I realised that I’ve not really explained what I’m doing for my Master’s particularly well here. I spent so much of last year planning it out that it’s just become a part of my life, but up until now my blog has stayed firmly on the photography side. It’s not something I can keep seperate any more, as I considered a while back. At the moment, my life is a mix of photography and science. More science than photography. Okay, mostly science.
I can honestly say I’ve never been happier.
But then I am a bit of a nerd.
So what am I doing?
These gorgeous birds are Grey-faced petrels. They’re one of our more common seabirds in northern New Zealand, and one of the few pelagic species that still breed in mainland colonies, not just islands. They’re tough little birds that forage mainly on squid out over the continental shelf, but will also sample human fingers if they get the opportunity. I know this because my project involves grabbing them when they come back to their colonies to breed (as above).
To be fair if someone grabbed me, I’d probably bite them too.
Now Grey-faced petrels breed all around northern New Zealand, and in the Auckland region where I’m studying them, they have colonies on the west coast as well as on islands in the Hauraki Gulf.
But not all of the colonies are doing as well as perhaps they should be.
Research done a few years ago highlighted that east coast birds, ones breeding in the Hauraki Gulf, were struggling to raise chicks compared to birds on the west coast. A lot of the chicks were starving before they fledged. If they did manage to fledge, they were much lighter than they should have been. Most petrel species grow up to be heavier than their parents while they’re nest-bound, and then lose weight before they leave the nest. On the east coast, the chicks were struggling to make it to a safe weight to fledge, slowly gaining weight all the way up until they departed, if indeed they did at all.
So what I’m doing is looking at the physiology of these populations of Grey-faced petrels. I’m comparing different measures of stress and body condition to see if there’s a difference between the breeding birds on each coast. Are east coast birds experiencing more stress – are they operating at their physiological maximum to try and raise their chicks compared to west coast birds, who appear to be doing fine?
I’m looking for the how – the mechanism of the difference, so that we can then move on to the why – is it what they’re feeding on, how far they’re foraging, what environmental conditions they experience, or something else?
To do this, I’m taking small blood samples from the petrels, so I can look at hormone concentrations, nutrients, and different haematological parameters that are indicative of body condition and chronic stress. I’ll be comparing them between the different populations throughout their breeding cycle.
Grey-faced petrels are winter-breeders, which is extremely handy for a one-year Master’s project starting in March! In April-May they return to their colonies to prospect and mate, and then they incubate eggs through June-July, and rear their chicks from August through until January. It’s quite a long breeding season, even for a seabird. Breeding is extremely energetically demanding, so I’ll be tracking how baseline levels of stress hormones fluctuate throughout the whole cycle.
Stress and its physiological indicators are really important when we think about conservation. Looking at aspects of physiology can act as an early warning system – letting us know when populations are suffering and may be about to decline. With rapidly changing environmental conditions brought about by climate change, monitoring the physiology of populations gives us an idea of how well species can adapt to these conditions before we start to see actual mortality.
That’s the plan, anyway. So if I’m not taking too many photographs this year, it’s because I’m finally getting to do what I’ve wanted to do for years. Although I’ve had a pretty varied trajectory, my passion has always been for the natural world and discovery, with a healthy dose of adventure thrown in. Over the past few years I’ve had some amazing experiences and met wonderful people, which helped this nebulous passion condense into a more tangible direction. Conservation physiology is a perfect mix for me – turning my complete fascination with how organisms work into something that is useful in a broader context – preserving biodiversity.
Seabirds are my soul.