NEWS

High-flying research: Mount professor gets back to nature in New Zealand bird study

December 11, 2019
NEWBURGH, N.Y -
On pest-free Adele Island, off the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, Mount Associate Biology Professor Douglas Robinson looks and listens for the recently re-introduced Tīeke (South Island Saddleback; Philesturnus carunculatus). This particular survey took place on foot, while other surveys for this species were accomplished by kayaking around the island.

On pest-free Adele Island, off the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, Mount Associate Biology Professor Douglas Robinson looks and listens for the recently re-introduced Tīeke (South Island Saddleback; Philesturnus carunculatus). This particular survey took place on foot, while other surveys for this species were accomplished by kayaking around the island.

 

For Douglas Robinson, a Mount Saint Mary College associate professor of Biology, avian research has always been full of adventure. From climbing trees to broadcasting birdcalls on cross-island kayak rides, Robinson’s latest excursion in the field – a seven month sabbatical in New Zealand – contained no shortage of excitement.


His research, which was focused in Abel Tasman National Park, involved surveying the local populations of endangered bird species. These species included Yellow-crowned Parakeets (Kākāriki), and South Island Saddlebacks (Tīeke).


New Zealand once enjoyed a long history of isolation from humans and other land mammals, so the relatively recent settlement of humans on the continent has caused major ecological disturbances, Robinson revealed.


Over 80 million years, “The animals didn’t evolve with any terrestrial mammals on the two main islands of New Zealand, which make up a landmass about the size of Colorado,” explained Robinson. “No mice, no rats, no cats, no dogs – just birds.”


Many of the birds lost the ability to fly over time because there were no major predators. After the introduction of invasive rabbits by European settlers, a long history of predator introductions, including weasels, stoats, and ferrets, began in attempts to curtail the problem. However, along with the dogs and cats brought by humans, the flightless, and naïve, birds were defenseless. Up to 70 percent of bird species were eliminated.


New Zealand has since put great emphasis on conservation, especially on that of bird species, the primary subjects of Robison’s research.
Working closely with Project Janszoon and the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC), Robinson diligently tracked the reintroduction efforts of Kākāriki in Abel Tasman National Park and searched for Tīeke on Adele Island off the coast of the park.
The tasks required unique approaches. Kākāriki are found in the upland sites of the park, which required several days of backpacking to reach and survey the birds. Ultimately, Robinson determined that at least 60 Kākāriki were in the park and that there was evidence of breeding by birds. Tīeke, found only Adele Island, took a more nuanced strategy.


“I did surveys by walking the island and listening for and playing back the sounds of Saddlebacks,” explained Robinson. “I would walk around the tracks broadcasting their calls and then get GPS locations on where they were found.”


Covering the entirety of the island would be quite difficult by foot, so the edges of the island were surveyed by sea kayak. After traveling around the island with the playback loop of Saddlebacks echoing throughout each area, Robinson estimated the population to be relatively small (about 10) given the number of birds introduced (28 in 2014).


In addition to the Saddleback research, Robinson was also assisted with equipping the local Kākā with radio transmitters in order to track their locations across the park. Working with Ron Moorhouse (Project Janszoon) and Dan Arnold (DOC Ranger), Robinson put his 20-plus years of tree climbing and marking of birds into action to band and radiotag nestling Kākā. The Kākā nestlings soon fledged and were being radio-located during a majority of Robinson’s time in the park.


But Robinson’s sabbatical wasn’t all forest treks and bird calls. He was accompanied by his family, who, much like him, had some mild adjusting to do. With unfamiliar grocery chains and gas that averaged about $8 a gallon, the Robinsons quickly invested in a hybrid car and scouted out the local marketplaces.


Robinson’s children attended school in New Zealand, and according to him, the country’s education system is much different from that of the United States. Robinson explained that New Zealand’s elementary education system favors emphasizing skillsets such as navigating social relationships and solving problems.


“And… they let kids be kids,” stated Robinson.


Throughout all of New Zealand, the school day begins at 9 a.m. At 10:30 a.m. the students go outside for a half hour break. From noon to 1 p.m., students, teachers, and faculty across the country have lunch, and school lets out nationwide at 3 p.m.


Despite the length of the sabbatical, it was not the last time Robinson conducted research in New Zealand. Just a  month after his sabbatical ended, he was invited to live on a remote island that is part of New Zealand to study the world’s only flightless parrot, the kakapo. It was an opportunity Robinson was more than happy to take!