Curious Campbell – An Introduction to Campbell Island, New Zealand

Exciting news, I am writing an interactive e-book! It’s all set to be finished by Thursday. Because I am impatient and a sucker for procrastination, I thought I would share a sneak peak!

Let me know what you think so far in the comments below! It’s going to be a while until the e-book is published, but I hope that it will be available on the Apple store by early 2013.


Facing up to the Future of Conservation with Forest & Bird.

This weekend I went to Wellington for the Forest and Bird Conference (called Face up to the Future) where I was on a youth panel called the Nature of Tomorrow.

I started off by making it known just how much I love the Sub-Antarctic Islands. That’s a lot, in case you happen to be the most oblivious person known to man.

Our host, Te Radar asked the audience if they knew where the Sub-Antarctic Islands and a surprisingly small number of people raised their hands (I assumed that I would be preaching to the converted). When asked if they had worked on, been to, or knew about any of the issues going on in the region, there were even fewer.

What made the weekend especially interesting was chatting to a few of the people who are currently involved with (or running) the Our Far South campaign. When he’s not hosting youth discussion panels, making award-winning documentaries, or being an all-round funny guy, Te Radar is a spokesperson for the Our Far South campaign. He’s currently working on a documentary set for release on the 3rd of July, which I cannot wait to see!

Sarah Wilcox & Te Radar on Campbell Island during the Our Far South expedition.

The Sub-Antarctic islands were just a fragment of the thought-provoking discussion we had. The diversity of the panel meant that we were able to touch on a range of subjects such as environmental politics, shark-finning, predator control, water quality, societies dependence on coal, and even the ever-so-controversial theme of intergenerational justice.

And the fun didn’t stop there. The next day we were able to sit in on the rest of the conference where everything from the (always controversial) politics of conservation to Nicola Toki’s talk about Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision for a predator-free New Zealand was covered.

All in all it was an awe-inspiring experience that has set me up for months of energy to ‘get-up-and-go-save-New-Zealand’s-wild-places-and-creatures’. The one thing I find myself questioning is complacency and its relationship to social media. I can’t help but wonder if our generation think that by sharing a post they are saving the world and have found myself questioning myself on how we can get actual involvement from youth rather than clicks.

In saying that, I highly recommend having a look at the twitter feed from the conference, it’s got great quotes, summaries, and general responses to some of the thought-provoking speakers and the conference in general. If you couldn’t make it, you can at least feel like you were there. And if you could, you can refresh your memory of some of the key issues that were raised!

There’s also this article by the lovely Isosbel Ewing that gives a nice summary of what went on at the youth panel discussion.

Look out for this article on the conference in the latest Forest and Bird members magazine.

Thanks a bunch, Forest and Bird! It was great. Just try and stop me from coming along next time!


Problematic Predators: An Introduction to Pests in NZ

You may have noticed that I continue to mention these things called introduced mammalian predators or pests.  I realise that I haven’t yet informed my readers of what these pests actually are, and why they are so damaging to New Zealand’s natural environment.

The Sub-Antarctic Islands have not come out unscathed by introduced predators. To date, the Department of Conservation has carried out two separate eradication programmes on both Campbell and Auckland Islands – the latter of which, was a complete success. The only remaining pest species are pigs, cats, and mice on Auckland Island, and mice on Antipodes Islands (which will hopefully change in the near future).

This long overdue blog post is about five of the ferocious and frustrating pest species that plague New Zealand in general.

Please note that this blog post includes videos that may disturb and that these five pests are not the only predators plaguing New Zealand.

1. The Rat

We often hear about ‘rats’ being a pest, but did you know that there are actually three species of rat threatening New Zealand’s wildlife?

The kiore (or Pacific rat) was introduced by early Maori settlers in the 10th century and both the ship rat (black rat) and Norway rat were introduced by early European settlers in the 17th century.

All three species negatively impact the environment by eating rare weta, frogs, snails, tuatara, lizards, insects, birds, as well as the fruits, flowers, and seeds of native plants. Of all the species, the Norway rat is the largest, followed by the ship rat and both are known to prey on birds eggs,  chicks, and even in some cases – the adults. They’re very bad news for biodiversity.

2. The Rabbit

The rabbit was brought into New Zealand in the early 1830’s as a source of food and activity in the form of hunting. What early european settlers didn’t predict was how well these rabbits would do, and how busy future generations of farmers would be keeping plagues of them from destroying their pastures.

In New Zealand, there were many attempts to control the population that included introducing stoats, poison, digging out burrows, and even establishing a commercial industry exporting rabbit skins. While some of these methods have controlled rabbit populations, they are still widespread throughout New Zealand.

