Hutton’s shearwater/tītī (Puffinus huttoni) is the only New Zealand seabird that breeds in a sub-alpine environment. The species is nationally endangered, with its two remaining breeding colonies located in the Seaward Kaikoura mountains.
Recovering Hutton's shearwater chicks from burrows high up in the Seaward Kaikoura mountains for translocation to the Kaikoura Peninsula
Hutton’s shearwater/tītī were first described in 1912 but it was not until 1965 that their Seaward Kaikoura mountain breeding grounds were re-discovered by Geoff Harrow, an amateur Christchurch ornithologist.
The adult population of Hutton’s shearwater is around 460,000, but the species is classified as ‘nationally endangered’ because of its rapid rate of decline.
About the size of a common red-billed seagull, Hutton’s shearwater are thought to live for about 30 years.
Where they are found
Hutton’s shearwater spend the winter in Australian waters, returning each August to the Kaikoura Ranges to breed.
They breed in steep and rugged locations in the Seaward Kaikouras, 1000-1600 metres above sea level. One colony is in the Uerau Nature Reserve in the Kowhai River catchment, the other is on private land at the head of the Puhi Puhi Valley.
Historical records suggest the species once bred from at least eight sites in the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura Ranges. Most of these colonies have since disappeared, probably due to wild pig predation.
During spring and summer, large flocks can often be spotted just offshore from the Kaikoura coastline flying low over the sea or rafted up in large groups on the water.
Hutton's shearwater spend most days at sea feeding on small fish and krill
Birds arrive at their colony from Australian coastal waters in late August onwards then spend about two months competing for burrows and mates. The male and female take turns to incubate the single egg, laid in a burrow up to three metres long between late October and late November. Incubation takes about 50 days.
Each day adult birds travel approximately 20 kilometres to the sea, to eat fish and krill which are later fed to their young. On their downhill flight they travel at up to 154 km/h, reaching the ocean in as little as seven minutes. The return trip takes around 38 minutes, with 1200 metres or more in altitude to be gained with a bellyful of fish.
When the young fledge in March and April, they migrate with other Hutton’s shearwater to fish-rich waters off the Australian coast. Young birds stay there for three or four years then return to Kaikoura to breed at five to six years old.
Hutton's shearwater killed by a stoat
Habitat loss and predation by introduced mammals is the main threat to remaining Hutton’s shearwater populations. Deer and chamois are known to trample nesting burrows, stoats and cats will eat young birds and eggs, and pigs would be a major threat if they reached the breeding colonies.
Both of the species’ remaining breeding colonies are confined to a small area, making the birds extremely vulnerable to events such as landslides or predation which could lead to extinction.
Hutton's shearwater chick being fed a mixture of warm sardines and water
To help secure the long-term survival of Hutton’s shearwater/tītī, a third colony is being established on a Kaikoura Peninsula site, with support from Ngāi Tahu and Whale Watch Kaikoura Limited. While the Peninsula is significantly lower in altitude than existing colonies, the fact that seabirds are known to have bred here previously suggests this is a suitable site.
The first trial transfer of 10 Hutton’s shearwater chicks was made in 2005, with 86 more transferred in 2006. Another 95 chicks were moved to the peninsula in 2007.
For two to three weeks the chicks are fed daily a mixture of warm sardines and water, until they reached optimal size and fly away.
Feeding the young chicks on the Peninsula encourages them to identify the area as their breeding ground, hopefully programming them to return here from Australian coastal waters four to five years after they left.
The success of the venture won’t be known until these birds –identified by individually numbered leg bands - start returning, at earliest 2009 or 2010.
Hutton's shearwater chick covered in down prior to gaining adult plumage
Similar transfers of seabird species have proved successful. The Department of Conservation, Te Runanga o Kaikoura and the many community groups and individuals involved with the project, are optimistic that their efforts will help ensure the survival of Hutton’s shearwater.
Te Rūnanga o Kaikoura involvement with the Hutton’s shearwater recovery programme highlights their role as kaitiaki (guardians) of this bird, recognised by Ngāi Tahu as a taonga (treasured) species.
You can help
Feeding a Hutton's shearwater chick that has been translocated to the Kaikoura Peninsula
Hutton’s shearwater/tītī feed on fish so are vulnerable to becoming tangled in set nets and drowning. Fishermen can help protect the seabirds by monitoring set nets closely.
Young Hutton’s shearwater become disoriented by bright lights, when they leave their inland colonies and instinctively fly out to sea. Some crash to the ground, often on roads, especially in wet or misty weather.
In 2006, 140 young birds were recovered from Kaikoura streets over a two night period. Almost all of these were later successfully released from the new colony on Kaikoura Peninsula.
Hutton's shearwater flight path (JPG, 46K)
Kaikoura residents and others can help reduce the loss of young birds during their inaugural flight in March and April by:
- Turning off any non-essential outside lights or using downlights which direct beams to the ground.
- Driving carefully to avoid running over any Hutton’s shearwater that have landed on the road.
- At night, keeping dogs and cats indoors or tied up to prevent them attacking Hutton’s shearwater.
- If you come across a disorientated Hutton's shearwater, release it at the beach above the wave action area
Hutton's Shearwater Charitable Trust website