Fascinating facts about seabirds

If seabirds spend days, months or years at sea, how do they sleep? I talked to Jesse Mulligan at Radio New Zealand to answer that question and more about the fascinating lives of seabirds that make our country home. You can listen to the full interview here:




Pie in the Sky PHD projects: Remote sensing and burrow nesting seabirds

One of the most acute threats to seabirds is introduced predators, which depredate seabirds at all life stages from eggs to adults. Consequently, predator eradication has been identified as an effective and commonly used seabird conservation method. Seabird recovery post-eradication is influenced by complex and interacting environmental and demographic factors, though gaps remain in our understanding of the speed at which ecosystems respond to seabird recolonization. While monitoring seabird colonies post-eradication can help improve this understanding, limited resources and the remoteness and number of seabird islands challenge our ability to achieving long-term monitoring and research objectives. Therefore, economical and effective monitoring tools are needed.

Remote sensing has been used for decades in agriculture to evaluate crop nutrient status. Advances in remote sensing tools have improved the quality and reliability of applying this technology to evaluate a range of ecological systems. Seabirds can introduce large quantities of guano, effectively fertilising their island habitats. Concentrations of ammonia in soils have been positively correlated to seabird burrow density, and deposition rates of nitrogen into low nesting density systems can be as much as 3 times the rate of standard agricultural fertilisation rates.

Our research investigates if methods used for evaluating crop nutrient status on agricultural fields can be applied to a heterogeneous forest canopy. In this way, remote sensing could be used forDron monitoring long-term changes in seabird nesting density by evaluating canopy nutrient status. To test this hypothesis, we are investigating the relationship between seabird burrow density, and soil nitrogen and canopy level nitrogen on islands in the Mercury Island group, off the east coast of the Coromandel. We used a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) mounted multispectral sensor to collect extremely high resolution images (5cm).

This imagery is used to evaluate canopy composition and the spectral reflectance signature of pōhutukawa (Metrosideros excelsa), in relation to seabird density. We sampled and analysed soil and leaves from pōhutukawa trees on Korapuki (18 ha), Middle (13.5 ha), Green (2.5 ha), and Great Mercury (1867 ha) islands for total nitrogen and carbon:nitrogen ratios. Seabird nesting density on the islands ranges from low (1 burrow/m2) to high (10 burrows/m2).

As expectedpohutu, we found a strong relationship between seabird nesting density and soil nitrogen. However, our preliminary results indicate this relationship is not strongly transmitted to the canopy of pōhutukawa (Journal of non-significant results?). This result may be attributed to the physiology of pōhutukawa, which is a highly stress tolerant species. Pōhutukawa distribution is predominantly coastal, trees must be adapted to salt spray, arid environments, poor quality soils, often establishing on rocky steep cliffs. We postulate that given these stress tolerant adaptions, pōhutukawa may uptake and store only the nutrients it requires for growth and homeostasis, and perhaps is limited by other resources, so is not responding to nutrient enrichment in a way that is detectable in canopy spectral reflectance.

With these results in mind, our research continues to evaluate the spectral response of other island canopy species to seabird nutrient enrichment, and the topographic and environmental mahoeinfluences that might affect forest canopy reflectance. In the coming field season, we will be evaluating the canopy species māhoe (Melicytus ramiflorus) and milk tree (Streblus banksii) to compare the results of pōhutukawa with and identify other species that may act as proxies for evaluating seabird nesting density changes over time.

Predator eradication is an effective tool for protecting New Zealand’s seabirds. However, to ensure that seabirds populations are stable or increasing in the face of additional threats, such as fisheries and pollution, long-term monitoring is needed. Developing methods using remote sensing technology provides the opportunity to achieve these goals in an affordable way, across larger spatial scales than has been previously possible.


World Environmental Education Conference | Göteborg, Sweden

In June/July I was in Göteborg, Sweden for the World Environmental Education Congress. It is a beautiful city.

