Scientists want to find out whether bits of plastic junk commonly found inside the stomachs of seabirds is killing them - and they're asking beachcombers to collect and store any feathered corpses. Steve Braunias reports.
With luck, I said to Australian scientist Lauren Roman, seabirds will soon start falling out of the skies above New Zealand, their bodies washing up on our shores in thousands upon thousands.
I was describing what's known in the birding trade as a wreck, the term used for a sudden, freakish rise in the number of dead seabirds littering the beach. "Yeah!" she said, with real enthusiasm.
And then: "Well - I mean - you can never say you're hoping that happens, because you're talking about a large serious event where lots of birds die. But it's true that wrecks are very good for our study ... "
Roman is a PhD student with the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. She's studying the impact that marine debris - plastic junk, essentially - has on the very real threat of seabird extinction.
Plastic ingestion can prove fatal; Roman's goal is to try to determine whether it's a contributing factor in the general decline in seabird populations. As such, she arrives in New Zealand in September, armed with a permit from the Department of Conservation allowing her to dissect specimens picked up off the beach.
The more, the merrier.
"The true impact that plastic ingestion has on seabird fatality is not known," she said. "It's a big question. One of the barriers to answering the question properly is we need a lot of dead seabirds to be able to look at that answer.
"And the number of birds we can assess is 100 per cent dependent on how many dead birds we are able to collect."
Over half of the seabird populations around the world are declining, and it's estimated that about a third of Australia's species are threatened with extinction.
A special report into the state of New Zealand seabirds was commissioned by the ornithological society in 2006.
A feature of the report was the threat of extinction of some species and widespread concern about declining populations; and throughout, it refers to birds ingesting plastic.
"The problem of marine pollution has been much discussed," said Invercargill seabird enthusiast Lloyd Esler.
"We know that seabirds get tangled in fishing lines and there are deaths in oil spills, but we don't know much about the effects on birds of swallowing floatingplastic.
"As plastic ages it breaks apart and seabirds accustomed to swallowing prey, either floating dead on the surface or schooling on or near the surface, swallow plastic by mistake."
He recently sent out a plaintive message about Roman's visit to ornithological society members who go on regular beach patrols in search of dead seabirds: "Can I request people finding reasonably fresh specimens - petrels, shearwaters, mollymawks, storm petrels, prions - to freeze them? For larger birds, it may be possible to freeze just the crop and gizzard. Nearer the time I can arrange for either Lauren to visit you or for the specimens to be freighted to Invercargill." He has pledges from hardy beach patrollers in Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton.
Posting dead seabirds on ice to the bottom of the South Island: such is birding activity in New Zealand. Strange to think of households where ornithologists routinely store mangy old seabird carcasses in their freezers. Right now, Esler has fairy prions, diving petrels, and just the removed gut of two mollymawks, because the birds are too big for his freezer.
Much can be learned. Beach patrols help to create an invaluable picture of seabird distribution and population. They also provide a rare opportunity to see a seabird up close, despite the fact it's ceased to be, has expired, is an ex-bird, etc.
Beach patrols were established as a discipline in 1951 by John Cunningham, who worked as the manager of Whitcoulls in Wellington. He was a meticulous, knowledgeable birder, who frequently published articles such as "Methods of silvereye trapping". He designed the beach patrol cards for members to carry and fill out on their wanderings, and the forms have changed little since 1951.
The patrols have created a fabulous archive of hard data. More than 400,000 dead seabirds have been counted and catalogued. Esler is currently transferring the records to an online database.
He's a teacher, and also sits on the Invercargill City Council; he finds the time to transcribe the beach patrol cards every morning from 4am to 5am. On Saturday, he'll be found on patrol at Invercargill's Oreti Beach. It's one of New Zealand's goldmines for dead seabirds, along with Muriwai, Ninety Mile Beach, the Dargaville coast, and Kawhia.
Right now things are starting to heat up for arrivals of the feathered dead. David Lawrie, a Bombay surveyor who serves as president of the ornithological society, is rubbing his hands at the prospect. "There are reports this week of a lot coming ashore on the west coast beaches," he said.
For the most part, beach patrollers stomp along the high-tide mark and may be lucky to find this or that wretched specimen. Muttonbirds. Penguins. Gannets. An occasional royal albatross. But they're sometimes rewarded with spectacular wrecks, when storms out at sea convert beaches into massive graveyards.
It happened after the Wahine storm of 1968. It happened with the 1975 wreck of Antarctic fulmars. About a hundred of the birds were seen alive, standing on the edge of the surf in Northland; two days later, a beach patrol found only two live specimens and 150 dead. There was also the famous slaughter of July 2011, when an estimated 250,000 broad-billed prions washed up after a large storm.
"Weather conditions have been pretty mild for the last couple of years," Roman said, not quite sighing. "So we haven't seen any major seabird wrecks bringing in large numbers of birds." She needs numbers, a lot of data; she needs death.
Her work is hands-on, or hands-in, carrying out necropsies on dissected birds. "It can be a little bit confronting when you see deaths that are not natural. Like the pied cormorant I saw that had its wings completely strapped to the side of its body by a fishing line, and wasn't able to move. It's sad to see a beautiful, healthy bird have its life cut short."
