Seabirds return to Nicks Head

CALLING THEM IN: Experimental ‘social attraction’ brings seabirds back to Young Nicks Head. The long-disappeared petrel are drawn to birdcalls broadcast over a solar-powered sound system. Pictures supplied
Young Nicks Head Petrel programme
Young Nicks Head Petrel programme
Young Nicks Head Petrel programme
Young Nicks Head Petrel programme
Young Nicks Head Petrel programme

A once-prolific seabird that disappeared from Young Nicks Head has made a return through the dedicated and creative efforts of Ecoworks, a Gisborne- based environmental management group.

Petrels and shearwaters, known as ‘titi’, were once an important food source for iwi Ngai Tamanuhiri at Muriwai.

Large numbers nested in underground burrows across the iconic Nicks Head (Te Kuri a Paoa) until the early 1900s.

In 2004, trained seabird detector dogs were deployed to ascertain if any petrels or shearwaters remained.

Extensive searching confirmed all seabirds except black shags had long become extinct on the peninsula, primarily as a result of habitat loss and introduced pest predators such as stoats, ferrets, rats and feral cats.

Ecoworks managing director Steve Sawyer said conversations with the community gave him the idea to try to develop a plan to re-establish titi.

“I began to think it was possible to return this species by using what is known as ‘social attraction’.

“This involves broadcasting seabird calls from a remote, solar-powered sound system to attract birds to the location and had never been tried previously.”

Most seabird recovery programmes transfer chicks from one site to another, feeding them for several weeks to slowly build numbers over a period of years.

Ecologists had thought the social attraction method was unlikely to be successful and if, by chance, birds were attracted it would take many decades to see growth in numbers.

During November 2005 the system was set up on the headland and a solar switch ensured it played titi vocalisations every night from sunset to sunrise.

“In May 2006, I walked out to the headland just after sunset one evening to see how the sound system was working,” said Mr Sawyer.

“I didn’t really expect to hear anything at all, based on the advice I had been given by experienced seabird ecologists. It was suggested it would take several decades to see any success, if at all.”

“Petrels were known to nest only in the area where they had been raised as a chick, so always went back to that island or area to breed themselves, a phenomenon known as philopatry.

“As I got closer I heard a strange call, different from any other birds in the area, a low guttural growling call from a bird flying low along the cliff face and circling back up and over the sound system speakers and calling regularly.

“As it turned out, grey-faced petrels had obviously come within earshot of the sound system and were highly attracted to it,” he said.

Titi were back on the ground once again on Nicks Head after 76 years absence and were using the artificial nesting burrows that had been dug into the hill by the Ecoworks team.

Only a small number of petrel returned initially, with two pairs of birds in year one.

Petrels lay only one egg a year and do not return to breed until four to six years of age if they survive their first few years at sea.

However, numbers have steadily continued to grow.

“This was a huge success and a world-first using acoustic playback to re-establish a locally extinct petrel back into an area. It was also a significant step toward restoring an ancient taonga species that played such a significant part for Ngai Tamanuhiri and other iwi in our region for centuries.

“Now we have 45 breeding pairs along with sooty shearwater, fluttering shearwater, fairy prion and gannet (takapu) nesting,” said Mr Sawyer.

Petrel numbers are expected to slowly increase. They are growing at 36 percent per year.

“By 2020 we expect to see about 100 pairs nesting again on the headland.”

A once-prolific seabird that disappeared from Young Nicks Head has made a return through the dedicated and creative efforts of Ecoworks, a Gisborne- based environmental management group.

Petrels and shearwaters, known as ‘titi’, were once an important food source for iwi Ngai Tamanuhiri at Muriwai.

Large numbers nested in underground burrows across the iconic Nicks Head (Te Kuri a Paoa) until the early 1900s.

In 2004, trained seabird detector dogs were deployed to ascertain if any petrels or shearwaters remained.

Extensive searching confirmed all seabirds except black shags had long become extinct on the peninsula, primarily as a result of habitat loss and introduced pest predators such as stoats, ferrets, rats and feral cats.

Ecoworks managing director Steve Sawyer said conversations with the community gave him the idea to try to develop a plan to re-establish titi.

“I began to think it was possible to return this species by using what is known as ‘social attraction’.

“This involves broadcasting seabird calls from a remote, solar-powered sound system to attract birds to the location and had never been tried previously.”

Most seabird recovery programmes transfer chicks from one site to another, feeding them for several weeks to slowly build numbers over a period of years.

Ecologists had thought the social attraction method was unlikely to be successful and if, by chance, birds were attracted it would take many decades to see growth in numbers.

During November 2005 the system was set up on the headland and a solar switch ensured it played titi vocalisations every night from sunset to sunrise.

“In May 2006, I walked out to the headland just after sunset one evening to see how the sound system was working,” said Mr Sawyer.

“I didn’t really expect to hear anything at all, based on the advice I had been given by experienced seabird ecologists. It was suggested it would take several decades to see any success, if at all.”

“Petrels were known to nest only in the area where they had been raised as a chick, so always went back to that island or area to breed themselves, a phenomenon known as philopatry.

“As I got closer I heard a strange call, different from any other birds in the area, a low guttural growling call from a bird flying low along the cliff face and circling back up and over the sound system speakers and calling regularly.

“As it turned out, grey-faced petrels had obviously come within earshot of the sound system and were highly attracted to it,” he said.

Titi were back on the ground once again on Nicks Head after 76 years absence and were using the artificial nesting burrows that had been dug into the hill by the Ecoworks team.

Only a small number of petrel returned initially, with two pairs of birds in year one.

Petrels lay only one egg a year and do not return to breed until four to six years of age if they survive their first few years at sea.

However, numbers have steadily continued to grow.

“This was a huge success and a world-first using acoustic playback to re-establish a locally extinct petrel back into an area. It was also a significant step toward restoring an ancient taonga species that played such a significant part for Ngai Tamanuhiri and other iwi in our region for centuries.

“Now we have 45 breeding pairs along with sooty shearwater, fluttering shearwater, fairy prion and gannet (takapu) nesting,” said Mr Sawyer.

Petrel numbers are expected to slowly increase. They are growing at 36 percent per year.

“By 2020 we expect to see about 100 pairs nesting again on the headland.”

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