By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 22/12/2017

Shortly after midnight on November 14, 2016, the adult Hutton’s shearwaters of the Kaikōura ranges would have been returning to their burrows when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit.

There were fears that many of the birds could have died, their burrows buried by landslides. A year on, it’s timely to have a book on these elusive birds, that live well above sea level – 1200-1800 metres above – making them the only seabirds in the world to breed in an alpine habitat.

Richard Cuthbert spent three years living and working in the Kaikōura ranges in the 1990s, studying the few remaining colonies of Hutton’s shearwaters. His resulting PhD work has been instrumental in our knowledge of these mountainous birds, which were likely once common across the ranges but have been beaten back to the highest altitudes by introduced mammals like pigs.

In Seabirds beyond the Mountain Crest, Cuthbert recounts his years living in the mountains, the twists and turns that his research took, and the trials and tribulations of doing field work in extreme conditions. Initially, he alternates between his field experiences and the history of Hutton’s shearwaters, Puffinus huttoni, including early 20th Century debate about whether the bird constituted a new species, who collected it, and what it ought to be called. From there, he focuses on the findings of his research and readers get to follow along with the thrill of discovery as hard work pays off with exciting conclusions.

Seabirds might not be something you think of often, but they have a major and unappreciated role on the land: when the birds return from sea, they bring with them essential nutrients, including nitrates and phosphates, which they deposit on the land by way of guano. Much of New Zealand’s soils are short on these fertilising nutrients which means where the seabirds are, other life often thrives. They’re a living example of Ki uta ki tai – from the mountains to the sea (though in this case, from the sea to the mountains might be more appropriate).

But if we only look at these birds through a modern idea of where seabirds live, we’d completely miss the point that at one time seabirds would have been abundant across mainland New Zealand, filling an important role in bringing these nutrients to land. We may still not appreciate the scale of loss now that many of these birds are restricted to small colonies, many of which are on offshore islands.

If I had one criticism, it would be the Euro-centric narrative of the book. There’s a glancing reference to Māori muttonbirding in the mountains, which is where the intel came from when the colonies were “discovered” by Pākehā in the 1960s. Given it’s Cuthbert’s story, it’s understandable that the narrative would focus on his experiences, but I suspect we are becoming less forgiving to leaving out crucial elements of our history by excluding Māori knowledge and experiences.

Besides that, I loved reading this book. It’s beautifully presented and bursting with photographs from Cuthbert’s field work. The chapters are pleasantly short, and with the story moving along at a brisk pace it’s easy to whip through a chapter or two in a quiet moment or perhaps lying in a hut bunk bed before lights out. With a mix of conservation, exploration and natural history, Seabirds beyond the Mountain Crest will appeal to mountaineers, twitchers, trampers and those of us who like to read about these things from the comfort of the couch.

And while the Kaikōura earthquake was potentially devastating to the mountain colonies of Hutton’s shearwaters, it has had the upshot that Cuthbert is heading back to those mountains this summer to survey the population and consider former colonies for possible re-establishment. In an update to Radio NZ, he says there is already good news from the work: while 20-30 per cent of the breeding burrows were destroyed in the quake, they’ve found lots of birds incubating eggs and young birds excavating new burrows.

Hutton’s shearwaters may not be a bird you’ve given much thought to, but if your interest has been tickled, then this will be an excellent and enjoyable book to learn more about these fascinating birds.

Seabirds beyond the Mountain Crest: The history, natural history and conservation of Hutton’s shearwater. Richard Cuthbert.
Otago University Press, August 2017, $45