Thursday 29 January 2015

Feeding Fairy Prions - a volunteer's week on Mana Island

100 fairy prion chicks from Takapourewa/Stephens Island were welcomed on to Mana Island a week ago, on 22 January.
One of the 100 Fairy Prion chicks

I was one of a team of Friends of Mana Island volunteers whose job was to feed and care for the birds until they were grown up enough to leave their burrows and fly out to sea. We were helping scientist Helen Gummer with this part of the project.

The chicks were delivered by helicopter and the welcoming party and volunteers quickly whisked them from the helicopter into the shade. Working quickly but carefully, we checked their identifying bands, wrote down their details and gave them a burrow number.
Ready for its band check

Each of the 100 chicks was given a health check and a drink and then placed in its carefully made burrow.

The burrows had lids which made it easy for us to lift out the birds, they also had a tunnel that the bird could use to get out when it was ready to fly away. To ensure that only those birds that had grown enough to survive at sea could leave their burrows, a gate was placed across the entrance.

With views of blue sky and sea, a colourful caravan, numbered burrows and a music system that played fairy prion noises at night, the whole set up resembled a Fairy Prion Holiday Park.
Fairy Prion Holiday Park

The birds' burrows were cool, but the clear skies and all day sun made it hot work for the humans. There was a lot to do - water to boil, things to wash, equipment to sterilise and things to carry to and from the site (about half an hour walk from the volunteers' house).

We soon got into our routines. First thing, there was morning roll call to check on the birds and see which ones had flown off in the night.
Morning roll call
Carrying the bird up to the caravan

Then working in two teams we carried the birds up from their burrows one at a time to be fed in the caravan. Each bird was weighed before feeding. They were fed a kind of sardine smoothie, using a syringe.

Ready to be weighed
Feeding sardine smoothie 

Feeding such tiny birds (they weigh around 100-120g) is tricky, and trickier still is giving them just the right amount. The first feed was especially messy as they were getting used to the new way of being fed. Occasionally a bird with a full beak of sardine smoothie would do a head shake and spray sardine around over the handler and the feeder.

Helen was keeping a close eye on every bird (and the volunteers) to make sure the birds were getting enough food and growing strong. She measured wing lengths and checked to see whether they were losing their baby down.

We gave names to some of the birds - Fluffy, Flappy, Cutie - but these were interchangeable as they all started off fluffy, all were cute and the older they got the more they flapped their wings. A few got their own name - Pipe Bird (it seemed to prefer the tunnel to the burrow), Zero (for its burrow number).
Not quite so fluffy now, but still cute

After the birds had been in their burrows for two nights, Helen removed the gates from some of the burrows and next morning we looked with interest to see how many had flown away in the night. Six had gone. On the third night 21 birds flew off. On the fourth night it was 13 birds, and on the sixth another 15 left. So after our week on the island there were only 45 of the 100 birds left to feed. It was time for our group to leave too, and hand over the feeding to a new group.

The humans left by boat

Many organisations and people are involved in this project, this is just one volunteer's view. 

  • Colin Miskelly led the collection team, read his blog on the Te Papa blog to find out how they chose the birds and about the science behind this project. 
  • For other stories about the Fairy Prion project see the Friends of Mana Island Facebook page.
  • And for the younger ones, there are a few facts about fairy prions in my book Under the Ocean.

Thanks to Friends of Mana Island and Helen Gummer for an amazing opportunity and to Mana Island DOC rangers and the other volunteers for being such a great team.