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22 May 2014 International Day for Biological Diversity. Island Biodiversity is the theme for today’s International Day for Biological Diversity.

To celebrate, DOC ranger Tansy Bliss writes about her job protecting the biodiversity on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands…

It’s May and the busy season of species protection work on the islands of Mangere and Rangatira in the Chatham Islands is coming to a close.

Rangatira Island on the horizon.

Rangatira Island, the third largest island in the Chatham Islands archipelago

It is often hard to find time for quiet reflection, but our final day on Rangatira sums up what is has all been about.

Naomi Muhlbacher, Islands hold a Chatham Petrel chick.

Naomi Muhlbacher holds a Chatham petrel chick

Trainee Ranger, Naomi Muhlbacher, holds a Chatham petrel chick. It lives in an artificial burrow installed in the nineties to help protect one of the rarest seabirds in the world and reduce burrow invasion by broad-billed prions.

With an estimated 300,000 prion pairs on Rangatira, and only 150 known Chatham Petrel pairs, competition for burrows is high.

I am fitting the chick with a metal band, so when it returns to breed in 3-5 years time, its identity can be verified.

This island was farmed up until the late fifties and most of the burrowing seabirds lost their home to heavy footed cattle and wandering sheep. Now the ground is so pitted with burrows, we wear wooden boards on our feet to prevent us damaging them further.

A black robin comes in to take advantage of the loosened soil and insects I have scooped out of the plastic tunnel entrance to ensure the chick has free passage to come in and out when exercising its wings ready for departure over the next few weeks.

Black robin. Photo: Leon Berard | CC BY 2.0.

Black robin

Chatham Island red-crowned parakeets chatter above us in competition with the Chatham Island tūī, fluttering from tree to tree, with constant vocalisations.

A Chatham Island snipe snuffles through the leaf litter, totally unperturbed by our presence and a male Chatham Island tomtit, sounds his alarm as he wards off the black robin from the fresh feeding ground.

Chatham Island red-crowned parakeet.

Chatham Island red-crowned parakeet

Last month a team of highly skilled volunteers and I scoured the island searching for black robin—completing the annual banding and post-breeding census.

On an island with almost 200 hectares of potential robin habitat, it is quite a job.

Currently there are 229 known colour-banded adult black robins and 70 juveniles on Rangatira. The nearby island of Mangere is smaller and with less than 10 hectares of mature forest, and holds a population of 45 adults and 9 juveniles. With this being the entire population of black robin in the world, protecting them is high on our priority list.

Trying to catch black robin in a drop trap.

A young black robin inspects the drop trap looking for a meal worm

Before leaving Rangatira, we recheck all the coastal bait stations for sign of nibbling rodents and ensure all bait is fresh and ready for any unwanted arrivals. The rough seas around the islands and the rat free status of the nearest neighbour, Pitt Island, has probably helped keep the islands pest free. However bio-security is still the most important job I do and the responsibility of getting it right every time feels enormous.

Today, we pause to relax in the sun on the lichen covered rocks with the skinks and shore plover, all of us enjoying some unexpected late autumn warmth. Chatham Island warblers pick insects from the lichen and bull kelp thrown high on the coast during the recent storms. A Chatham Island fantail displays in the fringing Olearia trees and a pair of Chatham Island oystercatchers stand proud in the spray zone separated from the frolicking fur seals by a rolling ocean of breaking blue.

For us in the Chatham Islands, every day is an ‘Island Biodiversity Day’.

By Sarah Matthew, volunteer and artist based in Wellington

The memories I have of Raoul Island are going to keep me smiling for a long, long time. Being a Department of Conservation (DOC) volunteer for six months was a fantastic opportunity to learn about and explore the remote rock, and meet some awesome people in the process.

Denham Bay Hut on Raoul Island. Photo: Sarah Matthew.

Denham Bay Hut

From bird life to hostel life, there were loads of wonderful and inspirational things to stimulate creativity. There is a lot of history in the hostel and library, and also in the books and relics that can be found in the huts dotted around the island.

Black winged petrel. Photo: Sarah Matthew.

Black winged petrel

Weeding was our core purpose, and the biggest chunk of our week was spent in the bush hunting for rogue plants.

The weekends allowed us free time to go adventuring and enjoy our own activities.

I really appreciated being so far removed from the mainland and the sense of freedom it allowed. The absence of shops meant we were able to embrace the good old kiwi mentality of making the most out of what was at hand and, for once, money was not an issue!

Flying tropicbird. Photo; Sarah Matthew.

Tropicbird

Clothes hanger shaped into a kiwi on Raoul Island. Photo: Sarah Matthew.

Kiwi ingenuity.

The bush and the bird life are glorious on Raoul, and a trip to weed the Meyer Islands was a treat, as there are a large number of birds nesting there, including tropicbirds, petrels, terns and boobies! It was a delight to be able to get so close to such magnificent creatures.

There are tui, kakariki, and also a few families of cheeky pukeko living around the hostel. They graze the lawn and wake the entire population of the island with their lovely call—sounding something like a seagull getting strangled with a potato chip still in its mouth.

I took to walking around with a stick during nesting, not so that I could whack them, just so I could scare them away when they decided to attack!

