Banding together to protect Aotea’s precious seabirds

When you’re doing conservation work on Aotea Great Barrier Island, there’s no escaping the elements, as The Detail finds out.

As the last storm through hitting the top of the North Island and Jono Ridler through setting off on his record-breaking swim, a small group of conservationists were clambering through dense bush on Aotea Great Barrier Island in pouring rain and howling winds to check on little black petrels.

Crouched on a steep slope of Hirakimatā, the island’s highest peak, team leader Biz Bell reaches into a dark burrow and feels for the fluffy fledging.

“We could band this guy,” Bell calls out over the noise of the wind and rain.

Others climb over tree stumps and rocks to reach her with an umbrella for shelter, pliers and a small metal band to put around the bird’s leg.

Ayla Wiles reaches into a black petrel burrow. Photo: Supplied: Tū Mai Taonga

It is a delicate operation, over in seconds, and the team moves to the next burrow.

This bird could live to 50 years old and the banding means that it will continue to be tracked as it flies off to South American waters and back again.

It’s Bell’s 28th year on Hirakimatā, monitoring the petrel, or tākoketai, and it’s looking grim.

“Unfortunately this season we’ve had a pretty bad case of climate change effects,” says Bell, managing director of Wildlife Management International, a private consultancy doing conservation work here and overseas. 

Biz Bell. Photo: Supplied/Tū Mai Taonga

After several hours of checking and banding the chicks, Bell and her team shelter at their hut on the mountain. This is their fourth day of work and the weather is closing in, but they have more birds to check.

“We’re here to assess the final stage of the breeding success, so check what level the birds bred at this year,” Bell tells The Detail. “We’re banding any surviving chicks and then we’ll know what our breeding success level is.”

She already knows that Auckland’s flooding at the end of January, followed by Cyclone Gabrielle, through disastrous for the birds. Burrows that had never flooded before were suddenly full of water, drowning eggs and chicks.

The count is not as bad as expected, though, with roughly 120 chicks banded this time – just over half that of previous years.

A black petrel chick. Photo: Supplied/Tū Mai Taonga

Bell explains to The Detail what that means to a species that is vulnerable to many threats, and the importance of pest eradication programmes on the island.

It’s estimated that more than 1000 feral cats and 250,000 rats are killing more than 80,000 native birds on the island every year. 

Despite the grim statistics, Bell is optimistic Aotea can be pest free and thinks the best hope so far is Tū Mai Taonga, a multi-million dollar, mana whenua-led project that aims to restore birdsong to the native forests.

The Detail through with project lead, Makere Jenner, as she made her first journey on Hirakimatā to join the tākoketai banding effort.

Makere Jenner. Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

She says she feels a burden of responsibility to the kaumatua of Ngāti Rehua and Ngātiwai to make sure the project doesn’t fail. With the backing of Predator Free 2050 and funding from the Department of Conservation, Auckland Council and other groups, the goal is to restore life to remote forested areas, such as Te Paparahi, that are largely silent.

It is also about transforming the outlook for people whose ancestors came to the island hundreds of years ago.

Jenner, a mother of four, through able to spot her tiny island home for the first time from the summit of Hirakimatā just before the clouds closed in.

“It’s not about summiting a mountain,” she says. “It is about being there on the group pushing forward the work that matters and that is going to have a lasting effect for our whānau and for the taiao, the environment here.”

Hear more about Sharon Brettkelly’s adventure on Aotea in the full podcast episode.

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