Seabirds with a mountain home

02:48, Sep 13 2012

Hundreds of metres above the multitude of seabirds to be found on Kaikoura's beautiful coastlines, the Hutton's shearwaters have the ultimate ocean view from their mountain perches. But why does a seabird choose to breed high up in the mountains? 

Kaikoura is hot property for seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales (not to mention me and the bloke when we go camping). The closeness of deep ocean trenches to the shore means the cold ocean currents within contain a feast of nutrient-rich food for nearby wildlife, and the Hutton's shearwaters exploit this marine supermarket regularly.

Shearwaters are long-winged seabirds that spend their busy days wheeling and flying over the ocean looking for food. Maori know shearwaters as titi, and some of you may have tasted the young of the sooty shearwater as a "muttonbird" from the Titi Islands near Stewart Island.

In fact, it was a chance remark about muttonbirds that led Geoff Harrow to rediscover the Hutton's shearwater colonies in 1964, after asking locals whether there were any around the coast, and being told by someone of colonies in the mountains. He wondered if these were the long thought extinct Hutton's shearwater, and set off on a steep hike six weeks later to see for himself. After being disappointed on his first night, he all but tripped over a bird carcass the next day, and to his delight, found a thriving (at that stage) population of these birds which prefer life above the snowline. 

There were eight colonies when Geoff first rediscovered these amazing burrowing birds, but sadly only two colonies remain now. Pigs, stoats and other predators have annihilated the other populations in the space of only 50 years.

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This threat and the thought of losing the high-flying birds altogether sparked the creation of the Hutton's Shearwater Charitable Trust (including original Hutton's finder, Geoff Harrow), who aim to look after these alpine-breeding seabirds, protect their habitat and educate the public about how special they are. This group of people is another example of flax roots conservation, and like other dedicated groups throughout the country, the HSCT certainly put their money where their mouth is, most notably for helping to start a new breeding colony of Hutton's shearwaters behind a predator-proof fence on the Kaikoura Peninsula.

Relocating seabirds that "home" to their breeding colony is no mean feat, and not something you undertake lightly. The only way to do it is to "kidnap" almost-fledged chicks and start them up at a new home, so that when they grow their adult feathers and fly away they will believe the place they left from is "home" and come back to breed.  Between 2005 and 2008, the members of the trust brought down 300 chicks from the mountain colonies to their new homes at Kaikoura Peninsula.  Chicks still need to be fed, so an army of volunteers feed the chicks a special mixture of "sardine smoothies" to ensure they have the right nutrients. 

Their efforts paid off and the first "homegrown" peninsula chick returned in 2008. The following year, more birds returned and by the time the predator-proof fence was completed in 2010, the first egg was laid in one of the purpose-built nesting boxes. A wonderful symbol of reward for a group of people who have all but moved mountains to achieve their conservation goal.

The folk at the Hutton's Shearwater Trust want you to love their birds so much, they're having a street party in Kaikoura to celebrate (September 22) - they'd love you all to come along. I think they probably also want you to vote for their bird in the Bird of the Year competition.

I've seen Hutton's shearwaters while out at sea, and this year was lucky enough to visit their peninsula colony. Have you guys ever seen one?