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Why is beach patrolling so important?

© Stefan Marks

The Birds New Zealand Beach Patrol Scheme commenced in 1951 and for more than 70 years has aimed to systematically document the identity, location and numbers of seabirds found dead on New Zealand beaches.  Beach patrol observations provide a unique long-term record having considerable scientific value and the data collected has helped to establish the occurrence and to some extent the distribution and numbers of more than 115 seabird species in New Zealand coastal waters.

In March 2022 the database comprised nearly 30,000 records; more than 440,000 birds have been counted.  The Beach Patrol Scheme is one of the oldest of the long-term record schemes managed by our Society, and is one of the oldest continuously managed biological databases in New Zealand.

Objectives of the Beach Patrol Scheme

The overall objective of beach patrolling is to collect and record information on all birds found dead on beaches, including seabirds, landbirds and wetland bird species.

Specific objectives are:

  • To provide information on the species, location and numbers of all birds found dead on the New Zealand coastline, including islands.
  • To record, where possible the reasons, for seabird mortality.
  • To increase the collection of birds for museums, especially of rarely found species.
  • To provide specimens for scientific study.
  • To increase the chances of recovering banded birds.
  • To provide opportunities for members to identify seabirds.

Although infrequent beach patrols are always helpful it is regular patrols that can yield good information on the occurrence and mortality of birds.  Records of species occurring infrequently, or have never been found in New Zealand, are valuable and contribute to our knowledge of bird occurrence and distribution.  Several rarities have been found, some only once, and include Adélie penguin, Bridled tern, Manx shearwater, Bulwer’s petrel, Cory’s shearwater, streaked shearwater, Newell’s shearwater and Matsudaira’s storm petrel.  Numerous specimens of rare birds have been added to museum collections.  Occasionally banded birds have been recovered during beach patrols.

The length of beaches covered by patrols helps to determine whether there has been significant mortality of seabirds on specific beaches, and enables comparisons to be made of species abundance per kilometre between regions and over time.  Data has also contributed to a much-improved understanding of the distribution, abundance, seasonal or annual movements and migrations and sometimes of the causes of deaths of all species of birds, particularly in the case of ‘wrecks’.

What is a ‘wreck’?

Periodically, large numbers of dead birds wash up on coastlines.  Such an event is called a ‘wreck’; it is a period of exceptionally high bird mortality involving one species, or sometimes of several species.  Some ‘wrecks’ seem to be caused by storms catching young birds a few days after leaving their nests, others by storms combined with food shortage.  In some overseas seabird ‘wrecks’, the cause of death has been attributed to avian diseases, biotoxins or pollutants.  Accurate records of the extent and frequency of ‘wrecks’, the condition and weight of birds and the weather at the time of a patrol, or three or four weeks earlier, can provide a better understanding of the causes.

How do I become involved with Beach Patrolling?

If you are interested in beach patrol work, do not be discouraged if no regular patrolling is done in your region.  Work on your own if you have to, or prefer to, and if necessary, arrange to have your identifications checked before making a submission.  Many parts of New Zealand’s long coastline are not patrolled adequately, or at all.  This aspect of bird study can be both interesting and rewarding, and every beach patrol carried out adds greatly to information about the species, location and numbers of all birds found dead on New Zealand coasts.

Council hopes that this new approach and design for submitting Beach Patrol observations will encourage members to continue to contribute to this important long-running Birds New Zealand Scheme.  It is also hoped that newer and younger members will be encouraged to walk along beaches and contribute observations in order to continue and extend the Beach Patrol effort that has been made by more than 300 members over the last 70 years.

Avian Influenza (“Bird Flu”) and the Beach Patrol Scheme

Members of Birds New Zealand may be aware that a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A (H5N1) virus has spread across much of the world over the past five years, and it continues to spread.  The H5N1 avian influenza virus, also called “bird flu”, causes an infectious, severe respiratory disease in birds.  It is highly contagious among birds and can cause considerable mortality, especially in domestic poultry.  It has also led to mortality amongst wild birds, in particular seabirds including gulls, terns, shags, gannets, pelicans and penguins.  An example is mass stranding and mortality of Northern gannets on a coastline in the Netherlands in 2022.

Currently the risk of the H5N1 avian influenza viruses arriving in New Zealand is considered to be low, in large part because of our geographic isolation from other land masses, but there is always a possibility that it might arrive in migrating seabirds and waders.  The situation is being continually monitored in consultation with specialist wildlife experts.  Although avian influenza viruses usually do not infect people, there have been cases of human infection.

Birds New Zealand members, especially beach patrollers, have an important role in surveillance of the avian influenza virus when walking along coastlines.  If beach patrollers observe unusually high numbers of living but sick birds, especially birds showing unusual neurological symptoms, or find recent mortality of birds on coastlines where they might have died through avian influenza, please contact the Ministry of Primary Industries hotline 0800 80 99 66 immediately.

As there is a potential risk that bird flu may be transmitted to humans, please do not handle the birds.  Please wait for instructions before handling any sick or dead birds.

Information that can be helpful for investigators include:

  • an accurate location of the birds (GPS readings or precise descriptive location information)
  • photographs and/or videos of sick and dead birds
  • estimates of numbers of birds affected and the species
  • descriptions of the visual symptoms of illness in sick birds
  • how many sick or freshly dead birds are present
  • an estimate of how long the birds might have been on the beach.

Once again, the Ministry of Primary Industries hotline is 0800 80 99 66.