Pukeko on Raoul Island. Photo: Sarah Matthew.

Lawn ornament?

From an artist’s perspective, being surrounded by nature and not a lot else, gave me the space to be creative and think about the relevance of my work and the way I produce it.

Using my camera to document, I enjoyed taking photographs of things as I found them—or of things that I had made, that did not permanently alter or harm the environment.

Humour has always been a big part of my artwork and I have fun placing things out of context to create alternative meanings, sometimes using playful imagery to discuss more serious ideas.

An environment such as Raoul makes it impossible not to see the inevitable impact that we humans have on nature.

Scrabble letters on the Raoul Island beach saying "I am here". Photo Sarah Matthew.

I am here

It was hard to leave the Island the when the time came, but I am extraordinarily grateful to be able to have gone, and to have gained the knowledge and experience it gave me.  I hope very much to go back there someday.

More photos of my time there can be seen on my artist page on Facebook.


Raoul is the largest island in the Kermadec Islands Nature Reserve—a chain of islands lying some 1000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand.

All the islands of the Kermadec group are part of the specially protected reserve. It is the most remote conservation area managed by the Department of Conservation. 

Raoul Island is one of the Kermadec Islands, about 1000km north-east of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean. DOC have a small team of staff and volunteers who live on the island in relative solitude, doing research and maintaining the native species on the island.

Since the island is so remote, we get these diary entries from the team and post them up on their behalf. Today’s diary is by ranger, Brooke Connolly, who has dreamt of being on Raoul Island since university.

Tropic bird

Getting to Raoul

After our extensive training and preparation for our stay on Raoul Island we were finally at the Devonport naval base ready to board the HZMS Canterbury.

Our cabin was small and cozy and our voyage was rather rough for such a large ship. We were looked after extremely well by the navy, fed like kings and had guided tours of the engine rooms and up to the part where they steer the boat. I woke up at 6 am on the morning of the 3rd of November; we were due to be at Raoul at 6.30 am. I remember rushing to the flight deck and seeing the island blanketed in cloud for the first time, my dream had finally come true.

Getting onto the island from the navy ship was very fast and bumpy, much like a ride at an amusement park. I was second to set foot on fishing rock to a warm welcome from the current team. Finally; I was on Raoul Island, my home for the next year. I almost cried I was so happy!

White tern

The change-over

The change-over period flew past, receiving and unloading all the supplies from the Sea-sprite helicopter, feeding the mass of 40 people as they worked hard to complete their assigned tasks and creating a new era using solar energy (instead of diesel) on Raoul.

The main task for our team of seven people staying on the island was learning how to run and weed the island. During the change-over period we learnt to grid search the bush for weeds. We also had the opportunity to boat to the nearby Meyer islands to do some tobacco weeding. What a privilege to be in such an untouched ecosystem. I cannot describe how amazing it was to see so many sea birds on one rock. The call of the Kermadec petrel was like nothing else I’d ever heard before.  Yyeeeeeeeooooowwwww  waaahhooo waaahhooo waaahhooo waaahhooo.

Everybody on the island has also been blown away by all the humpback whales up here. Daily we see full breaches, tail slaps and general mulling around the island. 

The island routine

When the boat left, the island was comfortably yet strangely quiet. We were sad to see everybody leave, but at the same time we were all ready to start our own adventure.

We began by giving everything a big spring clean and organising all our food. We are now settling into a routine on the island. We cook together at night time which is somewhat difficult; we have to modify each meal to be meaty, vegetarian and gluten free. All our meals have been great so far and the variety of food is great! 

White tern egg

The plants on Raoul

I love plants! The differences and similarities of the plants on Raoul compared to mainland New Zealand is fascinating to see, as are the plants that are endemic to Raoul, or only occur on some Pacific Islands.

We have been teaching our volunteers about the native plants and the weeds on the island and they are learning to tell the difference very fast and are enjoying spending the day out in the bush.

Weeding has been exciting so far. We have been finding some weeds, which has been good to make sure we are searching for the right ones because the seedlings can be tricky to tell apart. We have also been finding a lot of the native cucumber, Sicyos. It has large prickles and they end up in you!! They are not particularly nice when they get in your ears, or anywhere else on your body for that matter! Some of the weed plot names are very deceptive, Low flat plot 8 is not very low or flat like it suggests, it is very high and steep and full of fallen trees, large bluffs and slips. 

The birds on Raoul

I also love birds! The tui have a rather different call up here on Raoul, and the kākāriki graze on the lawn like sheep, they also graze on my corn seedlings. Grrr.

Black-winged petrels fly over the hostel at dusk. My favourite so far are the white terns at Boat Cove. They fly in pairs or groups on wind draughts up and down cliffs and valleys. They nest in trees, which like the Noddy on the Meyer Islands or other sea birds on the main island, isn’t all that uncommon. But what is rather strange is that these birds lay their green blotchy egg on a flat bit of a pohutukawa branch. It is the most uncanny thing I have ever seen, but also the most awesome.

A noddy (seabird from the tern family)

I can truly say coming to Raoul Island is both the biggest opportunity I have ever had and the best decision I have ever made.