A wake-up call from the birds

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    From the mad morning rush of squabbling tūī, the insistent barking of the neighbourhood ducks and the maudlin call of an elusive shining cuckoo that flits somewhere at the back of our valley, it’s clearly peak mating season for Waiheke’s birdlife.

    But for all the action around our parts, spring’s abundance and procreativity is not mirrored throughout the Hauraki Gulf. 

    Take the fairy tern, described in this week’s newly released State of our Seabirds report as being down to its last 39 individuals. Any breeding pairs preparing to produce chicks that would fledge during this summer would be forgiven for foregoing the whole palaver when you look at the three-ring circus of last year’s efforts.

    It’s worth retelling.

    Following a relatively successful 2019-20 summer in which seven chicks fledged, the Hauraki Gulf Forum last year heard that stormy weather had threatened to derail the whole process and so eggs had been “rescued” in November and sent to Auckland Zoo for safe-keeping. The Forum noted dryly at the time, “Hopefully will all hatch”.

    How many eggs were taken seems to be at question – the Hauraki Gulf Forum reported nine, later reporting stated 10. 

    But what then occurred for the critically endangered tara iti shows the knife-edge that their species’ survival sits on.

    After two weeks’ intense and careful incubation at Auckland Zoo, four of the eggs were returned in a pale pink Kmart thermos flask to maintain the required 37C and replaced in the shallow scratchings in the sand that pass for a fairy tern’s nest. Their parents had been sitting on dummy eggs since the earlier “theft” by DoC rangers, who are paid to sit guard over the fairy terns at the private beach near Mangawhai 40 hours a week. All four of those chicks reportedly fledged.

    Meanwhile, back at the zoo, things weren’t going quite so swimmingly. Just one of the remaining eggs hatched from an incubator designed to turn the eggs automatically every hour and was set to maintain just the right levels of temperature and humidity. That chick was then hand-raised, first by zoo staff who fed it live fish every 90 minutes, and then for about a month by DoC rangers at an aviary where it could learn how to fly and feed itself.

    When it was finally released back into the wild, it was heralded as the “first fairy tern chick hand-reared since the 1990s” and “an essential first step towards an intensive future programme focused on population to help reverse the fortunes of the plucky bird”.

    From the fairy terns’ precarious haunts at Mangawhai, north of Auckland, to Waihi on the Coromandel Peninsula, the Hauraki Gulf covers 1.2 million hectares of ocean – a vast area that, even in these Covid times, is treated as a giant playground by those of us who skid or sail around on its surface, lounge at its fringes or cast lines into its depths.

    Last Saturday, during an early morning stroll with the dog under a sharp blue sky, I gazed north past The Noises at the countless wakes scoring the blue on this boaties’ paradise and this long Labour Weekend, once again, no doubt every bay and cranny of our backyard will be filled once more.

    But it’s worthwhile taking time to dwell on who we share this patch of ocean with and how those neighbours are faring. Last year’s State of the Gulf report made for dismal reading and the State of our Seabirds report – although prinked with occasional positivity – is full of more or less the same warnings.

    The wider Hauraki Gulf region provides breeding grounds for 27 seabird species and five species – takoketai black petrel, tītī Pycroft’s petrel, rako Buller’s shearwater, the New Zealand storm petrel and tara iti New Zealand fairy tern – breed nowhere else in the world. How we look after their home will have a great bearing on their futures.

    While we necessarily look to our own species’ current crises it would be easy to avert our gaze from the plight of others with whom we share these waters – but their dispersal or disappearance would be disastrous.

    The last word ought to go to the authors of the State of our Seabirds, who waxed somewhat poetically on the importance of their studies under the heading “Our ocean’s sentinels”:

    “Seabirds themselves reflect the health of our oceans and pass this knowledge on to those of us who watch over them. Their health and resilience relies on the health of the oceans, but they also play a pivotal role in nurturing and maintaining this. By simply existing, seabirds link the oceans to the land and in doing so enable the land to feed the oceans. Theirs is a vital role, and when we listen, they can tell us when these interconnected relationships are degrading or are broken. They are sentinels to changes in the environment, and can act as indicators of those changes, if we do our duty and pay attention.”

    Waiheke this Labour Weekend is full of wake-up calls – and not just those of our feathered friends. Stay – and play – safe. • James Belfield

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