New Zealand: seabird capital of the world


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Kaikōura is home to over 150 species of seabird. How are they doing, and who’s protecting them?

Not all superheros wear capes, but if Sabrina Leucht did, it would almost certainly have feathers. Known to many locals as the Bird Lady, marine biologist Sabrina has been voluntarily treating and rehabilitating sick and injured seabirds (or patients, as she calls them) from her home in Kaikōura for the last five years.

“People see you doing very strange things in public places and you lose all levels of shame,” Sabrina tells Frank Film, of her rescuing and releasing escapades. Her enthusiasm is palpable, and she can rattle off facts about many of the bird species in the area.

Sabrina explains that while Kaikōura is famous for the abundance of dolphins and whales in its waters, it is actually also - alongside the Hauraki Gulf - the seabird capital of the world. The area is home to around 150 species of seabirds, from red billed gulls to a variety of pelagic albatross with wingspans of over three metres.

“What really draws the seabirds here is the Kaikōura canyon, which is a deepwater canyon only 800 metres from shore, so we’ve got a huge food source,” Sabrina explains. As the only person tending to these birds, she has had a big job on her hands. “In the summer we literally have people calling me saying the beach is just littered in seabirds. This is distressing for people and they don’t understand why this is.”

Sabrina says seabirds need all the help they can get right now, and that the main reason she has had so many birds in care is starvation. “New Zealand birds are in trouble, 90% of all seabirds are threatened and nearly all of that is due to human related threats,” she says. “Climate change is causing an increase in sea surface temperature, and that’s suppressing prey species such as krill and fish to cooler depths,” Sabrina says, and explains that seabirds can’t reach these new depths, going hungry instead.

Even red billed gulls, known around some fish and chip shops as ‘rats of the sky’, are in trouble. “[The gull], which is perceived to be really common, is now a threatened species. Kaikōura is really unique in having the largest remaining mainland colony, and also the fastest declining colony,” Sabrina says. “A lot of the chicks never make it to adulthood.”

For Sabrina and the Kaikōura community, finding dead shags, penguins, gulls and shearwaters across the beaches has become a common sight. “During the summer period you often find starving shags, and these young shags will actually walk up to people in their backyards and building sites in desperation for food.”

There’s pressure on Sabrina as well as the bird populations. Five years of doing this work solo has taken its toll, and she’s shifting her focus to a bigger vision which the community can get behind: a dedicated wildlife facility, the plans for which are starting to take shape. “I physically couldn't maintain that sort of a voluntary workload, helping that many patients non-stop every year,” she says.

Under the title of the Kaikōura Wildlife Trust, Sabrina has plans for a wildlife hospital which will tend to sick seabirds (and other wildlife) as well as educating the public on their plight. “It will be a multi-faceted centre where patients are triaged behind the scenes,” she says. “We’ll then have pre-release aviaries as well as an education centre, and a chick-rearing unit.”

Fundraising is underway for the centre, and whilst Sabrina will still likely be known around town as the Bird Lady, there’ll be more hands on deck to help with the cause. “This will probably be my life’s work,” she says. “If the will is there and enough people have the passion to make it happen, it will happen.”

To donate or find out more, visit the Kaikoura Wildlife Centre givealittle page.

Producer/Director: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Andrew Todd
Cameraman: Gerard Smyth & Romah Chorley
Story Producer: Georgia Merton
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Mix: Chris Sinclair
Production Asst: Romah Chorley