Tuesday, 22 October 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Progress report on the locally sponsored flesh-footed shearwater fledglings

As reported in The Informer of 15 May, ecological consultancy, Wildlife Management International Limited (WMIL), began tracking 10 flesh-footed shearwater fledglings as they departed the shearwater breeding colony on Ohinau Island (east of Opito Bay) last month and began their long migration journey to the Northern Hemisphere.

The flesh-footed shearwater is a seabird the size of a small chicken, with a wingspan of over 1m and known for their somewhat aggressive behaviour. The birds are thought to be declining and are ranked as nationally vulnerable.

The locally sponsored birds that departed the breeding colony on Ohinau Island for the first time last month, will not return for at least five to six years, where they will pair up with a mate, find a burrow and eventually start to breed themselves.

Patrick Crowe, a senior ecologist at WMIL, says flesh-footed shearwaters fly completely solo, can dive up to 30m for food such as squid and have an in-built ability to detect predators. “The birds basically fly non-stop, are able to make best use of the winds and have a natural ability to rest by shutting down part of their brain while in flight,” says Patrick. 

The 10 fledglings, all of which have been given unique names by their local sponsors, have been fitted with GPS tags weighing less than 15g. The tags transmit data to satellites which is downloaded in order for the birds’ progress to be tracked live.

The tags are fitted with solar panels and can transmit data up to a year. 

Adult flesh-footed shearwaters from New Zealand and from Lord Howe Island in Australia have been tracked during the non-breeding season and are found to migrate to seas off the coast of Japan. Of all the adult birds tracked to date, every single one of them has gone to the same area. However, there have been many sightings of flesh-footed shearwaters off the coast of North America that no one can explain. It is unknown where these birds come from, but it is possible that they are young birds that travel to a different area than the adults.

Knowing where the Ohinau Island fledglings go is crucial to gaining a thorough understanding of the flesh-footed shearwater species so they can be protected. This is what the WMIL tracking project is all about.

According to the data WMIL are receiving from the GPS tags the fledglings have been fitted with, most of the birds are now 3,000km to 4,000km north or north-northeast of Ohinau Island and well on their way to their undisclosed final destination.

Sadly two of the birds - Longshore (sponsored by Longshore Marine) and Harry (sponsored by Coromandel Bait) - have gone missing, their fate unknown.

The progress of the other fledglings are as follows -

1st Place - Sushi (sponsored by Gull Whitianga Service Station). Currently around 100km from the equator and flying in a westerly direction towards Tarawa (Kiribati).  

2nd Place - Toanui Rua (sponsored by Ngātei Hei). Flying in the middle of the pack and sitting to the East of Sushi.  

3rd Place - Dive Zone (sponsored by Dive Zone Whitianga). Appears to have a mind all of its own and heading east after clearing Fiji.

4th Place - Fiona (sponsored by The Mercury Bay Informer). Has decided to follow the crowd with a big swing to the west and is currently in a similar flightpath to Sushi.

5th Place - Toby (sponsored by Whitianga Ice). Out on a limb for a while flying towards the east, before changing direction dramatically in what looks like an effort to join the pack just past Tokelau.  

6th Place - Sue (sponsored by Whitianga Sports). Flying the most direct route since departure, but dragging the chain in terms of keeping up with the frontrunners and the only one to fly to the western side of Fiji.

7th Place - Deidre (sponsored by Marine Adventures). Flying east past Fiji before straight-lining with a very slight kink to the west.

8th Place - Sir Loin (sponsored by Mercury Bay Marine). Flying past the eastern side of Samoa. Initially took a wide berth to the east, but looks like it may now be heading for the eastern side of Tokelau.  

Longshore was tracked for around 200km after leaving Ohinau Island, while Harry has been missing in action since day one.  There are a couple of possible reasons for this, according to Patrick. “There could be a tracking device failure, the device has come adrift, or the birds just haven’t made it,” he says. “We will probably never know.”

You can follow the WMIL Facebook page for the latest information on the fledglings, including maps, or visit their website, www.wmil.co.nz.

It is a great initiative and it can become quite addictive following the progress of the birds, especially when you pick a favourite.

Come on Fiona!

Pictured: A flesh-footed shearwater in flight.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.