Twitching On

By icebreaker to New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands

Adam Walleyn leans against the gunwale of the Russian icebreaker and scans the horizon. Lesser twitchers surround him, most about twice his age, binoculars glued to eye-sockets. They point out specks on the horizon. Is that a Wanderer? they say. No, that’s a Southern Royal, Adam replies, briefly raising his binoculars to confirm what he already knows. He is the Justin Beiber of twitching. If teenage girls were into twitching they would have posters of him on their walls.

These are the subantarctic islands and most of the passengers on the ship are here to see the throngs of unique bird-life that surf the ocean winds and come to the islands in huge numbers to breed. There is a handful of nature photography buffs, some elderly eco-tourists, a few science students, and then me, someone without any obsession to visit this place. No list to complete and no photo album to fill. I didn’t do the research, I had almost no idea what to expect when I stepped on the ship in Dunedin. I wanted it that way.

When I ask what a twitcher is, I am told they are a type of bird watcher or birder whose only goal is to see as many bird species as they can. Hearing or glimpsing the bird doesn’t count. It must be seen and clearly identified. If you see more than one, you have a double, triple, multiple confirmation. Once they have their confirmation they move on, focus turning to the next bird on the list. Adam has more birds on his list than any other twitcher on the ship. This is remarkable. Especially considering his young age. To get this many birds you must visit the most extreme corners of the globe and spend years searching out elusive species.

The islands are due south of New Zealand, in the middle of a belt of storms that endlessly circle the Southern Ocean - the roaring forties and furious fifties, the latitudes between 40 and 60 degrees south of the equator. The islands included in New Zealand’s subantarctic group are Snares Islands, Bounty Island, the Antipodes Islands, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. There is also Macquarie Island which is connected to New Zealand’s continental plate but is under the governance of Australia. These islands are often grouped together in books and documentaries, but in reality they are isolated and alone in the vast ocean and have little in common, other than being remote, windy and inhospitable. Some are volcanic, like the Auckland Islands and others are ridges of the continental shelf, like Macquarie Island. Some are merely a jagged rock protruding from the ocean, like the set of a gothic horror film, a perfect fortress for seabirds or giant gorillas. Others are heavily tussocked and would be impenetrable if it wasn’t for dirt roads worn smooth by the movement of elephant seals. Some have white sandy beaches, smooth grass like a golf course and inland of that, ‘mega-herbs’ which are shrubs with brightly coloured flowers and leaves of deep waxy green. Macquarie Island has beaches packed with penguins, who crowd around the rusted remains of ‘penguin digesters’, vertical cylinders that were used to extract penguin oil when the whales began to disappear.

Richard Roscoe, one of the passengers, is not here to tick off birds. He tells me one night in the dining room that he is here to photograph penguins, particularly the yellow-eyed penguin. He only photographs penguins and volcanoes and has a website where he sells the images. The next day I see him in action on Enderby. He sets up a tripod and camera to which he attaches a lens the size of a KFC family bucket. A few metres away a pair of yellow-eyed penguins are still, wary of their observer. They are one of the rarer penguins in the world and this is the species Richard has been hoping to add to his website. He is kneeling and peering into the giant lens, a cloth over his head. After a while the penguins realise he is in this for the long haul and start to go about their business, waddling closer to each other, turning their heads left and right, waddling away again.

The islands are belted day after day by swells, and chillingly cold winds. It is not surprising that human attempts to use them have been fleeting and always ending in abject failure. Samuel Enderby was one person who tried particularly hard on the Auckland Islands, bringing with him a whole community of people to set up a permanent colony. It was a crazy idea, and while the endeavour lasted a few years, much of the time was spent searching for boats broken from their moorings, rounding up stock and nursing crops wholly unsuited to the climate and soils. Later there would be a First World War lookout post on the same island and attempts at farming various places by entrepreneurs who soon realised the going was much easier on the mainland. By far the largest human interaction with the islands has been those forced there by shipwreck or abandonment. Many of these people died, although some survived for extraordinarily long periods. None would have stayed had they the choice.

In fact the only human operation on the island that has been anything like what you call successful is our attempt to rid the place of ourselves. In recent years the islands have been part of a massive program to remove introduced species. Campbell Island was, at the time, the largest area of land in the world to attempt complete pest eradication. It was a huge success and the Australian authorities have adopted the techniques and lessons to a similar program at Macquarie Island.

Every night on a whiteboard in the bar, the bird watchers compile what they have seen. When someone pipes up with a rare bird no one else has seen, the seed of suspicion is set - they ask questions: How far away was it? Did you see more than one? Honesty is everything to the twitcher. There are no prizes for winning, but you wouldn’t make many friends by cheating. It is at one of these meetings that one man asks the captain to tell him the precise minute that we cross from New Zealand territorial waters to Australian territorial waters. He is working on a list of Australian birds and is determined to be the first person to tick them all off. He is near the bottom of his list, the species only found at the extremities of Australia's territory. The next day we cross the imaginary line and the captain announces it over the intercom. The man is waiting. He picks up his binoculars, his spreadsheet and his pencil.