Hunting for snipe on The Snares

Thursday 09 February 2017

The Department of Conservation (DOC) recently offered the Museum an historic hut that had been used as a lab by Canterbury Museum researchers on The Snares Islands. Museum Exhibition Preparator Sebastian Denize was excited by the chance to join the DOC expedition to recover the hut and help relocate rare Snares Island Snipe. 

The Snares are New Zealand’s northern-most sub-Antarctic islands, lying 200 kms south of Bluff. As pest animals have never been introduced, the Snares remain one of the last pristine areas in New Zealand. Almost all the flora and fauna is as it was before the arrival of humans. The island is populated with sea lions, seals, skua, tītī (muttonbirds), penguins, snipe and many other species.

Snares Crested Penguin 1200

The Snares Crested Penguin

The hut has a remarkable history having been erected on Campbell Island, Antipodes Island and The Snares. My colleague, Museum Research Fellow Peter Johns was a member of a 1969 expedition to Antipodes Island. Apparently the hut was briefly erected on Campbell Island after the Royal New Zealand Navy, en route to the Ross Sea, couldn’t land the expedition on Antipodes Island on the first attempt.

Many of Peter John’s extensive invertebrate collections that are now in Canterbury Museum were collected on The Snares and we have over 100 birds collected from there as well. Peter Johns worked on The Snares for four summers in the 1970s and 1980s. Dr Paul Scofield, the Museum's Senior Curator Natural History, carried out research for his PhD there in the late 1990s.

Hut interior 1200

Interior of hut used as a lab by Canterbury Museum researchers some years ago

DOC had a number of goals for the trip to The Snares including removing the hut from the island due to its failing condition and maintaining the remaining hut and a castaway depot. The depot is a small hut that houses emergency supplies and relief for castaways and victims of shipwrecks. A string of depots were built by the New Zealand Government on the sub-Antarctic islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hut exterior 1202

Dismantling the lab

DOC also wanted to capture and relocate some of the rare Snares Island Snipe to Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) where the Kakapo breeding programme is based. Previously DOC had relocated 30 birds to the island, but wanted to catch more to improve the genetic diversity of the new population.

Snipe 1203

The rare Snares Island Snipe

The expedition’s transport was the Evohe, a 25 metre yacht often used by DOC for such expeditions. All plans had to be made around suitable weather windows and our departure was delayed a day. Rough weather meant we had to shelter another day south of Stewart Island. We ended up with five days on the island, the first three dismantling the lab and doing repairs, and the last two hunting snipe; a team exercise involving lots of communication, crawling around on the ground and surrounding little birds before pouncing with a net. In the end we caught 22 birds but two were later released. On the way back to the New Zealand mainland we stopped at Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) where we successfully released the birds.

Bird release 1200Sebastian releasing two of the snipe on Whenua Hou (Codfish Island)

Back at Bluff, the hut was unloaded from the deck of the yacht and into a container for its trip to the museum.

Hut on Deck 1200

The dismantled hut lashed to the deck of the Evohe for the return journey

Whilst the hut has some weather damage, it’s a great little building and will hopefully be exhibited in the near future along with artefacts and specimens to tell the story of science on our sub Antarctic islands.

Images: Sebastian Denize, Canterbury Museum

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