Sooty Shearwater- We Still Have No Idea


2020 Sooty shearwater chick a couple of days before fledging, doing wing exercises. Burrow is at bottom right.

Readers will know that the main sooty shearwater colony is very up-and-down in its productivity. In 2019 for example, we think only one chick fledged despite the usual active start to nesting. 2020 was much better, with 18 occupied burrows in January and 14 in March. We lost the last two months of burrowscope monitoring after that because we stayed away during the various levels of Covid lockdown, but we haven’t previously had big losses after February and presume all or most of the 14 burrows active in March  fledged chicks this year.

In an earlier poor season we had asked Graeme Taylor what he thought was going on, and he reckoned that productivity had been average around the rest of the country, and that we should look to problems on site. This season we asked Henrik Moller to think about what we were doing and to see if we could influence anything. Henrik suggested firstly that we look more widely for evidence of colony expansion than just the monitored burrows, as obviously this would be the desired outcome rather than just monitoring burrows for monitoring’s sake. We were aware of that but his comments helped overcome the ever-present activation barrier to searching the less-than-level terrain. Over the entire accessible forest floor we found one new burrow, which we decided not to include in the monitored group given the likelihood of taking a decent slide downhill while getting to it. To be certain, I tested this likelihood and confirm that gravity does indeed work on site. We also decided there was little to be gained by actively monitoring the northern outlying burrows discovered by Jo Sim and Rua. In particular, the larger of the two known areas is quite unstable and we are likely to collapse burrows if we go there often.

Henrik Moller also said that sites he has been involved with can have a proportion of false negatives, when the burrow appears empty but the chick merely moves deeper away from the probing burrowscope and can’t be seen in time. We don’t think this is a massive problem with our colony, as the burrows are not highly convoluted and interlinked like some well-established sites. However, the video at the top is from a false negative burrow. It was obvious a chick was present (swept entrance, excreta, smell: so we put the camera on it) but it did come up empty in the burrowscope inspection. Now that I in particular am more aware of false negatives, I’ll be making special effort to avoid unconscious bias in effort and attention when looking at a burrow that measured empty the previous month.

Given the disrupted monitoring season, we don’t know if falcon or weka got any chicks this year, but the trail camera showed half a dozen single-weka visits to the burrow in the video above. These were by way of a passing inspection, and the weka did not attempt to enter the burrow as far as we know. We seem to have weka at very low levels now, and indeed we heard only a single bird over the entire island this June with the previous two visits turning up nothing.

This is also a good opportunity to back away somewhat from a claim I made in 2013, that the speaker system by the colony was responsible for the birds coming back after a long absence. The basis for this was that the colony looked seriously deserted in May 2012, yet for the 2012-3 season after the speakers went in there was plenty of activity and obvious cleared areas throughout, which were not there on our initial visit. If 2011-12 had been a no-fledge season though, then the colony might just have looked sufficiently forlorn in May 2012 for us to pronounce it extinct at that time. We still think the speakers did work, but must allow for the possibility that we were fooled. We’ll never know.

So, what’s going on then? Our best guess remains that the colony is just like Titi Island  nearby, which has been static or shown only very slow growth over the last 20-30 years. The Cook Strait area is not rich in sooties and may be a bit far from the southern feeding grounds, so inexperienced breeders (like we allege ours to be) may not be invested enough to carry on with chick feeding if the krill moves further south in a given season. Henrik Moller also points out, ominously, that the southern colonies of sooties have been declining an average of 2% per year. For a bird that lays a single egg in a season and not every year, that is a path to extinction and mirrors the numbers that prodded the Key government into a small amount of action on that photo-opp CMF, kiwi (CMF? It’s a TLA; answers by email please). Maybe our role is just to hold the line on a small outpost colony until population-wide declines can be fixed (if we as a country care enough), rather than look to the sooties by themselves to turn Puangiangi into the seabird island it once would have been. We need to accept that the island is more likely to really get pumping seabird-wise if we can attract some fluttering shearwater or one of the other petrels (not forgetting little penguin and gannet as nutrient-bringers-in either) that are more common locally. This winter we put in some wooden boxes with plastic entrance tunnels at our flutterer speaker site, so that prospecting birds may be more likely to stay if they have somewhere weka-proof to shelter. It’s no coincidence the boxes are the same design as those on Mana and Matiu. Some of their flutterers might recognise the comforts of home when passing by and give them a go.

