Island of strange noises and predatory parakeets

Antipodes parakeet chicks. Photo by K. Walker

Antipodes parakeet chicks. Photo by K. Walker

Antipodes Island Parakeet. Photo by S. Jarvie

Antipodes Island Parakeet. Photo by S. Jarvie

Terry Greene from the Department of Conservation Science and Policy team, talks about his discovery on Antipodes Island in 1995.

“After a few days surveying penguins on the south coast of Antipodes Island almost 20 years ago, in what passes for spring at 49 degrees south, I found myself staggering back towards the hut at Reef Point. Despite the rigours of travel and the incessant wind, I was still alert to any calls or sightings of the two parakeet species that occur on this island. This was, after all, why I was here.

Having studied the ecology of Cyanoramphus parakeets elsewhere in New Zealand, read Rowley Taylor’s descriptions of these two most isolated of parakeets and having badgered people incessantly about the prospect of visiting the Antipodes – I was finally here along with eight others – counting my blessings. We were all here to investigate the eclectic array of wildlife that ranged in size from the largest of albatrosses to the tiniest of invertebrates.

As I sidled across the eastern flanks of Mt. Galloway and stepped on to the white lichen covered scar of an old slip, I heard the familiar soft chatter of an Antipodes Island parakeet. Hoping for at least another feeding observation but also thinking that I might find an early nest, I dropped my pack and settled down to watch. After giving me the once over, the large green parakeet paid no heed to me and went back to inspecting a small fern-covered peaty hummock in the middle of the lichen. After hopping around for a bit the bird threw me a few cautious glances then entered a small burrow and then disappeared from view.

This was extremely exciting. Here was the real chance that I had discovered a nest. Very little was known about this species’ breeding biology, and no nest was known from the wild. I settled in to wait for the bird’s exit and a closer inspection of the ‘nests’ contents. Eventually, and with some caution, the parakeet emerged. Seeing I was still present it seemed to look at me with an expression akin to guilt before flying off calling. This seemed like strange behaviour but if this was a nest I knew I had to be quick and explore the contents of the burrow before the bird’s return.

The burrow itself was surprisingly small in diameter and curved in shape.  This meant that a torch was no use. The only thing for it was to ease my arm in and feel about and hope nothing with a sharp beak or claws was going to fasten on to my fingers…….

Grey-backed storm petrel freshly killed. Photo by Terry Greene

Grey-backed storm petrel retrieved from burrow freshly killed. Photo by T. Greene

Pat, pat, pat…….something hard like a piece of egg shell but something soft that felt quite wet. A broken egg?? I withdrew my arm and found my fingers were covered in …….bright red blood?!! This was very strange. Determined to get to the bottom of this I put my hand back into the hole and after a bit of fumbling about was able to retrieve a crushed egg. The egg appeared much smaller than that of a parakeet’s egg. I put my arm back down the hole again and withdrew the dead body of a small storm petrel. It was obvious that this bird had been freshly killed. Its flesh had been torn and feathers were matted with fresh blood. That I was surprised was an understatement. This was obviously not a parakeet nest but something altogether more interesting.

The unfortunate seabird was quickly identified as a grey-backed storm petrel who had been quietly incubating its single egg before being attacked, killed and partially eaten by the parakeet. No wonder the parakeet looked guilty! Antipodes Island parakeets are known to scavenge the corpses of albatrosses and penguins but this looked like a case of active predation. Careful examination of the corpse confirmed this must be so as there were nasty looking bites to the trachea which had partially severed it. The skin had also been opened up from the neck, all along the spine to the pelvis where the flesh and fat deposits had been consumed and the pectoral muscles on the breast of the bird also chewed. I took a few photos with my precious stock of film in very poor light then carefully put the corpse into a bag and quickly headed back to the hut.

First Antipodes parakeet nest clutch recorded 1995. Photo by Terry Greene

First Antipodes parakeet nest clutch recorded 1995. Photo by T. Greene

Of course I was bursting with this news and no doubt bored the others terribly when recounting these events. Better photos of the corpse were taken. Others obviously took note as over the next few days other similar observations were made and a couple of other suspiciously scragged corpses of grey-backed storm petrels also found. These observations formed a central part of the article about the ecology of the two parakeet species published in Notornis on our return.

There have been many more visits to the Antipodes Islands since 1995, but no further reports of this behaviour. This, however, may simply be an issue of timing as few other visits have been made during this time of year.

Did I manage to find an Antipodes Island parakeet nest? Well yes as it happens. When found it contained 5 eggs the first record of clutch size of birds in the wild.”

Postscript

“I never really expected the opportunity to return to these islands. However, in the winter of 2013, I got to visit again as part of a research programme examining the impacts of proposed mouse eradication on non-target bird species. No, I never got to see any further predation of storm petrels by parakeets (too early in the season for that) but we did get to see some good examples of parakeets scavenging corpses of penguins and, more spectacularly, a young fur seal (sensitive viewers be warned!).

Presumably these behaviours have developed to supplement these bird’s diets in what is a rather bleak protein poor landscape. Long may these fascinating behaviours continue! But if you do find yourself on the islands of strange noises it might not be a good idea to fall asleep amongst the wind-blown tussocks for too long.”

Antipodes parakeet scavenging on blood filled quills of an Albatross chick corpse. K Walker

Antipodes parakeet scavenging on blood filled quills of an Albatross chick corpse. K Walker

Resources:

T. Greene. 1996. Notornis. Read more

See more on predatory Antipodes parakeets