In the Southern Ocean, the rabbit is best known for eating out entire fields of mega-herbs on Macquarie Island, an Australian Sub-Antarctic Island. A number of attempts to eradicate them from the island have occurred over the past 5 – 10 years with the main challenge being the quick removal of carcasses that is required to prevent secondary poisoning of carrion eating species such as skuas.

3. The Stoat

Ironically, the stoat was introduced to New Zealand with the hopes that it would control the rabbit population. Although it is a natural predator-prey relationship in the northern hemisphere, it didn’t turn out so well in New Zealand as the stoats found other New Zealand wildlife easier to catch.

Stoats are most problematic following a beech mast, which involves a large number of beech trees in a forest releasing their seeds at the same time. Following these events, mice numbers increase drastically and in the years following a beech mast, stoat numbers soar as they are able to prey on mice. Once mice numbers have declined, however, the increased stoat population will prey on native birds and animals and can have incredibly negative effects on native population numbers.

4. The Mouse

On the mainland, mice are most often observed eating berries, seeds, and insects on the forest floor. Like the stoat, they are most abundant following a beech mast on the mainland of New Zealand. Luckily for the Sub-Antarctic Islands, there are no beech trees to fuel such plagues. But that doesn’t mean they are not a threat to species in the Sub-Antarctic.

On islands, mice are recorded to act more like rats, and will take larger prey, including bird eggs, chicks, and even adults. A recent video shows a group of mice literally eating an albatross chick alive in the nest, a time when it is most vulnerable to predation.


Once again, I have to mention the Million Dollar Mouse project that Gareth Morgan is currently running, which aims to raise enough funds to eradicate mice from the islands. I keep pushing this project because I believe in it, and it’s a great way to raise awareness for Aotearoa’s Sub-Antarctic Islands.

5. The Cat

I think people tend to forget that their pussy-cats are the perfect predators. Cats often hunt out of instinct, and wont always eat their kill. They’re more likely to kill for a challenge, rather than to survive.

One example of the damage that cats can have is seen in the story of the Steven’s Island Wren. The most common story is that the lighthouse keepers cat, named Mr. Tibbles, was responsible for the species’ extinction. Although possible, it is more likely that the species became extinct as a result of predation by feral cats in the winter of 1895, just 14 years after humans first settled on the island in 1881.

While the best way to control cats is to treat them like every other pest, it’s only natural for humans to keep pets and we tend to believe that cats are the perfect companion. There are a few things you can do to control your pussy-cat, however, that will benefit both your conscience and the natives around you:

Keep your cats inside at night, have them wear a bell if they are outside at any time, have your cat de-sexed to prevent them breeding with feral cats, never abandon a cat, and of course the most obvious – try to keep your cat well fed and watered so that it’s never required to hunt to survive.

The Yellow-Eyed Penguin

This week was world penguin day and to celebrate, I thought what better to write about than New Zealand’s own yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho.

New Zealand's five dollar note showing the hoiho. (Photo: Yellow-Eye Penguin Trust)

You may recognise these guys from the reverse side of the New Zealand five dollar note, but did you know that the hoiho was once the rarest species of penguin in the world? While the title is now taken by the Galapagos penguin, there’s still cause for concern when it comes to conserving the yellow-eyed penguin.

It is estimated that there are just 4000 remaining, 1200 of which are found in the Sub-Antarctic Islands – specifically Campbell Island and the Auckland Islands. On the mainland, they are confined to the south-eastern coast of New Zealand and Stewart Island.


Yellow-Eyed Penguins (Photo: © Steve Ting Photography 2012)

They’re by far the most skittish species of penguin I have met and on the odd occasion that you do see one, it will be waddling clumsily to the nearest patch of vegetation in order to hide from people, predators, and even other penguins.

Their lack of agility on land has caused population numbers to decline drastically since the introduction of mammals to Aotearoa. While they are adapted to avoiding predators in the ocean while foraging for squid and fish, they are unable to defend themselves from predators such as cats, rats, stoats, and dogs.

Farming and the removal of vegetation along coast-lines has further threatened this species, as it significantly reduces sheltered spots that penguins would usually use for safe and successful nesting spots when breeding.

Yellow-Eyed Penguins and their chick (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Humans love penguins, and a number of organisations have an active role in conserving the species with the intention of bringing the hoiho back from the brink of extinction. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust actively restores penguin habitat, controls pest numbers around known breeding areas, educates the public, and has an active hand in scientific research.

I would highly recommend taking a look at their website to find out how you can get involved in the conservation of this highly threatened species. They have a range of options for anyone who wants to help out including working at coastal restoration days, volunteering as a ranger, helping with administration, or donating to the project.

So the next time you are holding a five dollar note, turn it over and spare a thought for the plight of this plucky penguin!

