Fairy prion chick (by Abby McBride)

Cliffhanger! Risking Life and Limb for Fluffy Seabirds

Supposedly I didn’t show any fear during my first abseil, down a 70-meter seacliff south of Dunedin, New Zealand. Thank you, poker face. But in truth, it was amazement more than fear that I felt while hanging vertiginously over the ocean, descending past surfaces sculpted like unfired urns, to find a wild, winged treasure buried in the sandstone below.

This music video/science documentary mashup features Volcano Sky from the album “Birds Say” by Darlingside. (In case you missed it, here’s another music vidocumentary of amazing New Zealand seabirds.)

Abseiler and former DOC ranger Graeme Loh has been hurtling over the cliff regularly for a couple of decades, studying and caring for a colony of small, silvery seabirds that nest on a ledge halfway down. They’re called fairy prions, and they’re enchanting. The sheer cliff protects them from rats and other invasive mammals that terrorize the countryside above. Otherwise, these delicate and sweet-tempered birds can nest only on offshore islands free of predators.

The hidden ledge holds about 50 natural nest burrows and 90 nest boxes (including 74 study boxes), which Loh built after discovering the colony in the early 1990s. A few years later he started banding the prions, and by now he’s placed bands on the legs of some 1500 birds. Learn more about the secret prion colony in a Radio New Zealand story by Alison Ballance.

I visited the colony at the perfect time to see adults as well as nestlings. Fairy prion parents incubate their chicks for less than a week, but Loh found adults huddled with their babies in 23 of the 61 active nests. In one nest a parent was still sitting on an egg. Besides checking all of the study boxes for activity, Loh also downloaded data from temperature loggers and cameras, gathering information about the prions’ comings and goings.

While he did the rounds, I had ample time to sketch. Seabird chicks tend to be ludicrously fluffy. These fairy prions were no exception.

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As if caretaking a cliffside colony weren’t enough of a commitment, Loh has added a new element to the project. He recently led a team of volunteers in building a remarkable fence at the top of the cliff, completely sealing off one small plot of land from wily predators. With the help of audio recordings to lure in fairy prions, he aims to expand the colony to this slightly more accessible location, as well as protect other seabird species that nest there. So far no nesting prions, but it’s early yet.

Graeme Loh's fence

Learn more about Loh’s one-of-a-kind fence in this video by Sue Maturin.

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow. Working with the Auckland Museum, she is sketching seabirds and writing stories about efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Wildlife

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Sketch biologist Abby McBride once harbored aspirations of being a Victorian-era naturalist explorer. Adapting her career goals to the 21st century, she now travels globally to sketch wildlife and write multimedia stories about science and conservation. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow in New Zealand, home to the most diverse and endangered seabirds in the world, Abby is reporting on extraordinary efforts to reverse centuries of human-caused harm to penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Through art and digital media she aims to convey a sense of the beauty, fascination, and importance of seabirds, which are quickly disappearing from seas and shores worldwide. Abby is based on the Maine coast and has degrees in biology and science writing from Williams College and MIT. Follow @sketchbiologist on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (or get email updates).