Lastly a bit of product endorsement which might be of interest to the seabird folk. We have had a long-term loan of the current state-of-the-art NZ-made burrowscope, but needed to give it back last year. Thanks Nicky Nelson, the loan much appreciated. They work very well, but run at $5000 and are quite bulky to carry around, albeit much less so than earlier iterations by other makers.

We had earlier tried out a little colour inspection camera sold to tradies, brand not remembered, which was pretty useless. For this season though, inspired by the videos on their site, I bought a specific inspection camera, the Tradesman Record from UK firm This has proved to be at least the equal of its larger cousin. The screen is colour and has more than adequate resolution. It can also record photos and video clips, in my case usually accidentally as the record button falls rather too readily to hand. I suspect the daylight LEDs will lead to more false negatives than the infrared ones in big cousin, but it’s quick to deploy, get a handle on what the camera is showing and finish the burrow, so I think it will prove only as invasive as the big one, which Graeme Taylor has described as being about as disturbing to the chick as an adult returning to the burrow. The colour display is better at showing up downy chicks against dirt than the big monochrome instrument. It is easy to deploy and direct, with the flexible camera wand being of just the right stiffness to be controllable in the average to shorter burrows we have. The big one could not get any further than the new one down the longer burrows before we lost control of it. It’s more than possible to do a burrow by yourself, but we still prefer to have one person getting the wand into the burrow and the other watching the screen, as for the big burrowscope. Battery life is excellent, and we can do two months of checking 30 burrows, without recording, on a single charge of the 3 Eneloop Pro AAs (bought separately). Alkalines can also be used and there is a setting to select battery type so it doesn’t shut down early on the rechargeables. The supplied cheapie carry case protects the camera nicely and stuffs into a day pack easily. The afterthought pockets in the case are useless for spare batteries and the screwdriver you will need to change them, unless you like throwing small items down a hill in a dark forest when you unzip the case, but I suggest you get a little accessories bag and chuck that in the case instead. I haven’t managed to break it yet, or scratch the camera lens. It is also good for peering into kakariki nests (yes, there will be an article on kakariki some time soon).  Highly recommended, and landed in New Zealand for about $200. You will not notice the affiliate links at the bottom of this article, because there aren’t any. If I get excited about my new role as an influencer (hah!), then beware boot manufacturers (Lowa, I’m looking at you and your disintegrating rands).

From Milly’s Prominence to First Christmas Point (and some other names)

Last year we were dealing with some tree lucerne infestations on the less gentle eastern slopes of Puangiangi. Peter and I headed off to a gully we had previously traversed, which made the terrain slightly less daunting than it was for volunteer Greg, who was looking at it for the first time. Peter went ahead to do the steepest bits and I pointed out the route to Greg, but he figured “f*** that!”. This was a very prudent response, but said gully instantly became known to me at least as “F*** That Gully”. This accurately describes a specific small location and so is a useful name for the moment. Consultant On Many Things, Chris Horne, recommended we apply to the New Zealand Geographic Board to formalise it.

This kind of got me thinking: how do names arise, why do some persist, and which ones get onto official maps?

The Topo50 map series shows only two names associated with Puangiangi- the island itself, and the southern high point, Mistaken Mount. More on those later, but what about some of the informal and superseded names that have been used?

If you look at Google Maps at the right magnification, one name only stands out in the Rangitoto group: Milly’s Prominence, on Wakaterepapanui (which has lost an “h” in the relatively recent past).


It didn’t take me long to work out that Milly’s Prominence is a photo point, placed by Milly’s person, Scott Sambell. Milly is a rat detection dog and she gave Wakaterepapanui a sweep for rats recently. Good job, Milly!

