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Calling Tawharanui home

There’s a good view of Hauturu from the end of the Tawharanui peninsula. And there’s no better time to be there than sunset, as gold sun fades across a darkening sky, and the stars begin to blaze overhead. I’ve spent a good few evenings out there, staring up at the stars, waiting. Watching. Listening.

The first time I came to Tawharanui, the waiting and the watching and the listening were all in vain. It was June, the middle of the pre-laying exodus for Grey-faced petrels when they’re all out at sea feeding up in preparation for laying and incubating eggs. We sat in the dark and managed an hour and a half of listening to pre-recorded ‘war-whoops’ before we decided the effort was probably a little pointless. But although the sky was empty of birds, it was full of stars – so it wasn’t a bad evening.

Why all this waiting in the dark? Tawharanui is home to mainland breeding colony of Grey-faced petrels (and a few Fluttering shearwaters and Northern diving petrels), tucked behind the predator-proof fence that keeps the whole peninsula safe for our native wildlife. To get an idea of just how many petrels call this place home – or are thinking of calling this place home, we head out every month to do a bit of classic mark/recapture work. We sit out for two hours, playing pre-recorded 'war-whoops' to call the birds in. We band them, and see which banded ones we recapture. The chicks are also banded every year – so once they’ve done their growing up out at sea (which takes 5-6 years), we can see if they come back to breed here like their parents.

Tawharanui has acoustic attraction devices set up to call in the birds. Every night, the speaker systems click on and start singing seabird siren songs – the calls of Grey-faced petrel, Fluttering shearwater, Northern diving petrel, White-faced storm petrel and Cook’s petrel (depending on the season) are all broadcast into the night. It seems to be working well. Every year there are more birds in boxes (nest-boxes, to save them the trouble of digging burrows), and more chicks fledging.

Although my first night at Tawharanui was bust, I’ve been there a lot since then. At the moment I’m checking up on the Grey-faced petrel chicks every month to see how they’re getting along until they fledge in January. To have an accessible seabird colony on the mainland is very special. Once, seabirds would have burrowed In all along our coastlines, under tangled pohutukawa forests and on precarious cliffs. Tawharanui is proof that, without a host of mammals that enjoy munching on seabirds and their eggs, they can return and thrive.

Sometimes, the sky is full of shadows that blank out the stars as they soar overhead. Patches of darkness in the shape of petrels, crooning and whistling and spinning through the sky. And we wait, and we watch, and we listen. And when we hear one land, we can see whether it’s an old friend returning, or someone new to join the family of seabirds that call Tawharanui home.


Below, James Ross talks about Tawharanui and why seabird restoration is so important - from the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park Seminar: Taking Flight earlier this year.

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