In 2010 my world was turned up-side down when I emigrated to New Zealand; wherein I got caught up in that dodgy crowd of people calling themselves “seabird ecologists”. Shortly after, a chance encounter with a petrel donning a grey-face had me head over tarsi in love (Pic 1) and I jumped to a MSc. research project and my game-bird background was forgotten as a past faux pas.
Pic 1. A suggestive looking grey-faced petrel and the start of the slippery slope.
Auckland, New Zealand (2011 – 2012)
With seabird translocations being all the rage in island restoration projects, I looked at provisioning within the grey-faced petrel (among other things) and its relationship with ‘chic’ growth and nestling survival at three islands within the Hauraki Gulf, with the aim of providing recommendations for meal size and feeding frequencies in artificial feeding regimes. The season was characterised by small, half-starved chicks and high chick mortality; not the sort you choose to translocate but from my observations on meal size and feeding frequency I did manage to show how not to rear translocated chicks! I conjectured that the moderate-strong La-Nina, prevalent at the time, meant that provisioning adults were finding it difficult to capture enough food.
However, one season and three islands were not enough to satiety my seabird lust; and so it was that I found myself on Burgess I. with my fingers up white-faced storm petrel burrows for Megan Young, a MSc. student at Massey University, before starting off a second grey-faced petrel season on Goat Island. Before I knew it my MSc. was over.
Campbell & Codfish Is., New Zealand (2012 – 2013)
Kyle Morrison, a PhD. student at Massey University having seen me present at the OSNZ annual conference at Tauranga, bamboozled me into accompanying him to Campbell I. assuring me I would be quite comfortable at the ‘Hilton’ (Pic 2). Four months of flipper-slapping, ear-piercing screaming fun … that is to say invaluable scientific research investigating the worrying decline of the eastern rockhopper penguin … ensued. My future as a seabird ecologist, if it wasn’t already set, was assured and I was loath to leave.
Pic 2. A blustery day on Campbell I., NZ, directing viewers to the 5 Star ‘Penguin Bay Hilton’. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Morrison)
But, after a three day reprieve in Dunedin, Rachael Sagar a fellow student at the University of Auckland, whisked me away to Codfish I. and immediately had me on the floor in search of 200 mottled petrel chicks to translocate to Hawkes Bay. That was the month of scratching, slapping, rubbing, flailing and gnawing at my flea-bitten flesh, the price of success. The translocation was later cancelled but the work is all set for a translocation in early 2014 … hopefully.
Mingulay, Scotland (2013)
Inexplicable reasons had me return to England in May 2013, were after a week at home I eloped to the island of Mingulay, Scotland, as a ranger for the National Trust for Scotland. Mingulay, often referred to as the ‘Little St. Kilda’ and the adjacent island of Berneray host what is probably the largest single colony of razorbills (~26,000 birds; Pic 3) anywhere in the world. An entire paraphilia of other seabirds are present on Mingulay in either nationally or internationally significant numbers, including common guillemots, Atlantic puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and northern fulmars but none of which had received more than intermittent attention during the past ten years. So I spent the summer, along with a volunteer, monitoring the seabirds in order to ascertain figures of breeding success and obtain an accurate estimate of the seabird population. It was a relatively poor year with breeding success a third of the national average for all species, though except for the kittiwakes, all species were up in numbers from 2012 but still 40-60% of their 2003 status, owing to an unexplained population crash between 2004 and 2006.
Pic 3. The highest lighthouse in the UK sits above the largest single razorbill colony atop of Berneray, Scotland.
And now … well, I write to you now, dear readers, in the midst of the northern winter, from a lonely laboratory at the University of Plymouth, England, preparing blood samples for analysis and looking ahead into 2014, as I feverously search for any research opportunity to do this all again...