I’ll admit, initially I felt a little out of my element…. I am conditioned to conservation scientists, who, in all honesty are a bunch of ridiculously fun nerds. No, here there are educators, teachers, lecturers, and students [who are also a bunch of ridiculously fun geeks, just different]. It’s a rag tag bunch of folk who are undoubtedly the most important people in the world. I state that boldly, because these educators are at the coalface of hope for the future. They teach environmental literacy. Inspiring the next generation of scientists, architects, business people, and the rest about the wonder of the natural world. Informing the world’s students what in means to be alive on this planet today.

Why was I there then? well, I presented to the education world the Global Change app. A little project myself and some colleagues have been working on about plants, carbon, water and climate change – my aim is to give stomata the 15 minutes of fame to which they are so deserving of. The app was well received and there were lots of interesting and insightful conversations about the environment and the state of education and how tools, such as the app can enhance learning pathways.

I left the conference with a renewed sense of hope, there is an enormous community of educators, researchers, scientists and students working to improving environmental literacy. The next generations of students will have greater understanding, connection and appreciation for the natural world thanks to this community. It was an honor to be in the company of such a wonderful group of people.


Twingle at #WSC2015

Hallo seabirders!

There is a little something [unofficial] in the works for the World Seabird Conference in Cape Town, South Africa – August 26-30th. It’s called a Twingle:


The details of the event are:

Location: Mitchell’s Waterfront Brewery, Cape Town 

Date: Sunday 25th October 2015

Time: 6pm (local time – jet lag can be confusing)

Let us know you can come along to meet fellow seabird twitts/tweeps/twitterers by filling out this register form:


Please share the Twingle details and bring along other seabirders! Tweet, Facebook etc…..!

P.S don’t use Urban Dictionary for the definition of twingle, it means something completely different.

Mitchell's Location


In July 2014 my colleague and I ran a workshop at Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Conference in Suva, Fiji, called “Bridging the research-implementation gap”. It was a fantastic! the participants (both researchers and practitioners) contributed to a lively discussion on the mismatches between conservation science and on the ground conservation action. The discussion on the research-implementation gap in conservation is not a new one, but the workshop highlighted the fact that it is still very much an issue in the conservation community. Our paper that came out of this workshop on the research-implementation gap is up on early view in Pacific Conservation Biology:

Jarvis, R.M., Borrelle, S.B., Bollard Breen, B., & Towns, D.R. (2015). Conservation, mismatch and the research-implementation gap. Pacific Conservation Biology (early view).


Despite calls to better link research and practice, the gap between knowing and doing continues to limit conservation success. Here we report on the outcomes from a workshop at the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania Conference 2014 on bridging the research–implementation gap. The workshop highlighted how the gap is still very real in conservation and the importance of bringing together researchers and practitioners to discuss their work. Workshop participants discussed how the research–implementation gap influenced their conservation efforts, identified five key mismatches between research and practice, and recommended seven ways we can work together to bridge the gap. The outcomes identified by the workshop are highly relevant to conservation efforts around the world.


  • Scale mismatch
  • Temporal mismatch
  • Priority mismatch
  • Communication mismatch
  • Institutional mismatch

Bridging the gap

  • Multiscale projects coordinating broader goals and local actions
  • Action adaptive and future-oriented, while grounded in theory
  • Design research with action in mind
  • International open-access resource of projects
  • Institutions to encourage time spent linking research and action
  • Co-supervision of students by researchers and practitioners to develop complementary skills in research and implementation
  • Role for connectors to identify the most valuable links between researchers, practitioners and projects

You can read the full article here (open access)

Plastic Bag Free Auckland Update

It’s been nearly a year since I submitted the “ban plastic bags in Auckland” petition to Mayor Len Brown and the Auckland Council. Since then there has been a flurry of activity, well, as much of a flurry that can happen in a large paper-weighted organisation like a Council. Nevertheless, progress has been made.

  1. The petition got forwarded to the Environment, Climate Change and Natural Heritage Committee for investigation of how such a ban could be enforced by the Council.
  2. On March 3rd 2015, the committee found that while current legislation restricts the council form enforcing a charge or a ban on single use plastic bags in Auckland, the committee voted unanimously to support having a plastic bag free Auckland. They made a number of resolutions:
    1. Support the establishment of a packaging workgroup to develop an accord on how to minimise packaging waste, including plastic bags
    2. Support making Auckland plastic bag free
    3. Request officers to undertake further work on how to make Auckland plastic bag free and report back recommended actions to this committee, including:
      1. to make Auckland plastic bag free
      2. to minimise the use of single use plastic bags, such as integrating messaging into planned campaigns and council walking the talk.
      3. options to reduce other forms of plastic entering the natural environment

So, what does that mean?

