This fluffy thing, with the big, black and beautiful puppy dog eyes, is a one month old Westland black petrel chick in its burrow just south of Punakaiki.
Petrel chick cuteness. Photo: Bruce Stuart-Menteath | Paparoa Nature Tours
The chick’s parents still come in for feeding time in the evenings by doing an “elegant” crash landing in the canopy. They then drop to the ground, looking slightly disorientated for a few minutes, before regaining composure and waddling off to their burrow to have a noisy and somewhat reproachful chat with their partner. A bit like: “Did you actually forget to bring the Hoki? Do I now have to fly ALL THE WAY back to Hokitika to get one!”
Adult black petrel out at sea. Photo: Arthur Chapman
In the morning mum and/or dad petrel will have to jump off the cliff to get airborne as their legs are too short to get them going on even ground. And off to another day at sea. Isn’t it amazing what these guys take on to raise their chick?
But let’s be honest – who wouldn’t, looking at a fluffy thing like that?
At this time of year there is plenty of night time activity at the top of Mt Hobson/Hirakimata on Great Barrier Island. Black petrel chicks, with new glossy adult feathers, are coming out of their nest burrows and furiously flapping their wings. When they feel strong they waddle to a prominent rock and launch themselves, flying off towards South America where they stay for a few years before returning to find a mate and nest.
Adam Clow and a black petrel
Black petrels used to breed on high points throughout the North Island and top of the South Island, often flying far inland to nest. They played an important role in the health of the forest, bringing rich nutrients into the ecosystem from the sea. Their droppings, eggshells, and dead chicks were deposited in the forest and they aerated the soil with their digging, acting like little composters.
This annual foray inland went on for millions of years. After the arrival of people the mainland colonies slowly disappeared as habitat destruction and predation by rats, cats, stoats, and pigs got the better of them. There are now about 15,000 black petrels left in the world, and of these only around 2,000 breeding pairs.
Burrow hunting on Mt Hobson/Hirakimata
Whitianga and Leigh longline fishermen Adam Clow, Wayne Dreadon, Gavin Perry, Clayton White, and Mark Dellow, along with Leigh Fisheries employee Angela Cole, and boat builder Mitch Pascoe, recently joined Biz Bell, Seabird Researcher, on top of Great Barrier Island to help band black petrels before they flew off.
“Five minutes after meeting Biz I was up to my armpit in a black petrel burrow, carefully pulling a bird out then holding it while she banded it,” Gavin says.
“They’re smart birds and have an extraordinary homing sense. On land the path they use is like a bird highway at night, as black petrels from nearby burrows waddle to the rock they take off from. After the chicks have left for South America the parent birds fly there too and, the following spring, they fly back to their burrows and meet the same old partner.”
Black petrel inside its burrow
It was also an amazing day for Adam: “The biggest thing for me was the realisation of how special and smart these birds are and how rare they are. I learned that they have a low survival rate and that fishermen here and in South America play a part in their decline.”
Wayne Dreadon, burrowing
Gavin says that no fishermen like catching birds and he and others in his fleet follow the Leigh Commercial Fishermen’s Code of Practice, developed by Leigh fishermen over 20 years ago.
Wayne, Adam and Gavin agree the dangerous time is when they’re setting gear before dawn and birds want to dive on the baited hooks. They use tori lines to keep the birds out of the danger zone and weights to sink the baited hooks fast so the birds won’t dive on them. They make sure the deck lights point in inwards to minimise the visual presence of the boat at sea. And they hold scraps onboard when there are hooks in the water – tipping a bucket of fish scraps overboard is like a dinner gong for seabirds.
Location, location, location – Great Barrier Island
“This experience hammered in the vulnerability of these birds and their importance as a species. It gave me a totally new respect for them. It would be great if all fishermen did this trip to the colony at least once,” Gavin says.
“Our fleet has been aware of the risk to seabirds for many years and we will continue to do our bit to protect them, and to help others. A few years back a Leigh fisherman went to Peru to talk to fishermen over there about ways to avoid catching seabirds.”
Wayne agrees that helping band black petrels was a primo experience. “Watching them waddle to their take-off rock and fly off, into the night, was a primeval experience. These birds have been doing this, from this place, for thousands of years. All fishermen are obligated to work as a team to look after black petrels so they will continue to have a place, here, for thousands of years to come.”