Bird Fact Friday – Radios & the New Zealand Storm-petrel

Adapted from pages 18-19 of Far From Land:

Attaching transmitting VHF radios to animals has occupied biologists since the late 1950s. It is a powerful technique for relocating, say, a troop of chimpanzees that assuredly will not have travelled far since their last known position. It is less useful for seabirds which travel far greater distances, taking them beyond the line of sight of any scientist deploying a receiving aerial on some windy clifftop. Couple this problem with the fact that a seabird will often dip into the trough below the wave crests or, even worse, submerge underwater, and the upshot is that VHF radio-telemetry has not transformed seabird research.

Believed extinct for over a century, the New Zealand Storm-petrel (Fregetta maoriana) was re-discovered in 2003. Subsequently, radio-tracked birds led scientists to a colony near Auckland. Illustrated by Bruce Pearson.

Those disparaging words notwithstanding, radio-telemetry has had its moments. In 2003, the ornithological world was amazed when the New Zealand Storm-petrel, thought extinct for over a century, was re-discovered at sea off New Zealand’s North Island. That led immediately to the question of the whereabouts of its colonies, and the tricky task of discovering those colonies. The problem was solved when it proved possible to attract the birds close to a 3.5 m inflatable with chum, the ornithologists’ term for a smelly sludge of fish bits. Once in range, the storm-petrels were captured by a small net fired over them. Fitted with  a transmitter weighing two-thirds of a gram, the released birds then led the searchers in 2013 to nesting burrows in the rainforests of Little Barrier Island, a mere 50 km from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.