Chatham Islands

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I recently travelled to the Chatham Islands in order to study the endangered Chatham Island Tui. I spent a month there in total, travelling to Pitt Island and South East (Rangatira) Island, which is a nature reserve island and home to the infamous black robin. This critically endangered bird endemic to the Chatham Islands was saved from extinction after its numbers got down to 5, and only 1 breeding female. Thanks to the tremendous and highly intensive rearing efforts of DOC, they now number around 150. A beautiful sight to see, they are very friendly, although highly difficult to photograph, due to them appearing as a small black blob set against a black forest background!

The Chatham Islands have many other endemic fauna such as Chatham Island snipe (one of my favourites), Chatham Island grey warblers (about twice the size of mainland warblers), Chatham Island skinks, Chatham Island tomtits, Chatham Island kakariki and Forbes parakeets, and the rather scary and very large Rangatira spider.

Chatham Island flora is also highly endemic, such as the Chatham Island forget-me-not, and the Chatham Island tree daisy which were almost completely wiped out through stock grazing.

From a science perspective, there is very little known about the Chatham Island Tui. It was described based on morphology in the 1920’s as a subspecies of the mainland Tui, it being considerably larger, with very large claws! However, there is little else known of it, despite its numbers being reduced to only a total of 260 adults by the end of the 20th century, and being extirpated from the main island. Thanks to the pest eradication, and the designation of areas of private land to conservation, its numbers are now thought to be increasing. A translocation of Chatham Island Tui from South East Island back to the main island recently occurred with great success. These Tui stayed on the main island and are now breeding. Soon Chatham Islanders may again see Tui in their back gardens, and they may even nest there, if more native trees are planted.

My research from this fieldtrip will put together a new estimate of current Chatham Island Tui numbers. I am also using DNA to clarify whether it is indeed a separate subspecies as suspected, or even a separate species! It will also help us find out when and from where Chatham Island Tui arrived in the Chatham Islands. How long have they been there, and is there any migration between the mainland and the Chatham Islands? This will all help us to learn more about this iconic bird, and to help in its conservation.

South East Island is a magical place. Free of introduced predators, it is a seabird paradise, at dusk the sky is filled with circling seabirds coming in to their burrows on the island. They litter the forest floor at this time. Here you can see skua’s (that attack you if you get too close by trying to knock you over the head off a cliff!), Chatham Island petrels, broad-billed prions, little blue penguins, black-winged petrels, sooty shearwaters, and the very cute storm petrel. With a burrow every 30cm, you have to wear cumbersome (but very necessary) boards on your feet so that you do not collapse them. I feel very lucky to have gone there, and you can’t help thinking that this is what all of New Zealand must have been like, before the arrival of humans and pests. It is a sight that every kiwi should be able to experience. Just watch out for skua’s! Oh and don’t forget to try a swan egg!


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