Sunday, April 21, 2024

Endangered gulls call stormwater basin home

A partially constructed stormwater retention basin in the Christchurch suburb of Belfast has become a temporary nesting ground for tarāpuka (black billed gulls) – a bird species that is in serious decline.

The native wetland birds took up residence at the Blakes Road stormwater retention basin in August 2021 when work on the site was brought to a halt due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

It seems the birds mistook the partially constructed stormwater basin for a braided river and began nesting in the area. At its height, there were about 750 black billed gulls in the colony.

Christchurch City Council Stormwater and Waterways Team Leader, Keith Davison says because black billed gulls were classed as critically endangered at the time of their discovery in the retention basin, all work was stopped while the birds were nesting and new chicks were hatching.

In December 2021 the status of the species was re-classed to ‘At Risk – Declining’ in a review of the New Zealand Threat Classification System.

“We’ve had to monitor water levels in the stormwater basin very carefully while the birds have been nesting there,’’ Mr Davison says.

“We could not let the water levels drop too low because the shallow muddy water was a habitat for insects, which the birds fed on. The water also acted as a moat, stopping other predators from attacking the nests. At the same time, we couldn’t let the water level rise too high because we did not want to flood the nests and drown the chicks.’’

Access to the retention basin was prohibited while the birds were nesting.

Council’s regional park rangers assisted with setting up a protective trapline around the site to stop rats and other predators threatening the young chicks’ chances of survival.

“Unfortunately because of the measures that have been required to protect the birds, our contractor, Fulton Hogan, has been unable to complete work on the stormwater basin. It has delayed completion of the project by a few months, but black billed gulls are fully protected native birds and protected by the Wildlife Act so they could not be disturbed once they had started nesting.

“Fulton Hogan has been very understanding of that and has done all it can to protect the site.’’

Mr Davison says the Council’s Parks Biodiversity team ornithologist has advised it is unlikely that the black billed gulls will return to nest at the Blakes Road stormwater detention basin as by the time the next breeding season starts, the site’s environment will have changed. 

Black billed gulls have previously been discovered nesting in the flooded foundations of a partially demolished building in Armagh Street, central Christchurch. They have also recently nested  on a gravel island in the Charlesworth Wetland Reserve in Ferrymead and on mooring piles in a completely marine environment at Diamond Harbour.

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