colony set up for New Zealand storm petrels, I’ve been waiting since dusk for something, anything to happen. And now, as I flick my headlamp on to red, there’s finally something to see – a little shadow that flits off on to the ground.

I wrestle to get the infra-red camera set up, and there in front of me is a handful of black and white bird, bobbing its head. At the artificial colony, a speaker system broadcasts calls to attract the storm petrels to the site, and as it blares into life the new arrival raises its wings and begins to dance. I’m anthropomorphizing, obviously, but it’s the only way to describe it. Wings high and fluttering, this tiny 30 gram bird skips around the nest-boxes on delicate, spindly legs. It hops and twirls and puts on a show for the birds it can hear but can’t see – but there are no other birds around. It’s just me, in the dark, watching a New Zealand storm petrel dance around the forest floor. I can’t quite believe it.

After watching and filming for an hour, I retreat from the colony and wander back through the forest in the dark, still amazed. A kiwi trudges along next to me, and in the distance I can hear another calling. Overhead there are chattering Cook’s petrels, and the far-off cry of a morepork. The wonders never cease.

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Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to know the how and why of the world. As I’ve grown, my focus has narrowed to the avian world, and settled on seabirds. I went to sea and fell in love with their graceful dynamic flight. How are they so at home over the vast, restless oceans? How do they find food in featureless waterscapes, and how do they find their way home? Why have they evolved to rely on the oceans, why are there so few species (comparatively) of true pelagic seabirds? What is going wrong – why are seabirds the most threatened group of birds on earth, why are their populations declining, why do so many wash up starved on beaches, what can we do to stop these marvels slipping away into extinction? In falling in love with the oceans and their inhabitants, I’ve found my place and purpose.

Over the past year I’ve spent weeks on remote islands and stayed awake through long restless nights waiting for my birds to return, so that I can learn more about their lives. I’ve scrabbled up cliffs looking for burrows, and leapt from rocking inflatables to shore and back again. I’ve inserted my arms into many a twisted subterranean burrow to search out downy bundles. I’ve sat in a dinghy and been surrounded by thousands upon thousands of whirling petrels. I’ve taken my first steps into the world of seabird research. It’s the start of a journey that I cannot wait to continue on.

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Edin Whitehead has just completed her MSc on seabird physiology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She’s taking a year off to travel Aotearoa north to south on a birdventure before launching back into a PhD on seabirds in the Hauraki Gulf. To follow her birdventures, visit www.edinz.com, @edinatw on Twitter, or @edinzphoto on Instagram.

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