When I set out to find a nesting colony of the most endangered gull in the world, I fully expected to fail. Not that it should be hard to find if you’re in the right place, and I was—the river-crossed interior of New Zealand’s South Island. The black-billed gull (which is not a seagull) nests mainly on gravel river islands in the far south, feeding on little critters in the rivers and nearby farm fields.
Still, I suspected I might not run into any black-billed gulls at all, because I’m a haphazard naturalist and my usual technique is to bumble along and see what I see. This time I bumbled my way to the unassuming town of Lumsden, where there was a camping area near the Oreti River. Thanks to a tip from nature filmmaker Bill Morris, I knew this was one of the rivers where black-bills had nested in previous years. He’d asked me to let him know if I found a colony, because he was keen to film one. I’d said I would, omitting my fairly confident prediction that it wasn’t going to happen.
The black-bill is the only gull in the world classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Ten years ago the population was estimated at 90,000 adults, but it’s been dropping precipitously for decades. Some of the culprits are invasive predators, invasive weeds encroaching on nest habitat, invasive people driving cars through active colonies, and effects of ocean warming on the fish and marine invertebrates that black-bills eat in the nonbreeding season.
It was late afternoon on Christmas Day when I arrived at my Lumsden campsite to search for some of these beleaguered gulls. I had spent the previous night sleeping in my car on a mountain pass (ignoring the stares of several bemused sheep) and at that point I was pretty hungry and tired. But like a committed finder of endangered species, I walked straight over to the river, eyes on the alert for small, pale, long-billed gulls. I found a vast gravel expanse, completely devoid of birds.
No gulls here
Any spark of optimism that I may have been indulging died away immediately. Fortunately, my hopes had been so low that I wasn’t very disappointed. I reverted to my usual abstracted state and started strolling down the river, with an eye out for anything that might come along. I strolled until I couldn’t stroll any farther, having reached a point where two streams converged from either side of me. I strolled back upstream until the gravel beach shrank to nothing and the river was flush with the wall of streamside shrubbery. Oh well, at least I’d tried, I thought. I was about one second away from heading back to the campsite to eat and sleep.
Then I saw something in the distance—upriver, near a distant highway bridge to the north. A handful of white birds flying around. They couldn’t be. I raised my binoculars. They were.
With visions of food and a nap slipping away, I scurried back to camp and got in my car, drove to the highway, and parked at the bridge. I saw no trace of the birds. Where did they go? Maybe they were following a school of fish down the river, I thought, ruing my ignorance about their feeding habits (ahem: haphazard naturalist). I started walking south along the river, with my hopes dying down again. But I rounded a bend and saw them: a dozen or so black-billed gulls wheeling around.
I would have been happy getting a glimpse of a single black-billed gull, and here was a great look at a whole bunch of them, alive with sound and motion. It was thrilling. Then, as I got closer, I noticed the ground beneath them. It was completely white with gulls. This was no mere feeding frenzy: I’d stumbled onto a breeding colony.
There were hundreds and maybe thousands of birds on the ground. It was hard to tell how many because they were packed on a flat gravel island, raised above the stream level and shielded by some grasses. I was shocked to have actually found what I was looking for.
My Christmas dinner (pasta and leftover snacks) tasted particularly delicious that night. My sleeping bag was especially comfortable.
The next morning Bill showed up and we spent a full day with the black-billed gulls. I sketched and he filmed, and later he cautiously sent his camera drone over the colony. “You can see tire tracks from cars driving through,” he said. “Wonder if they’ve been going through while the gulls are there—I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had.”
After we’d spent hours moving slowly toward the edge of the colony, a guy with a fishing pole appeared and walked right through it, scattering gulls right and left. I half expected him to ask us what we were doing, and I half hoped he would. “Well, we’re observing the most endangered gull in the world; what are you doing?“ I wouldn’t have actually said that.
But really, I’m reasonably sure that the fisherman didn’t realize the impact of his actions. Would anyone treat this bird and its habitat differently if they knew it wasn’t just a seagull, but a unique and endangered species? I think many people would.
Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.