Wildlife

Westland petrel by Abby McBride

Quick Stop at the Petrel Station

I drove through Punakaiki recently.

Once a year this west coast town holds a festival to welcome the Westland petrel back home to New Zealand after its annual sojourn to South American waters. Amid a weekend of music and revelry, festival-goers gather on the beach at sunset to watch thousands of large black seabirds assemble in the sky above the coast. The birds then fly en masse overhead toward the forest hills, as they do every night during their breeding season.

Punakaiki has good reason to be proud of these beautiful petrels, also known as a tāikos, because they’re truly a local specialty. All 4,000 or so pairs nest along this small patch of coastline. Unlike nearly all other burrowing seabird species in New Zealand, Westland petrels somehow avoided being pushed off the mainland when invasive mammals hitched a ride with humans to this part of the world. (Though the birds certainly struggle with predation on land, as well as with threats at sea.)

I missed the Tāiko Festival by a few weeks, but I got to see something even better when I stopped through town. With the help of a conservation-minded landowner whose property holds dozens of nests, I visited the Westland petrel colony itself.

Westland sunset by Abby McBride
That’s my faithful steed, Indy, parked at the edge of the inland forest. The beach is just beyond the treeline to the left. (It’s also to the right. Panoramas are weird.)

It was sunset when I parked in the driveway and followed Bruce Stuart-Menteath into the inland forest. In the gathering dusk we ascended long sets of wooden stairs that he’d built years ago to give petrel colony tours to interested parties. At one point, Bruce paused to explain something and was interrupted by a crash in the thicket off to the left. “That was a petrel,” he remarked, as we continued our climb.

At the top we sat down, and there the spectacle began in earnest.

Big dark birds were crash-landing in the trees and ferns all around us and shuffling along the ground to their burrows. Watching the dimly lit sky through a gap in the forest, we could see their silhouettes circling as they prepared for entry. One came straight at me: imagine looking at a Batman symbol (except more seabird-shaped) that gets larger and larger and then veers aside at the last instant. I felt a whoosh of air, a brush of wings, and fortunately no puncture from a fearsome ivory beak, as the bird dodged past me and tumbled dramatically onto the ground.

After one of these landings, Bruce turned on a dim light so we could get a look at a petrel as it rested from the exertion. I had half a minute to sketch this one before it crept away toward its burrow.

Westland petrel by Abby McBride

Later on, another bird climbed up a stump in front of us—a customary launch pad, Bruce informed me—and spent about ten minutes contemplating an early departure back to sea. Several times it opened its long wings and flapped vigorously. But it ended up dropping back to the ground and meandering off into the bush. Apparently it would wait until the morning rush, when most of the petrels head back to the ocean under cover of darkness (to avoid the falcon, Bruce said).

We didn’t want to use too much light and disturb the petrels. But there was plenty to listen to, between the crashes and the rustlings and all manner of vocal performances, as the birds sat in their burrow entrances and loudly laid claim to their territory. Within a week or so they’d be laying eggs.

When we descended back to sea level that night, I accepted a kind offer for “tea and pudding” (that’s dinner and dessert in New Zealand) with Bruce and his partner Denise Howard. Then I camped nearby on the coast.

I emerged from my tent an hour before dawn and drove until I reached a stretch of road that Bruce had described to me. I got out of the car. Standing there with the world gradually lightening around me, I watched Westland petrels materialize in the distance above the hills and fly toward me in a wide, continuous stream. They flew over my head and past the moon with faintly swishing wingbeats, off for a day of feeding at sea.

The flood slowed to a trickle, and at last the final petrel flew over. The sun rose. I got back in the car and drove on.

 

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).

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