What it means is that we are going to have meetings. Because meetings make things happen. The lovely people over at Auckland Council have established a ‘Packaging Workgroup’ – which is a rag-tag collection of retail, manufacturing, recycling, science (me), community and council representatives. We are going to work together to come up with solutions to reduce plastic bag use and work towards making Auckland plastic bag free.

BUT THERE’S MORE! Because the Council found that they have no mandate for a plastic bag ban at the regional level, the campaign has been kicked up a notch. Denise Roche from the Green Party New Zealand is travelling the country announcing the “Say NO to plastic bags” campaign. We are taking it the National Government, because we think that the environment is worth more than a 12 min-use-plastic bag.

sayyeah nah

The Global Change App

And as if I wasn’t busy enough during my PhD, I went ahead and helped create The Global Change app – an interactive teaching tool that explains the role of the stomata in the global carbon and water cycles. If you’re keen to find out how human activities impact global cycles download the app for free on iTunes and Google Play. It’s also computer literate.


The ‘Global Change’ app is a tablet application that explains the link between the carbon and water cycles in the stomata of terrestrial vegetation, and the effects of global change on their function. Stomata are microscopic pores on the surface of plants where carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapour are exchanged simultaneously. No other biological organ has such a profound effect on global mass and energy transfers. Human activities are increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which causes surface temperatures to rise and can influence the amount of water and CO2 available to plants. Consequently, the physiological function of stomata are being altered, which in turn feeds back onto the global carbon and water cycles [climate change].

The app connects the biotic and abiotic systems involved in the cycling of carbon and water through space and time, and illustrates how the cycles have changed since the pre-industrial era to now. The content is concise and informative, with graphics and video to illustrate complex ecological components in an approachable and meaningful way for students. Teachers and students can further explore each component of the cycles and climate change feedbacks illustrated in the app through links to up-to-date scientific research and useful resources. The in-built twitter functionality, with the #ecofact tag means users can share their new knowledge with friends, family and peers to create a social conversation around climate change issues. Follow @theGCApp for updates, news and more #ecofacts!

The app is free to download from iTunes and the Google Play stores.


Australasian Seabird Research Group

Here in New Zealand, we live in the “seabird capital of the world”, where more species congregate to breed than anywhere else. Although experiencing this diversity makes us lucky as seabird researchers, it also means we have a great responsibility. Seabirds face many challenges in our changing world, from fisheries by-catch at sea to non-native predators on their breeding grounds, and threats along their migration routes. What better way to confront these issues and come up with solutions, than to work together?

In an effort to encourage collaboration between seabird researchers in Australasia, the Australasian Seabird Group and Ornithological Society of New Zealand are working to put a seabird research map together.

No matter if you’re a new student, a community group, or a seabird guru, we’d love to hear about your research. We’re using new technology called “thundermaps” to map out seabird research activity, much like the “Kereru Count” has mapped out Kereru sightings. Think it’s too complicated? Well, we’ve tried to make it easy by walking you through step by step here: How to pin your research NZSeabirdResearchMap.

If you’re interested in keeping in touch with other seabird researchers, please leave us your email. Also, find us on twitter @Aus_NZ_seabirds or on facebook at the Australasian Seabird Group homepage.
If you have any questions, let us know: r.buxton@mun.ca, Nicholas.Carlile@environment.nws.gov.au, barry.baker@latitude42.com.au, sborrelle@aut.ac.nz


Plastic Bag Bans: Facts Vs. Myths

The convenience, durability, and water resistance of the mighty plastic bag is a relatively recent addition to modern society. Plastic shopping bags were patented in 1965, but it took about a decade before they were ubiquitous globally. It wasn’t long before the handy shopping bag started to infiltrate the environment. Now, we churn out over 1 trillion plastic bags worldwide every year – that works out to be about 1 million plastic bags per minute! Where do they all go? well, about 2% get recycled, maybe. What about the other 98% of that 1 trillion?