Screen grab of the photo point. Note flowering Linum monogynum. Clicking here takes you to the panorama and you can look around it.

The photo point is the place on the main ridge where you arrive after climbing out of the gully above the landing site, and the panorama gives a great look at the regenerating vegetation on Wakaterepapanui.

I’m guessing Milly’s Prominence has relevance to only a few people. Hopefully, similar photo points from unauthorised visitors will not pop up on Puangiangi.

In the absence of an official name for Puangiangi’s high point, Ross Webber referred to it as Hill Sixty. This is a name from the fighting around Ypres in 1915 and fits with Ross’ interests in all things military. We aren’t so inclined and refer to the point as the Summit, or Spot Height 150. These are unambiguous enough for us, as are places like Robin Bush (where we let some robins go), Telecom Bush (near the Telecom Hut), the First Bridge (there aren’t any others, although The Crossing Where The Second Bridge Used To Be is certainly useful when giving directions to first-time visitors), the Southern Forest, the Northeastern Forest, Hinau Gully, the Salt Turf, the Striped Gecko Release Site, the Sooty Colony (despite there being three), the Finger Post and so on. Also useful are names like Boatshed Gully (the gully that doesn’t have a boatshed at the bottom), Woolshed Bay (the bay that doesn’t have a woolshed), the Gannets (where there aren’t any gannets), the Frog Bank (where there aren’t any frogs) and Dam Gully (well, you get the idea). Archipelago Rock is off the northern tip of the island and was named by ecologist Geoff Walls so that we didn’t feel left out of the club by owning only a single private island, but rather a chain of them. These names all work for us, and will last about as long as we do.

Moving on from the relatively ephemeral, I was interested in the names given to the Rangitoto group over the years. The name clearly arises from the name of D’Urville Island, Rangitoto ki te Tonga. Because there is also a Rangitoto near Auckland, it causes some confusion, and there’s a group of photos lurking on Google Maps that haven’t been elevated to prominence like Milly’s, um, Prominence, pointing at the Cook Strait Rangitotos. Some of the photos are of Rangitoto near Auckland, as indeed photos purporting to be of Tinui are of that locality in the Wairarapa. Air New Zealand looked pretty stupid when their feature on the northerly Rangitoto in their in-flight magazine some years ago, had as the cover picture the bottom of Puangiangi’s Boatshed Gully (the one without the boatshed, which is actually a freezer shed from Ross Webber’s fishing days). They were guilty of lifting a picture from a library without checking it. The photo started life in some real estate publicity.

Cook named Admiralty Bay in which the Rangitotos lie. He did not explore Admiralty Bay directly as he considered it a bit too choked by islands for safety, and depending on where he was when he decided that, you can see his point. He named the slew of islands the Admiralty Isles:

Detail from Cook’s map published in Sydney Parkinson’s Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas (1773), taken from Te Ara.

A later chart of Cook Strait published in about 1780 is a bit unclear as to whether the Rangitotos are included in the name Admiralty Isles, but a Dutch edition of Cook’s Journals is more convincing:

Detail from Chart of Cook’s Strait in New Zealand, published by Alexander Hogg in London, c1780. A copy is at the National Library.
Detail from a map in a Dutch edition of Cook’s Voyages.

Both maps show that Cook took soundings to the south of the Rangitotos; this will be from when he took on water near Whareatea in March 1770. I know little about Cook’s story and I was amazed that so many slightly different charts survive from the time. The above are only a selection, and others were kindly provided by Jerry Simonsen and Chris Stephens at Land Information New Zealand (LINZ, which incorporates the Geographic Board). The name Admiralty Isles hasn’t stuck and the various islands have long since reverted to their original names.

What of the name Puangiangi itself? This was one of many names around the country that until recently had escaped formal adoption by the New Zealand Geographic Board. They had a big catch-up in 2018 when many hundreds of names in common use, Puangiangi among them, were promulgated officially. The name acquired a macron over the “u” at the time, as it is given in the Ngati Koata Treaty Settlement documents.

