On the 20th of September I had one of those moments. One of those moments of pure joy and excitement at seeing a new species of bird for the first time. It’s always like a bubble in my chest that just won’t burst, and to be honest there were a few tears at the corners of my eyes. This moment was particularly special, because the bird in question was a New Zealand storm petrel.
They’re birds I’ve wanted to see for a long time. Not my whole life, because they were only re-discovered in 2003. Until then, New Zealand storm petrels were thought extinct, known only from museum specimens collected in the early 1800’s.
Out of nowhere, they flew back into the seabird world and caused quite a stir. It was only ten years later that their breeding grounds were discovered on Te Hauturu-o-Toi, Little Barrier Island. Hauturu is now a pest-free island, but until the 1980’s it was home to cats, and pacific rats (kiore) were only eradicated in 2006. That these tiny birds had persisted under such conditions is a small miracle. So much of New Zealand’s native fauna have been decimated by various invasive mammals, and our seabirds have particularly suffered.
Globally, seabirds are the most threatened group of birds.
It’s estimated that by 2100, 15% of seabird species will have gone extinct.
The main drivers of this massive decline are largely human-caused.
We’re pouring two million tonnes of plastic into the ocean every year.
We’re stripping fish stocks out of the sea.
We have introduced mammals to islands where they shouldn’t be, where birds have no defence against them.
That these birds have persisted so far is testament to their resilience, but things are changing too fast for them to keep up. To keep these birds alive, we are going to have to start to make better decisions about how we live our lives.
It was an extraordinarily special moment to see this beautiful little bird skipping across the Hauraki Gulf. But it drove home just how dire the seabird situation is. We have a lot of work to do to conserve our seabird species – New Zealand has more of them than anywhere else in the world. Many of them only breed here. But many of them also cross the oceans to feed, circling the globe and travelling into the far north of the Pacific Ocean. Seabirds are global travellers, so it will take international efforts to save them.
But it starts here. It starts with each of us making better decisions – cutting plastic out of our lives, buying sustainably caught fish, and spreading the word.