Category Archives: Ron Garrett

The Galapagos of the Southern Ocean

July 2014 Balwyn meeting; report by Ron Garrett

It was rather ironic that Jill and Ian Wilson should tell us about their visit to the World Heritage-Listed sub-antarctic Auckland Islands, south of New Zealand, and experienced daytime temperatures there no lower than in Melbourne that day. That is not to say they travelled aboard a luxury liner; it was indeed a 12 day wild-life expedition on an ex-Russian research vessel with expert biologists and geologists as guides.

The group of islands called The Snares, about 200km south of New Zealand, were the first they visited and the farthest was Campbell Island, some 700 km south of the mainland, all on the submerged continent of Zealandia. Exploration of the islands was done from Zodiac inflatables and transfer from the ship to Zodiac was a little hazardous, with both moving erratically, especially when carrying cameras with long lenses and tripods and wearing bulky protective clothing. Jill’s first adventure ended up in the bottom of a Zodiac.

July Balwyn meeting report

Southern Zealandia

Jill explained that the islands are all volcanic remnants of the ancient continent Zealandia, and are distant from each other and from the mainland. The plants and animals on the islands have thus been isolated for aeons, allowing them to evolve in their own way. For this reason the islands are often called the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean

Landing is not permitted on The Snares and the many photos of birds taken aboard ship showed the stark sea-eroded volcanic islands in the background. There were birds everywhere, in the air and on the water. The most numerous were the Sooty Shearwaters, Mutton birds to the New Zealanders, but not our Short-tailed Shearwaters which lack the silvery-grey under the wing, and Cape Petrels were everywhere. The Snares were wonderful for albatross, and were the main nesting site for Buller’s Albatross. The New Zealanders had their own common names for birds. Our Shy Albatross they called the White-capped Albatross and there was uncertainty as to whether it was a race or distinct species. Where possible, Jill and Ian used the names in HANZAB. However, the Wandering and Antipodean Albatross are very difficult to tell apart, but have been separated since that volume of HANZAB was published. Fairy Prion have a larger black patch on the tail which differentiates them from the Antarctic Prion. The Snares are the only breeding site for the yellow- crested Snares Penguin. Rock-hopper Penguins were also seen, but not many.

It was a tricky task taking photos, with birds and Zodiac always moving, but they entered a sheltered cove and saw some bush birds, including the New Zealand Tomtit (a robin) and the New Zealand Fern-bird which was the most abundant on The Snares

Enderby Island was visited next. Enderby had been farmed, and farming and ships had introduced pests. However, farming proved uneconomic and the New Zealand government eradicated the pests from the now deserted island. Enderby is home to the timid Yellow-eyed Penguin, a rare New Zealand endemic with a population of about 5000 birds. There was also a declining colony of the rare Hooker’s Sea Lion with lots of Brown Skuas scavenging amongst them. Jill found the summer season there reminiscent of alpine plateaus, with low shrubs and cushion plants, and flowering plants everywhere, attracting the insects and birds. This made the Auckland Island Pipit easy to photograph but had no effect on the timid Yellow-eyed Penguin.

Flora on Enderby Island Plateau. Photo: Jill and Ian Wilson
Flora on Enderby Island Plateau. Photo: Jill and Ian Wilson

From the board-walk they saw the distinctive Auckland Island Snipe, which is also found on Antipodes Island., with Sooty Albatross nesting on steep slopes. Here they also saw a local black and white race of the New Zealand Tomtit. Especially interesting were the flightless Auckland Teal they found in rocky pools. In contrast, the ubiquitous Silver and Kelp Gull were both common enough to remind them of home.

The next stop was the main harbor of Auckland Island, an ancient caldera, with a focus on geology and history. The ship’s doctor was a keen shipwreck historian who showed them the 150 years old wreck of the Grafton. She was wrecked in 1864 and the survivors were marooned there for seven months before three of them managed to sail to New Zealand and return for the sole remaining two sailors. Following this catastrophe the New Zealand government built a series of castaway shelters complete with provisions and rifles.

Cormorants here are called shags and each island has its own race. Campbell Island was no exception; it had its own Campbell Shag. Even more exciting was finding the Auckland Island Teal, once thought to be extinct. After clearing the island of predators, a captive breeding program was commenced and 105 birds were released in 2003/2005. The population is thriving.

Jill then handed over to Ian who talked about the Southern Royal Albatross on Campbell Island.

There was an easy board-walk for access to the island, and the guide had obtained a special permit to allow the party to move up to 100m from the path to photograph and observe the birds. The breeding 7 to 9 year old males arrived first in October; shortly followed by the mature females. The sub-adults arrived in December and were at the peak of their display in January, when Jill and Ian were there. Adults require a full year to raise one chick, and so breed each two years.

Sub-adult Southern Royal Albatross. Photo: Jill and Ian Wilson
Sub-adult Southern Royal Albatross. Photo: Jill and Ian Wilson

Congregations of 5-7 year old sub-adults display to seek partners for the next season. There were three distinct features of display. The most basic was the sky call by the birds on the ground, up to potential mates flying overhead. Then there was the billing ritual, touching each other with slightly open mandibles, gentle and respectful even as it developed into ‘yapping’. But most spectacular of all was the wing-stretching. To see a 1m tall bird with its 3.5m wing span fully outstretched, strutting with erect tail fanned out, was truly exciting.

However, there was a sad story too. From early October to January, one lone male had been sky-calling for his mate but she had not arrived. He would continue to return from feeding at sea and call in the forlorn hope she would arrive. Now he would have to return next year with the teenagers to find a new mate. Losses, due to entanglement in long lines at sea, are still a problem, in spite of the re-designed hooks now used by the fishing industry.

After Ian’s talk, Jill showed more bird photos taken on the trip back to New Zealand.

Campbell Island looking south. Photo: Jill and Ian Wilson
Campbell Island looking south. Photo: Jill and Ian Wilson

After a talk enjoyed by all, Alan Crawford led a vote of thanks, which was seconded by all.