She expects to be working on her plastic ingestion project for another five years. "Far and away the most common item we see in seabird stomachs are small pieces of hard plastic," she said. "They're broken down pieces of larger objects, like buckets, bottle caps, things like that. They go out into the sea, float around for a few decades, and the sunlight and the wave action degrades them, and they break down into smaller and smaller pieces which the birds ingest.
"And it's not uncommon to see balloons in seabirds. It suggests balloons are quite attractive for birds when they're foraging for food. We're guessing it resembles something they eat in their diet, perhaps squid. But you can't know what a bird is thinking when it's eating a piece of plastic."
No. But by balloons, I asked, did she mean, you know, a balloon you blow up? Normal ordinary balloons? "Yeah. A balloon balloon. Party balloons." But what the hell are balloon balloons doing way out at sea? "Well, everyone has seen a kid who lets go of a balloon! They end up in the sea. And people release balloons at events for advertising and things like that. I remember we once pulled a balloon from a dead seabird, and it had the word SALE across it."
Does plastic actually kill? A storm in September 1981 led to the heaviest recorded wreck in New Zealand of two species of petrel; the stomach contents of every blue petrel "had plastic pellets of varying size and number", according to the ornithological society journal, Notornis. It's possible there was some kind of toxic reaction to chemicals - but it's equally possible the plastic was harmless.
A 1987 experiment in South Africa involved scientists, who may or may not have been entirely sane, feeding "large quantities" of plastic to 400 birds from 25 species. Their finding: "No instances of intestinal obstruction, and few cases of physical damage ... These results suggest ingested plastic seldom impairs digestive efficiency in seabirds."
Roman once again not quite sighed. "Well," she said, "it's quite an old study and the amount of plastic, and the number of species affected by plastic, has increased quite considerably. But ... I mean, we're still in the early stage of this project. We're still data gathering. We may find that plastic is not a very big problem or we may find that it's a much bigger problem than we expected.
"Regardless of which way we find, at least we'll have that knowledge."
Robert Webb, who runs the native bird recovery centre in Whangarei, welcomes Roman's study - but has seen with his own eyes what he claims is definite evidence of the deadly effect of plastic ingestion on seabirds. He means the two sooty albatrosses that were discovered on the sand at Baylys Beach near Dargaville, and taken back to the centre.
It's sad to see a beautiful, healthy bird have its life cut short.
"We've had a few albatrosses over the years," he said. "It's normally when there's big storms out at sea. We're getting some good strong westerlies right now, and these are the sorts of conditions that bring the old albatross in.
"They come in off the beach to rest. He'll surf in, and as soon as his feet touches the sand he puts his wings out, and he's trying to walk out of the water, you see, but the water rushing back down again flips him over, and the next wave coming in rolls him up on to the beach, and he gets covered in sand and salt, and it absolutely saturates their wings, they lose all their water-proofing, and they've got to drag themselves out of the water and while they're doing that they're bruising their wings, because they've got such big wings and very light wing bones."
The two sooty albatrosses seemed in good condition. Other seabirds collected by the recovery centre were later released at sea, usually near the Poor Knights Islands. That was the plan, too, for the albatrosses, but they died.
Cause of death: toxic poisoning, he reckons. "We opened them up, and both birds had swallowed lots of little bits of plastic from plastic bags, and little bits of solid plastic, too. They didn't die because of starvation or anything.
"You can tell if they haven't been eating for a while, because the breastbone has a very pronounced sharp feeling. These birds didn't have that. But some of these plastics and that are quite toxic, and it'll start to build up in the gut area, and send the toxins through the body, and it slowly starts to take the birds downhill."
He's experienced wrecks, such as the "massive run" of muttonbirds that washed up after a storm a couple of years ago. "When there's rough seas, the birds are looking for food, and they'll take anything that's moving in the water.
"Later in the year you get the school fish coming up to the surface and all the birds feeding on them, and all that sort of thing, but June, July, August, the birds are running out of decent food and if they see some plastic, they'll grab it."
I asked him what he used to be in civilian life before he opened the recovery centre. "Truck driver," he said.
"See, I'd be driving to Auckland, doing heavy haulage, and I'd see a harrier hawk on the side of the road, injured, so I'd stop and pick him up and chuck him in the cab in the truck, and carry on down to Auckland with him, with a ruddy big harrier hawk in the passenger seat and me hoping like hell he didn't start flying around the cab.
"I'd bring him home and see what I could do to help him. Well, then my wife and I decided to dedicate our lives to the birds. They needed someone to speak up for them.
"That was 25 years ago, and it's been 17 years since we've been away for a holiday. We are here every day of the week. But I'll tell you. There is nothing more rewarding than to get one back to good health and see it take off again. Especially with the big seabirds, like the albatross."
He paused. I left him to his thoughts, which were likely about the case of the sooty albatrosses which had eaten various assorted plastic junk - great adventurers brought to an end by something somebody threw away. He said, "It doesn't always work out."