‘Bringing back the seabirds’ is the rallying call for conservationists working to restore Wellington’s Mana Island.
A handful of these sparrow-sized birds already breed on the island, and the Friends of Mana Island are hoping the 260 chicks they have rehomed to the island in the past three years will soon give this number a welcome boost.
The new arrivals hail from Rangitira, in the Chathams, which is home to a thriving white-faced storm petrel breeding population.
They were collected as late stage chicks, and translocated to Mana Island via crayfish boat, plane and helicopter.
Upon arrival, each chick was fed and transferred to an artificial burrow. The burrow comprises a dark, quiet nesting chamber with a soft floor of dry leaves.
A tunnel made from drainage coil gives access to the world outside, although for the first few days the chicks are barricaded inside to prevent them wandering outside and getting lost.
A team of volunteers from the Friends of Mana Island, led by seabird expert Cathy Mitchell, look after the chicks for several weeks until they develop their full adult plumage and are ready to fledge.
Once a day, each chick is collected from its burrow and taken to the classic caravan that serves as the dining room.
The chick is weighed to check that it is on a perfect trajectory – adding precious grams until the final week before departure, when it needs to slim down to flight weight.
A wing measurement gives an indication of flight readiness – wing feathers grow up to 3 mm a day until they are about 50 mm long.
Health and Plunket check complete, Cathy and sidekick Shane Cotter give each bird its once daily meal – 7 ml of sardine smoothie delivered directly into the crop via a syringe and a soft feeding tube.
A sardine smoothie – made from finely blended sardines, fish oil, boiled water and a vitamin pill – mimics the natural diet of krill that parent birds feed their sole chick once a day.
Once Cathy judges that a chick is getting close to departure, the barricades on its tunnel come down. Then, if the chick is so inclined, it can explore down the tunnel during the night and check the outside world.
Depending on the chick, this stage might last a few days until one night it will leave the burrow and without any fanfare, simply lift off and fly away.
The newly fledged white-faced storm petrel chick won’t touch land again for two or three years.
Its world will be one of the open ocean, of waves and wind, and an endless search for krill.
White-faced storm petrels are known as Jesus Birds for the way they appear to walk on water. They flit – butterfly-like- just above the surface of the water, dabbling their long legs and large feet and lightly dipping their head into the water as they pick at krill.
In time, they will feel an urge to return to the colony they were born and raised in.
Cathy and her team hope that the chicks translocated to Mana Island will recognise that island as their home, that their time there as chicks will have accustomed them to its sights, sounds and smells.
The white-faced storm petrel translocation to Mana Island took place over three years, 2019-2021. The first birds may start returning next year to pair up and breed.
In summers to come, if everything goes according to plan, the western cliffs will ring at night with the sounds of thousands of breeding storm petrels.
The birds will bring them the riches of the sea in the form of guano, which will fertilise the soil. The plants, invertebrates, reptiles and even the land birds will reap the benefits, and slowly Mana Island will be restored to its former glory, as a functioning seabird island.
Listen to the podcast to be immersed in the sounds of Mana Island and to hear more about the white-faced storm petrel translocation story.
More seabird stories from Our Changing World
Bringing seabirds back to Mana Island – Colin MIskelly talks about some of the early seabird translocations to Mana Island, in 2009.
New residents on Matiu-Somes Island – a fluttering shearwater translocation to Matiu-Somes Island, in Wellington Harbour.
Successful new seabird colony on Matiu-Somes Island – a follow-up on the success of the flutterng shearwater tranlocation.
An albatross chick’s flowerpot is its castle – a pioneering albatross translocation on the Chatham Islands
For all of Our Changing World’s seabird stories – and there are plenty more - head to the Birds collection.