Taxi! Endangered New Zealand seabirds get a lift to safety after crash landing in fog

A taxi driver in New Zealand has swapped drunken revellers for wayward seabirds in an attempt to halt the decline of one of the nation’s endangered species.

Local cabbie Toni Painting leads a volunteer army that scours the streets of the South Island town of Kaikoura in the middle of the night in search of Hutton’s shearwater chicks that crash-land onto the road – mistaking the shiny bitumen for the sea.

Painting was the first to spot the seabird chicks dazed and confused around town on foggy nights five years ago. Now she patrols each evening in fledgling season, collecting the wayward birds and delivering them to a nearby rehabilitation centre, who then take them out to sea.

Hutton’s shearwater are the only seabird in the world that nests and raises its young in the mountains, at heights around 1200m. Since the 1960s their breeding colonies have reduced from eight to two, classifying them for “endangered” status by the Department of Conservation.

Experts think the fledgling chicks in Kaikoura are confusing black, shiny bitumen for the surface of the ocean on their first journeys out of their nest, especially on foggy, moonless nights.

The Hutton's shearwater chick, a chubby puff of grey

Once they have crash-landed the birds are unable to walk on land, or move, and often get hit by vehicles, or eaten by roaming cats or dogs.

“I go out half an hour after dark. Then I go out every hour until half past midnight, it takes them half an hour to get down from the mountains,” said Painting, who keeps animal boxes in her taxi to hold the chicks, which are fluffy, heavy and grey.

“If there’s a lot of birds coming down I can go all night, if I have passengers they’ll help me too.”

On an average night during fledgling season, which runs through March and April, between 10 and 20 birds will be found on local Kaikoura roads, especially those bordering the coast.

Painting said on her busiest night more than 200 birds were rescued, with volunteers working through till dawn.

Ted Howard is the chairman of the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust. He says the local Kaikoura community was well-used to the birds’ antics now, and on any given night about a dozen volunteers would be out patrolling the roads.

The highest death toll was 12 dead shearwaters in one night, which Howard said was “a tragedy” as the birds were so rare.

“We call them crash-landers – they really are fascinating and strange birds; they’re the only seabird on the planet that breeds in the high mountains,” Howard said.

“The most risky nights are when it’s moonless, damp and misty.”

Erica Wilkinson, threatened species ambassador for the department of conservation, said volunteer efforts such as those in Kaikoura were “absolutely critical” to saving New Zealand’s threatened bird population, which continues to be decimated by introduced species such as rats, possums and stoats.

“Reversing the decline of our biodiversity really does take a village, and successes and innovation like this show that when we work together we can turn things around,” Wilkinson said.

Once the birds have been rehabilitated they are taken out on dolphin watching boats and released over the water.

For Painting this week marks the beginning of a month of late, cold nights, but there’s nothing that makes her happier than cruising the streets at midnight, her eyes peeled for that chubby puff of grey blinking in the dark.

“I just love birds and I know they’re threatened so it was on my heart to help save the species,” Painting says.

“They’re lovely birds, they’re easy to pick up and release. And it just gives me a lot of pleasure, releasing the birds into the sea where they are supposed to be.

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