(If you are wondering why I’m not using macrons in these articles, it’s not to make any kind of point- it’s simply that the editor I am using does not offer all of the vowels with macrons and I figured it was better to leave them out. The Geographic Board moved swiftly to remove a freshly-minted macron from the beginning of “Ohakune” this month after complaints from iwi Ngati Rangi, who described the introduction of the macron as “ill-informed”. If you would like to hear “Puangiangi” being pronounced by the late Turi Elkington, refer to [scroll to No. 144 Western Sounds; Mr Elkington also pronounces Wakaterepapanui with an “h”].)

It’s long been fashionable to break down Maori names into their supposed constituent parts and ascribe Europeanised meanings to them. For example, the article about the region in New Zealand Geographic (1992, No. 16), also part of the Geographic Board correspondence files, says that by one translation Puangiangi means “to be exposed to the wind”. It may well be, but I’d like to quote Sir Apirana Ngata, as set out by H A H Insull in Marlborough Place Names (Reed, 1952): “If I analyse the word ‘category’, in the same way as some of the pakeha have Maori place names, we get ‘cat-e-gory’, so ‘category’ means ‘sanguinary tom-cat’”. Insull says that one should not engage in guessing games with these names, and meaning should only be ascribed if people can be found who have access to whakapapa books or are prepared to recount the oral traditions around names. Sound advice. Insull’s book made no mention of Puangiangi.

I found in the National Library, card indices by two noted researchers of place names who were active in the first half of the 1900s. Reed’s Place Names Index does not include a card for Puangiangi. Johannes C Andersen’s does, but it is fairly generic with no derivation given, as opposed to many of the other cards which are full of interesting notes:

Andersen’s Card for Puangiangi (and Mistaken Mount). The cross-referenced card for Rangitoto Islets adds nothing further.

The Geographic Board folk say that they made no fresh analysis of Puangiangi when it was made official in 2018, and that no value judgement was made of any material in their old correspondence files.

Fortunately, help seems to be at hand. The Ngati Kuia Treaty Settlement documents mention Puangiangi in a few places, this time without the macron (although the occurrences are italicised and it might be that the documents had the same limitation on special characters as I do). This whakapapa was the most interesting:

Tumatakokiri = Moeawhiti

Pani = Puangiangi


This could be the fullest version of the whakapapa that survives, or it might be an abbreviated form, representing just the links to very important tipuna or iwi. Tumatakokiri was founder of the Kurahaupo iwi Ngati Tumatakokiri, who arrived in Te Tau Ihu from the North, possibly around 1600. This was well before Ngati Kuia and the other iwi of their alliance. They lived in the region for about 200 years and were eventually driven out to the west. The iwi was all but wiped out around 1810, but there are people today who whakapapa to Ngati Tumatakokiri. Ngati Kuia also have Kurahaupo ancestry and this could explain how the whakapapa given above has been absorbed by Ngati Kuia.

It’s said that the nearby island Nukuwaiata was named for a grandson or granddaughter of Tumatakokiri, so it’s reasonable to suppose that somewhere else might have been named for Tumatakokiri’s direct offspring. As a placeholder pending further information, may I suggest that Puangiangi might well have been a daughter (?) of Tumatakokiri, founder of the iwi Ngati Tumatakokiri.

I have no idea where the name Pani as husband (?) of Puangiangi has come from. The only early Pani I have come across was from the even earlier time of Kupe. Features at the northern end of D’Urville commemorate Pani’s story.

And what of Mistaken Mount, the southern high point of Puangiangi? It’s not in Insull’s Marlborough Place Names and Andersen’s index card pictured above is not informative. My first guess was that it might have been from when Cook circumnavigated the South Island. Perhaps near the end of the circumnavigation he missed his reference point Stephens Island in the fog, ended up near Puangiangi and then realised his Mistake. Unfortunately there is no such reference that I could find. Chris Stephens at LINZ says that they have been going through all of Cook’s material in preparation for the 250th anniversary, and they have not found Mistaken Mount either.