Petrel & Albatross Conservation – an Interview with John Cooper

John Cooper is an accomplished marine ornithologist who has worked all over the world studying seabirds. He is the founding editor of the Marine Ornithology journal, which he started in 1976 and his contributions to seabird ecology. He has received the Pacific Seabird Group Lifetime Achievement Award and the Gill Memorial Medal of BirdLife South Africa, which recognise his long-term dedication to protecting seabirds and their habitats.

John also played a part in forming the Agreement on the Conservation of Petrels and Albatross (ACAP). The organisation has 29 species under its protection and aims to protect petrel & albatross species and their habitats. Take a look at their website or follow them on Facebook!

He is currently on the Marion Islands (also known as the Prince Edwards Islands) but took some time from his busy schedule to talk to me about what it’s like to spend your life working with such incredible species.

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross (Photo: ACAP)

How did you come to be an expert on seabird conservation and what drew you to study them?

During a post-graduate period in soil physics I was drawn to bird watching in tropical Africa.  This turned into a research job working with African Penguins in the early 1970s and a 40-year seabird career ensued.  I think most, if not all, field biologists become involved with the conservation of study species and their habitats.

What’s the greatest encounter you have had with an albatross or petrel?

When I sit down quietly and rest among the rising peaks surrounding Gonydale on South Atlantic’s Gough Island and watch as a Critically Endangered (and curious) Tristan Albatross walks towards within metres of me and starts a tentative courtship display – simply magical!

Tristan's Albatross in flight (Photo: Bird Holidays)

Then hike onto the Southern Giant Petrel study colony below Low Hump on the same island, where the incubating birds are so confiding they can be colour-banded on their nests without restraint, and off-duty birds will nibble at my boots and tug gently at my over-trousers – just in case they might be edible.

Such moments are hard to explain, but once experienced stay forever, to be brought to the front of the mind and savoured wherever one is.

Can you briefly explain the kind of research you have been doing on seabirds during your career?

My research has been primarily ecological in nature, and always aimed to the conservation of the species studied, and of their habitats.  I have looked at such aspects as breeding success and diet.  I now leave most of the actual research to the next generation of marine ornithologist, and concentrate more on conservation activities, both in the field (for example alien plant control on Gough Island) and from home via the internet, web sites and via social media (through communicating conservation messages to the wider world).

Gough Island (Photo: Wikipedia)

What is the biggest killer of albatrosses and petrels?

At sea it is the deleterious effects of trawl and long-line fisheries; on land it is human disturbance, pollution, habitat degradation and loss, and especially introduced predators such as cats and rats on their breeding islands

Why is it so important that we conserve albatross and petrels?

Ultimately, my philosophy is that the World in which we live and are part of will become a poorer place when any species becomes extinct before its time due to anthropogenic forces.  For the general public, as well as for biologists, albatrosses especially among marine creatures are charismatic species that stir the heart as well as the mind, for example as witnessed by their regular appearance in poetry and art.

As top predators at the sea surface they can be seen as indicators of environmental health and harbingers of climate change.  Put simply, their continued health is part of our own continued well-being

What’s the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels all about?

The main goal of ACAP is to help conserve the species (and their habitats) listed within the Agreement, currently 29 species of albatrosses and petrels, but expected to rise to 30 as a shearwater from the Mediterranean is likely to be listed later this month.

How was the agreement formed?

ACAP was originally an Australian initiative.  Two negotiation meetings were held to develop its text, in Hobart, Australia, and in Cape Town, South Africa.  I helped arrange the latter meeting. For an early history of ACAP and how it came about, take a look as this link.

How does the ACAP intend to change how many albatross and petrels are killed annually by (the answer to the above question)?

The Parties to the Agreement, via its Advisory Committee and Meeting Sessions set priorities.  The Agreements’ three working groups represent the “engine” that generates actual activities.  ACAP also funds to a limited amount research and management activities.  Raising public awareness is also a crucial activity.

Perhaps most significantly ACAP is interacting with the five main tuna RFMOS (regional fishery management organizations) and with selected NGOs (such as BirdLife International) to reduce the mortality of albatrosses and petrels at sea by both long-line and trawl fisheries.  Progress is slow but generally positive as the mind sets of fishers slowly change and mitigation measures are adopted.

White Chinned Petrel (Photo: Ben Phalan)

How does (the answer to the above question) and the ACAP apply to New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands?

New Zealand is a “founder” Party to ACAP.  It also supports many of the ACAP-listed species, many endemic to its southern islands.  New Zealand has led on developing methodologies for eradicating introduced mammals, especially rats, but also cats, pigs and goats, on seabird islands of ever-increasing size and ecological complexity.  Such skills are being exported world-wide to help seabirds in all the World’s oceans.