In 2009, Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said:

“Marine litter is symptomatic of a wider malaise: namely the wasteful use and persistent poor management of natural resources…Some of the litter, like thin film single use plastic bags which choke marine life, should be banned or phased-out rapidly everywhere-there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere.”

I have a campaign to get the bag banned in Auckland, and hopefully one day New Zealand. Over the last few months I have been sporadically attending Auckland Council meetings and talking to people about banning single use plastic bags in Auckland. It has been a rather insightful experience into the dark world of politics and the human mind. It’s the kind of stuff that makes your skin crawl, and lose faith in humanity – enough to make you want to sit in a corner and weep. But then there are times when you are filled with hope, that real progress can actually happen, when you meet the few people that still hold onto compassion, and the integrity to make the world a better place. These people are worth their weight in gold…….But I digress……..This post is about dispelling some myths and clarifying some realities about what happens when a city makes the noble choice to ban single use plastic bags.

Frequently, I have conversations with people who can’t relinquish their love of the plastic bag, and they have some interesting reasons…. but here are a couple of the often used arguments for not banning plastic bags busted:

MYTH: Plastic Bags are not single use – they are reused, which eliminates their environmental impact.

I have had this conversation so many times….”But I use my supermarket shopping bags for bin liners, or to pick up my dog poo, so they’re not single use..” OK, so you use them twice.

The other conversation is along the lines of “….yeah, but…they recycle plastic bags, and I heard (from the mysterious “those people”) that recycling plants are short of plastic bags, so really we should be using more….”

FACT: Large amounts of plastic bags aren’t easily reused or recycled

REUSE: The average family brings home 1,200 plastic bags EVERY year. I am not great at mathematics but it seems unlikely they’re all reused, and definitely not more than twice (show me someone who uses the same bag to pick up dog poo more than twice and I’ll buy you a beer).

RECYCLING: This really irks me, mostly because it’s total bullshit, but more than that it’s a cop out – it’s the old “someone else will do it” argument. Shirking responsibility for your actions, and the consequences of those actions is easy if there is a fall-out guy, even if he/she is imaginary…….While designated plastic bag recycling facilities do exist, they are just not in NZ (and currently in Auckland there is no capacity to recycle plastic bags – locally or offshore). In the USA, the EPA estimates only 12 percent of bags are recycled. California estimates that the real number is even lower, about 2 percent, and then plastic bags aren’t truly recycled. Why….”Because plastic bags have a variety of dyes and other additives, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting if you melt down a bunch of bags that consumers have used,” (Mother Jones, 9/15/14). So, when bags are put in the recycling they can cause problems by clogging the machinery, causing equipment failures. If an entire load is contaminated with plastic bags, it will all go to landfill rather than be recycled. Also, I question where are all these recycling plants that will accept poo filled plastic bags, or the ones with the scraps from the Sunday roast inside…….

What a WASTE.

 MYTH: Plastic bag bans don’t reduce rubbish

Some people I have talked to have said that it’s not the poor plastic bags fault that they end up in the environment (very anthropomorphic) but it’s people throwing plastic bags willy nilly out of their car windows and off their boats – if people just put them in the rubbish bins then there wouldn’t be a problem.

FACT: Bans Reduce The Litter Problem

Just a wee reminder of the fact that we use 1 TRILLION bags a YEAR.

Plastic Grocery Bags Are 6th Most Prominent Trash Found On Coasts. Data from hundreds of thousands of International Coastal Cleanup volunteers for the Ocean Conservancy indicate that plastic bags are a major component of marine rubbish:


It is estimated that it takes from 500 to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down. Even then, they never fully biodegrade; they just break down into ever-tinier plastic pellets – called microplastics. Then they make their way into the food chain, we are still trying to understand the implications of this on people – US – the ones at the top of the food chain, so far things aren’t looking good……

The good news is that when bag bans are put in place, or even just taxes, things start to look a little brighter….

