3 Aug 2023

The petrel patrol

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 3 August 2023

The concrete jungle of inner-city Auckland is no place for a seabird. 

But that’s where many Cook’s petrels, or tītī, end up every year: crash-landed in urban areas after becoming discombobulated by the bright city lights. 

Luckily, the Petrel Patrol is on hand to rescue lost seabirds. 

A close up of a grey and white seabird on a paper towel in a plastic box.

A Cook's petrel or tītī. Photo: Ellen Rykers / RNZ

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Ariel Heswall, a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, is the brains behind the volunteer Petrel Patrol, which hits the pavement on early mornings across a few weeks in Autumn to search for grounded seabirds. She was inspired to start the patrol after seeing hundreds of Cook’s petrels come into the Birdcare Aotearoa hospital as patients. 

Four people in high-vis vests stand at the entrance to a park on a sunny morning. The Sky Tower is visible in the background. The people are smiling.

Petrel Patrol volunteers led by Ariel Heswall (second from left) gather on a sunny morning to check Albert Park for crash-landed seabirds. Photo: Ellen Rykers / RNZ

Cook’s petrels – or “Cookies”, as Ariel affectionately calls them – once lived on mountaintops across Aotearoa. But now, they are restricted to three offshore islands. One population lives in the south, on Whenua Hou Codfish Island off the coast of Rakiura. The other lives in the Hauraki Gulf, with most breeding on Hauturu-o-toi Little Barrier Island and a few more on Aotea Great Barrier Island. 

Four grey seabirds in a spa bath. Two have their wings outstretched

Cook's petrels enjoy bath time at Birdcare Aotearoa. Photo: Ellen Rykers / RNZ

The Hauraki Gulf Cook’s petrels forage for food in the Tasman Sea, which means they have to fly across the Auckland isthmus to find a feed. With city lights creating disorienting light pollution, this journey is perilous – especially for young fledglings making the trip for the first time. It’s these inexperienced birds that often fall victim to the lights – or even collide with buildings – and end up at Birdcare Aotearoa. 

Join us as we tag along on a Petrel Patrol, and then visit Birdcare Aotearoa to meet recovering Cook’s petrels and learn about what it takes to rehabilitate seabirds from wildlife rehabilitation expert Lynn Miller. Plus, Ariel explains her research into why light pollution affects seabirds like Cook’s petrels. 

Two women standing out the front of Birdcare reception. They are smiling and one is wearing blue scrubs.

Ariel Heswall (left) and Lynn Miller at Birdcare Aotearoa. Photo: Supplied

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