I also had a look through what material I could find of the European explorers who came after Cook, and early local pakeha residents, but drew a blank. It’s also not mentioned in J O’C Ross’ comprehensive book This Stern Coast- The Story of the Charting of the New Zealand Coast (Reed, 1969), which I borrowed from Ross Webber’s library on Puangiangi. Sheila Natusch’s The Cruise of the Acheron (Whitcoulls, 1978), from the same library, is similarly silent on Mistaken Mount. However, the name clearly appears in Stokes’ chart of 1849-53 produced as a result of the Acheron survey. I understand that this survey gave many new names to features around the coast, so for now I will conclude that the name was conferred by Stokes.

Title detail of chart produced from the Acheron and Pandora surveys, 1849-53. From a copy in the National Library.
Rangitoto group with Mistaken Mt., shown in the 1849-53 chart. The legend near Puangiangi’s 150 m summit merely says “Cone”.

Mistaken Mount is shown on modern maps as also being a survey mark. LINZ records show it is a lowly 9th Order mark these days.

Mistaken Mount seen from the North.

Although the top of the hill is covered in kanuka/manuka now and would not these days afford much of a view for triangulation, the survey mark is still there in the form of a two-inch driven steel pipe, as is so common around the country.

Mark A8B0 at Mistaken Mount.

Jerry Simonsen at LINZ provided several early survey maps, and it looks like the mark was put in by Morgan Carkeek’s survey team in 1907-1909.

Nelson-SO 7117_Part1
Detail from a 1911 map by Ledger, attributing Survey Mark G to Morgan Carkeek. Courtesy LINZ, Ref. Nelson- SO 7117.
Nelson-SO 7117_Part2
From the 1911 Map, showing Survey Mark G “Mistake” on Mistaken Mount. Courtesy LINZ.
Nelson-SO 6931_Part
Another, possibly earlier, map showing that the mark on Mistaken Mount was used to fix points along the D’Urville coast also. Courtesy LINZ, Ref. Nelson- SO 6931.

The Carkeek survey dated from the partitioning of D’Urville Island which has been mentioned in another article in this series. The outline of Puangiangi on the survey maps is little more than a rough sketch. Olive Baldwins’ book Story of New Zealand’s French Pass and D’Urville Island (Vol 1) (Fields, 1979) quotes a letter from Rex Mercer of Nelson to the effect that Carkeek’s survey was much more difficult and expensive than anticipated because of weather, access and terrain, and that it was terminated before being entirely complete. A drawing of the Rangitotos to the level of detail seen in Stokes’ chart of 60 years earlier might have been a casualty of that. At any rate, it’s a sketch that persists on the title documents, as does the resultant gross inaccuracy in the area of Puangiangi.

Detail from the 1927-9 Partition and Title documents, showing persistence of the “sketch” outline, albeit with differences from Carkeek’s survey drawings. Purchased from LINZ.

Fun fact: Morgan Carkeek may have been the last person to see a live North Island takahe, in the northern Ruahines in 1894.

To conclude this meander, I have a vague memory of Ross Webber mentioning that there is supposed to be a memorial to Abel Tasman somewhere on the coast of Puangiangi. Others have discounted this and we haven’t seen one. What Ross might have meant is disclosed in a 1969 letter provided by Chris Stephens, where L W Field, a founder of the Nelson Historical Society, suggested naming the southwestern point “First Christmas Point”, to commemorate the celebration in December 1642 when Tasman anchored in the lee of the Rangitotos to ride out a storm, the extremity of Puangiangi likely being the closest land to where he anchored.

Portion of a letter by L W Field, suggesting the name First Christmas Point. Courtesy LINZ, Ref NZGB Correspondence, Vol 40.

The main feature of the southwestern point is a heart-stopping drop-off marking the boundary of the little salt turf we have. A well-preserved salt turf might be the best memorial.

-Sincere thanks to Jerry Simonsen and Chris Stephens at LINZ for material used in this article.