Banding together to protect Aotea's precious seabirds

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 5 May 2023

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

A conservation worker in a bright orange jacket is holding a black petrel chick, getting it ready for banding.

A black petrel chick out of its burrow, ready for banding Photo: Supplied/Tū Mai Taonga

As the last storm was hitting the top of the North Island and Jono Ridler was 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.

DOC worker Ayla Wiles, wearing an orange jacket and blue striped beanie, reaches into a petrel burrow.

Ayla Wiles reaches into a 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. 

A woman stands next to a tree. She is wearing a black hat and rain jacket. She is in the bush and it is raining.

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, were 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, fluffy petrel chick tucked up in a burrow.

One of the black petrel chicks in its burrow 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 was with project lead, Makere Jenner, as she made her first journey on Hirakimatā to join the tākoketai banding effort.

A woman in wet weather gear stands on top of a maunga on Aotea Great Barrier Island. It is cloudy.

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, was 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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