The Ireland Bag Tax DRASTICALLY Reduced Litter. Introduced in early 2002, the plastic bag tax “led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter.” (BBC News, 3/18/12)

San Jose, California Found there was a major reduction in rubbish following the bag ban. A plastic bag ban in San Jose reduced bag litter in “approximately 89% in the storm drain system, 60% in the creeks and rivers, and 59% in City streets and neighborhoods,” according to a report from San Jose’s Transportation and Environment Committee (City of San Jose, 11/21/12)

MYTH: Ban will cause food-borne illnesses and DEATHS!

The National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru wrote an opinion piece titled: “The Disgusting Consequences of Plastic-Bag Bans” claiming a study found that a ban on plastic bags in San Francisco led to 5.5 more deaths per year because of food poisoning (Bloomberg View, 2/4/13).

FACT: Studies fail to actually link deaths to bag bans, and there is always a little bit of COMMON SENSE – washing re-usable bags can prevent contamination

Interesting that this “Scientific study” that Ponnuru based his article on was conducted by lawyers* (*not experts in public or environmental health)….. The lawyers attributed the link between plastic bag bans and incidence of e-coli by looking at ER admissions. While they got some significant statistics from their analysis, there was no acknowledgement that it could be attributed to other factors, such as a number of contaminated processed meat products around the same time. Overall, the results are somewhat tenuous, even with my limited scientific experience and huge bias…..

And if you are worried about your chicken juices, just throw your re-usables through the washing machine. Easy Peasy.

MYTH: Bag bans harm the economy and cause people to lose jobs

The New Zealand packaging industry lead this argument, well, you can see why. The more packaging there is, the more profits they make. I’ll admit there are about 2,000 jobs in NZ manufacturing plastic bags, so yes, there will be job losses……but……

FACT: Bag bans spur growth for alternatives

In Los Angeles County’s following plastic bag ban reported from its Department of Public Works that since was implemented “local reusable bag companies have started to emerge to take advantage of this growing market” (L.A. County Department of Public Works 10/7/14)

Studies have predicted economic benefits from bag bans: A study on two California cities bag bans determined that there has been “no sustained negative (economic) impact to retailers.” The study also reported that affected San Francisco retailers would see savings of $3 million/year under the strengthened ban by no longer having to pay for  single-use bags to give away to customers for free. (Public CEO, 2/20/14).

Finally, plastic bag bans save councils and states millions of dollars in clean up and disposal costs! 

They may seem fairly harmless and very convenient, but plastic bags have a devastating impact on marine life. According to the 2007 Worldwatch report Oceans in Peril: Protecting Marine Biodiversity. At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, and plastics and other synthetic materials cause the most problems for marine animals and birds. In 2010, a grey whale that was beached and died in Seattle was found to have more than 20 plastic bags in its stomach (Mother Jones, 9/15/14). Yuck. Further, plastic pollution costs $13 Billion US according the the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Bag Bans do MAKE A DIFFERENCE: China says that it has saved 4.8 million tons of oil since a ban on plastic bags was enforced. The rest of the world are starting to catch on – France is banning the bag by 2016, and Scotland is introducing a tax, joining an every increasing list of countries and cities getting on the bag-ban bandwagon.

We are fortunate to live in a place where we are not confronted by our waste on a moment by moment basis, many people are not…..Surely, the least we can do is stop using single use plastic bags.

A boy swims in the polluted waters of the river Sabarmati in Ahmedabad

Hunting the New Zealand Storm Petrel on Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island


In April 2014 I was given the unique opportunity to hunt the New Zealand Storm Petrel for 5 days on Hauturu. By hunting, I mean trying to find the burrows of these elusive little seabirds. The New Zealand storm petrel (NZSP) was thought to be extinct until an individual was randomly caught by a fisherman, who happened to be an ex-wildlife ranger, who happened to be on a fishing vessel off the coast of Hauturu in 2003. Since then, nearly 200 birds have been tagged and burrows have been located on a steep valley. Earlier in 2014, the team found the first NZSP egg. We know little about this cryptic little bird, mostly how did it survive the presence of kiore (Pacific rats; Rattus exulans), and cats (Felis catus), which arrived with the early Maori explorers and European settlers to New Zealand.

