My time in the seabird capital of the world

By Ruth Dunn.

This weekend Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, opened the doors to its new 1,400 m2 Te Taiao | Nature exhibition. The exhibition is an exciting showcase of Aotearoa New Zealand’s unique biodiversity, Māori connections with nature and the current environmental challenges that the country faces.

I was fortunate enough to pause my PhD research, stuff a backpack full of a strange combination of office wear and field gear, and spend three months doing an internship at Te Papa during the exhibition’s final stages of preparation.





Museums have a vital role across all levels of society; they engage with diverse audiences in order to share knowledge, educate and instil a sense of citizenship. This is a key focus of the Te Taiao | Nature exhibition with visitors being encouraged to explore their role as kaitiaki (guardians) of the land and its taonga (treasures).

In line with this theme of kaitiaki, I spent a lot of my time at Te Papa chatting with some fascinating groups of people from all around New Zealand, hearing stories and collating footage of how they are working to take care of their natural environment. I spoke with many inspiring people, including hair salons working hard to reduce waste and their emissions, software engineers who install protective dotterel nest covers during their spare time, and school groups that enjoy cleaning up local rivers and planting trees on their banks.

One of my favourite stories, of course, was seabird related: Mena is a conservation dog, trained to sniff out little penguin nests and help to monitor them. Check out Te Papa’s website for more stories of this community environmental action and to see some of the videos that I helped to curate.


As well as roaming the underground corridors (lined with drawers of bird skins) and witnessing the building of a full-sized model Haast eagle (complete with 2.6 meter feathered wingspan) I was also fortunate enough to join some of Te Papa’s researchers with their seabird fieldwork.


​I counted little penguins on Motuara Island in the Queen Charlotte Sound, got very soggy working on Westland petrels in the coastal forests of Paparoa and helped track diving petrels on Mana Island – a real highlight of my trip!

The majority of my PhD fieldwork involves waking up at 3:30 am and handling a lot of very gangly European shag chicks. Whilst I love the time that I spend doing this each year on the Isle of May, walking over the top of Mana Island as the sun went down, crouching outside burrows, cooing into muddy chambers and awaiting a diving petrel response was an unforgettable experience. The island has been the site of numerous seabird translocations over recent years and is increasingly beginning to look, sound and smell more like a 'real' seabird colony; fairy prions and fluttering shearwaters whir in the sky and sooty shearwaters argue with the play-back speakers that shriek their calls into the night.





New Zealand is an incredible place, home to around a third of all seabird species, many of which are endemic and/or threatened. I feel very privileged to have visited some of the country’s most beautiful places, learnt from extremely knowledgeable scientists, worked alongside talented museum staff members, studied some beautiful birds and to have learnt about the strong connection between Māori culture and science.

I am happy that the 1.5 million visitors that Te Papa welcomes through its doors each year will not only be exposed to tales of New Zealand’s amazing, diverse natural beauty (including dozens of seabird specimens), but also sources of inspiration regarding what its people are doing to protect it.


Thank you to my NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, ACCE, for funding my internship.

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