Global hotspot for sensational seabirds right on our doorstep

Department of Conservation —  03/07/2020

In this guest blog post, community project coordinator Kerry Lukies, explores the mysterious ways of the Hauraki Gulf’s taonga seabirds, and the work she is involved in to learn more about their behaviour to protect them.

Not many people know this, but the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa Moana is a hotspot of seabird diversity of international importance. Of the approximately 370 seabird species in the world, at least 70 breed within, forage or visit the Hauraki Gulf, and five species breed nowhere else in the world!

The reason not many people realise the waters surrounding our largest city are so important for seabirds is because of their behaviour. Seabirds spend up to 80% of their lives at sea and only return to land to breed. More than half of the Gulf’s seabird species are petrels, prions and shearwaters that nest underground (yes, you read that right!). Even stranger is that many of these birds return to their burrows under the cover of darkness, which makes them far less visible than their surface or tree-nesting counterparts – the more widely known gulls, shags, terns, and gannets.

A Buller’s shearwater/rako visiting its burrow at night.
📷: Edin Whitehead, 2019

Their nocturnal habits are thought to avoid avian predators. What’s more, predation by introduced mammals such as rats and stoats mean seabird colonies are often confined to predator-free offshore islands. So, unless you spend time out on the water or are lucky enough to spend the night on a predator-free island in the Hauraki Gulf, it is no wonder these taonga/treasures often go unnoticed.  

A workup of multiple seabird species and schooling fish in the Hauraki Gulf.
📷: Edin Whitehead, 2019.

As a seabird researcher with the Northern NZ Seabird Trust  I  visit many of the predator-free islands, both in the Hauraki Gulf and beyond, and work with many seabird species up close, often in the middle of the night. Part of my role, through funding from Auckland Council, is to work with communities to help restore seabird populations to areas where they once would have been common, such as islands or coastal areas.

One highlight of this project was when a fluttering shearwater chick fledged from the now predator-free Te Motu-a-Ihenga/Motuihe Island at the beginning of this year.  It is likely this was the  first chick to  hatch on the island since cattle and rats were introduced in the mid-1800s. The island went through a predator-eradication programme between 1993 – 2003 to remove the island of predators such mice, rats, rabbits and cats, and was declared officially predator-free in 2005.

A little blue penguin/kororā foraging in the Hauraki Gulf.
📷: Edin Whitehead, 2018.

Another project we have been working on recently is studying which types of artificial lights used by humans are less attractive to seabirds. Some seabirds, especially young ones, get confused by artificial lights at night when leaving their nests for the first time. This often causes them to be drawn to the lights where they may collide with structures such as illuminated buildings and ships entering or leaving the port. This research project is a collaborative effort with the University of Auckland and aims to find ways to reduce the risk of light-induced collisions for seabirds in the region.

A Cook’s petrel/tītī confused by a beam of artificial light on Hauturu
📷: Edin Whitehead, 2020.

As New Zealand works to become predator-free, the Auckland mainland may once again become home to seabirds in their thousands. In my lifetime, I would love to hear seabirds calling as they fly over my house in urban Auckland and for the many seabirds living on our Hauraki Gulf doorstep to be as well-known as kiwi or kākāpō

A little blue penguin/kororā on land.
📷: Edin Whitehead, 2018.

If you want to learn more about our taonga/treasured seabirds in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, check out the publications on the Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust website.

Love it, Restore it, Protect it.

One response to Global hotspot for sensational seabirds right on our doorstep

    Peter Hallinan 03/07/2020 at 11:27 am

    Hi Kerry and team, regarding making lights less attractive to seabirds by local body councils, this is a real issue in Kaikoura for the Hutton’s shearwater.

    Are you in a position yet to offer specific advice to local bodies throughout the country, or is this still a work in progress?