Hutton’s Heroes: rescuing crash-landed shearwaters

Here in Kaikoura, it’s a scary time to be a juvenile Hutton’s Shearwater: FLEDGING TIME.

Life so far has involved snuggling in a burrow high up in the mountains of the Seaward Kaikoura Range, not much to do each day except wait for Mom and Pops to show up with a fish supper and keep on growing. But now that fine fluffy down has made way for proper flying feathers, regular feeds have dwindled and there’s no sign of the parents coming back. That means there’s only one thing to do. It’s time to fly.

First a little warm-up exercise: wing-stretching, practice flapping, clambering up onto the nearest high spot to test how the breeze feels under those new wings. Looking up at the night sky to remember this place, looking down at the empty space below and beyond where the ocean lies. Peeping into nearby burrows to check what the neighbours are up to. But one by one they’re disappearing. They’ve flown already. It’s time to fly too.

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Flight paths of Hutton’s Shearwaters from alpine breeding colonies to/from the ocean. Birds from the largest breeding colony (est. 106,000 pairs) pass directly over Kaikoura [doc.gov.nz]

One brave leap into the darkness and the shearwater is swooping down from the mountain and towards the ocean. But many don’t quite get there, lured at the last moment towards the bright lights of town. Circling disorientated down to the ground, they crash-land with a bump, on roads or pavements, driveways or yards.

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” Is this it? Is this where the fish are? “

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“What the…are the fish here?”

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“Umm…how do I get to the fish?”

Shearwaters can appear anywhere on the streets of Kaikoura on nights during March and April. Confused and naive of the world beyond their burrow, they sit quietly on the ground and ponder their next move, many less than 100m from the ocean. Some sustain injuries in collisions with structures on the way down, and once on the ground they are sitting ducks for prowling cats or speeding vehicles, but many can be rescued and released out at sea. A special army of local volunteers is out looking for them, very late at night and very early in the morning.  These are the Hutton’s Heroes.

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A crash-landed Hutton’s Shearwater is carefully picked up from the ground

The coordinated efforts of the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust, Department of Conservation, a research team from University of Canterbury, Encounter Kaikoura, and many local volunteers, mean that a large number of these crash-landed birds will be rescued. By walking or driving the streets after dark, any grounded shearwaters that are spotted are gently picked up and placed in suitable container (ironically, cat carry boxes are perfect) to be transferred to the Hutton’s Hub.

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Checking in to the Hutton’s Hotel

Once at the Hub, shearwaters are placed into the individual compartments of the purpose-built Hutton’s Hotel – a holding station for shearwaters to rest in until they can be processed. Finders log the details of the shearwaters’ locations to assist the research team’s study of the crash-landing phenomenon and its association with street lights and other factors.  Birds are banded and measured before being released to the ocean, many getting a free headstart courtesy of Albatross Encounter.

No one is quite sure exactly how and why the Hutton’s Shearwaters come to crash-land where they do, though it’s understood that their attraction to lights is the biggest factor. More birds are found in brightly lit areas, but is this just where it is easier for people to find them?

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Hutton’s eye view: from the mountains looking towards the ocean, Kaikoura’s lights line the bay

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Hutton’s eye view: circling over Kaikoura, Torquay Street, the Esplanade and Beach Road stand out as rivers of light.

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Ground view: bright white lights seem to create a hotspot for Hutton’s Shearwaters

Shearwaters are regularly found at certain locations around Kaikoura, including along Torquay Street and particularly the Esplanade, with its row of brightly lit motels. It is thought the birds are most attracted to white light, so research is ongoing into whether the fine-scale distribution of crash-landed shearwaters corresponds to light type. Other factors such as weather conditions and landscape topography may also influence whether, and where, birds crash-land. A better understanding of the Hutton’s Shearwaters’ experiences on their fledging flight should help us to limit human-induced losses of this unique and nationally (hence also globally) endangered bird.

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It’s YOU that needs to go slow, not the birds. Also, you’re most likely to see them sitting on the ground rather than in flight. And they don’t have googly eyes. But never mind, just watch out!

 

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