Hauturu was designated a Nature Reserve in 1894. The island is rich in history of Maori occupation and management by the crown in the years following the designation (you can read the rangers diary’s going back to 1934 in the library on the island, which makes for some sporadic and interesting reading). Cats that were bought over by some of the islands residents, and the rats that had arrived with the Maori were removed from LBI in 2004 and 2007 respectively. It was an arduous job, which took years of planning, and at huge expense to the government and Hauturu supporters. You cannot argue that the effort and money was not worth it, not by any stretch of the imagination. Hauturu is magic.

After the quarantine routine, where a DoC bio-security staffer meticulously picks through every item of clothing and piece of gear you have neatly organised, it is re-packed in sealed plastic bins to be transported to the island via a bio-security approved boat. All measures are taken to avoid the invasion of rats, or other vermin, and the transport of weed species (particularly seeds) from the mainland. There is a yearly contingent of weed teams that head out to the island to pull out already established weeds, working hard to minimise further spreading and the establishment of species that would out-compete native species.

Stepping foot on Hauturu feels like a trip back in time, to when the effects of human settlement hadn’t yet begun. A cacophony of birds echoes through the valleys.

There are Tuis, Saddlebacks, Bellbirds, Kereru, Fantails, Robins, Kaka, and more, and there are Kokako feeding on the last of the figs, right outside the bunkhouse. Someone forgot to tell the kiwi that they are nocturnal, because they seem to not mind foraging in the bright daylight hours. The birdsong on Hauturu is so loud that sometimes it drowns out the silence.


The forest is full and diverse, and magnificently alive. The undergrowth lush and vibrant, thick with ferns, mosses, epiphytes, orchids, astelias, collospermums, and more, unlike the mainland bush that is browsed and trampled by possums, goats, rats, deer, pigs and people. Towering above the sub-canopy of broadleaved species, kanuka, and tree ferns are majestic kauri, and hard beech. Fantails and hihi dart around your head and robins lead you, softly treading across the moss-covered tracks.


In the evening, the warm, red sunlight seeps through the branches, transforming the magic of the Hauturu into something otherworldly. The smell of the forest takes your breath away.

NZSP’s spend their days walking on water, foraging in the outer Hauraki Gulf and further (we don’t really know exactly where they go to forage). In the evenings they fly not quite silently back to their burrows to feed their chicks. They are not easy birds to find. We spent our evenings and late into the night perched on steep cliffs, kauri and beech towering above us, quietly whispering with the breeze. At night the forest is commanded by the calls of bats, kiwi, morepork, and kaka. The occasional flutter of wings was the most exciting sound, and eagerly we lit up the canopy in hope of seeing one of the little storm petrels flying past.


The infra-red cameras stealthily set up outside a couple of the known burrows recorded our elusive NZSP’s shooting into their burrows, quicker than the blink of an eye (4 seconds to be precise). Although we didn’t see them, we know they are there. The hot coffee, complete with a splash of whiskey kept our resolve to stay a little longer, until we finally gave up and clumsily clambered up the steep slope. The track was illuminated by the bright piercing glow of our headlamps. The haunting echo of morepork hunting their prey, and kiwi snuffling through the undergrowth. Treading through the dew soaked grass flat, it’s best to keep your eyes open for Tuatara star-bathing on the track, and ungraceful kiwi stomping through the undergrowth searching for dinner, from the veritable buffet of invertebrates that prosper here. When you stopped for a moment and looked to the heavens, it was illuminated brightly by the  milky-way.

On our final day on Hauturu, a kokako popped by for morning tea on the grass outside the bunkhouse, then we hiked up to a NZSP burrow site and had a look inside. Opening the top cover of the burrow we discovered a small, light grey fluff ball. It was a NZSP chick. I fail to find the words to describe the sheer amazement of the experience and how privileged I felt, perched on a cliff of one of the most magnificent islands I have ever seen holding that tiny bird. The cryptic New Zealand storm petrel, once thought to be extinct, is breeding on a magical island in the Hauraki Gulf.