Burrowscoping

Seabird science is glamorous. I spend a lot of time lying down, face-first in the mud, with my arm in a hole in the ground. Like so:

At the moment, these holes in the ground sometimes have Grey-faced petrel chicks in them.

And while the old ‘shove your arm in and find out’ method often works, there are also burrows where it’s difficult to know what’s going  on. They can be long. They can twist in directions that require you to have three extra elbows to try and find the end. So the other tool we use to figure out what’s going on underground is a burrowscope. Which also involves me spending a lot of time lying down on the job.

It’s essentially a long cable with a camera at one end, the batteries at the other, and it transmits the image to a small screen.  And sometimes the images can be rather cute.

A few weeks ago, I headed down to Raglan with Lea, an Honours student working on Grey-faced petrels, to scope a handful of burrows along the coast there. The Karioi Maunga project has been trapping extensively in the area to get pest densities to a minimum, and we were hoping to find chicks in the burrows. There has been a lot of Grey-faced petrel activity, and the burrows themselves are monitored with trail cameras – but we didn’t know what was happening underground. 

We visited some beautiful locations along the coast, tucked into native bush with views of the sea. Kristel van Houte led us along winding paths to find burrows, some nestled under logs, other under massive tufts of pampas.

And we found chicks! Five, to be exact, with a known sixth nesting under someone’s spa-pool in their backyard (sounds cozy). It’s testament to the legendary work of the community, maintaining large-scale predator control in the area since 2009. Right next to one of the burrows is a stark reminder that there’s still a lot of work to do to keep these birds safe – a stoat in a trap. Luckily, it ended up in the trap instead of the petrel burrow less than five meters away.

But it’s still cause for celebration. So many of our seabirds have gone from mainland New Zealand because of introduced predators. That they’re starting to come back in places, thanks to the hard work of communities that are invested in their success, is a step towards our goal of Predator Free 2050.

For once, none of the photos in this blog post are mine! Thanks to Lea Stolpmann, Chris Gaskin, and Kristen van Houte for illustrating this story, while I spent a lot of time in the mud wielding the scope.