A soaring visionary

Lance Richdale and northern royal albatrosses at Taiaroa Head. Photos by Lance Richdale, Terry O...
Lance Richdale and northern royal albatrosses at Taiaroa Head. Photos by Lance Richdale, Terry O'Callaghan Collection, Jeanette McIntyre Collection. Graphic by Carmen Norgate.
Once albatross eggs on Otago Peninsula were fair game, for vandals or perhaps for lunch. But that all changed after "amateur" ornithologist and "citizen scientist" Lancelot Eric Richdale came along. His story is told in a new biography by Dunedin writer Neville Peat. Mark Price reports.

This season, 105 northern royal albatrosses are expected to drop in at the Taiaroa Head Albatross Centre on Otago Peninsula.

And, it is expected, 130,000 people will also drop in - and pay a few dollars to view them.

Today albatrosses are a valuable part of Dunedin's $200 million tourism industry.

Dunedin author of Seabird Genius Neville Peat with the unpublished work of seabird expert Lance...
Dunedin author of Seabird Genius Neville Peat with the unpublished work of seabird expert Lance Richdale. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
In other times they were more valued for their meat, feathers, bones and eggs.

As Neville Peat notes in Seabird Genius, a Taiaroa Head resident was said to have eaten a fried albatross egg in 1919 and other eggs in other years were souvenired or smashed by vandals.

It was Lance Richdale who first recognised the detrimental effect people and other predators were having on the albatross, and it was he who first did something about it.

Mr Peat's book explores his ornithological life and times.

The starting point is 1936.

Richdale, then a 36-year-old teacher of agricultural science and nature study, living in St Clair with his wife Agnes, heads to Taiaroa Head on his motorcycle.

"With the road climbing steadily, he passes underneath a bluff of volcanic lichen-laden boulders, and rounding this landmark he arrives at his destination.

"It is more destiny than destination.

"Of this moment, he will write: '... there on a grassy path, before my astonished gaze, sat a male albatross incubating a large white egg'."

But, before this egg could hatch, someone stole it and, writes Peat: "Even though he knew there had been devastating human interference with albatross breeding over many years, the disappearance of this egg rocked Lance Richdale to the core.

"It was a defining moment in his life.

"He made up his mind he would 'do all possible' the following season to safeguard the birds, their eggs and hopefully their chicks."

As it turned out, he would spend much of the next 47 years, until his death in Auckland in 1983, studying and protecting albatrosses and the other seabirds of the South.

His first step forward, in 1936, came when he convinced a meeting of the Royal Society in Dunedin to take action at Taiaroa Head.

After listening to him, and seeing his photographs, the society agreed to press for an albatross sanctuary with a "man-proof" fence and trespass notices.

As well, the Otago Harbour Board agreed to allow its signalmen to take on ranger duties.

And by the end of October 1937, the colony had four nests.

Peat: "It was as if the albatrosses sensed improved prospects for fledging chicks.

"The signalmen, far from being tempted by supersized eggs, each of which was almost as large as a pack of butter, now took on the role of guardians."

But, despite the fence, in 1938, two youths managed to throw rocks at a nesting albatross and to smash its egg.

Peat: "When Lance came on the scene a few hours later he found the bird 'quivering violently'. Controlling his rage, he collected fragments of eggshell and some of the offending rocks."

This evidence, presented to another meeting of the royal society, led to the erection of a second, stronger fence.

But, even this failed to keep all vandals out and eventually the Otago Harbour Board built an even stronger fence.

Peat: "The furore over vandals spread to Parliament in Wellington, which passed the Otago Harbour Board Empowering Bill enabling the board to create a bylaw and heavy penalties for anyone caught inside the albatross reserve without authority."

Despite the vandalism problem, in February, 1938, a chick hatched.

Richdale took a front-row seat and on one occasion, writes Peat, spent 16 days in a row watching the chick, from before sunrise until after dark.

No detail went unrecorded.

Richdale: "When defecating the young bird expels excreta a distance of two feet six inches from the nest [and if passed in the night, always in one direction], the material being almost clear with a yellowish tinge and having no noticeable odour."

After seven months, the young albatross flew away on its first round-the-world journey.

Richdale was just as interested in - or obsessed by - the peninsula's yellow-eyed penguins.

In an 18-year period, he made 1300 visits to its yellow-eyed penguin colonies, travelling 80,000km in the process.

At these colonies he also came across evidence of human interference.

Peat: "In November 1939 he found that vandals had stolen or dislodged 'every egg in the colony'.

"He had seen or heard of people attacking penguin colonies before, including one incident in the early 1930s when 40 birds were slaughtered with a pea-rifle - 'pea-rifle moron' is how he described the offender."

Richdale saw for himself how much penguins cared for their eggs when he provided a bird in an empty nest with two eggs he found under a rock.

The bird "immediately ran her beak round them and very lovingly guided them into position under her.

"The scene was most pathetic and I am sure if vandals could have seen it they would have realised that birds have feelings ..."

After five seasons of banding and observing the behaviour of the penguins, including what he called their "love habits", Richdale completed a "monograph" on the species called A Comprehensive History of the Behaviour of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin.

Peat: "Processing the masses of data collected would have defeated most researchers. No-one in New Zealand and few ornithologists worldwide had ever undertaken bird research on this scale."

Richdale had the 125,000 words bound in two volumes, with a further two volumes of photographs, and prepared to send them off to Oxford University Press for publication.

But this was during World War 2 and the New Zealand defence authorities of 1943 took exception to one of Richdale's maps, showing Otago Peninsula and its penguin colonies.

"They were concerned it might fall into enemy hands in wartime and ordered it removed," Peat says.

The map was cut out and returned to Richdale.

But worse was to come.

Richdale's manuscript was rejected because of the reduced market for it in wartime.

Peat: "The manuscript and accompanying photographic albums were retained at Oxford until the end of the war, then posted back to Lance's Dunedin home."

They are now in the Hocken Library.

Disappointed, Richdale nevertheless continued his penguin research and continued publishing his findings in newspapers and scientific journals.

It always irritated him when bird researchers drew conclusions from too little data.

"At times he could be just plain bloody-minded, especially in print," Peat says. "He played with a straight bat like the good cricketer he was, driving the ball back at any fellow researcher he thought was indulging in guesswork."

Richdale on the other hand spent so much time in the field it began affecting his health - most notably during his work on Whero Island, a "chunky half-acre of peat-capped granite" in Foveaux Strait.

There he monitored about 350 nests including those of diving petrels and fairy prions, but observed 23 bird species visiting the island.

To Richdale, Whero was "an unspoilt treasure of virgin New Zealand" with seabirds but no mice, rats, cats or stoats.

"Of all his study areas, Lance regarded Whero as exclusively his space," Peat says.

He lived in a tent, initially, and cooked on a primus stove, although he regarded meals as "a nuisance".

"There was scant attention to cooking and domestic tidiness. 'Too busy with the birds,' was his excuse."

And, after one visit to Whero, he was "confined to home" while he overcame malnutrition.

In 1951 he received worldwide recognition for his first book, Sexual Behaviour in Penguins.

Time and Newsweek were amused by it but serious ornithologists were impressed.

Wrote one: "There is probably no paper in the history of science that has involved such continuous, intimate and long-term record of the behaviour of wild animals."

And, 50 years after his last field trip to the peninsula and almost 30 years after his death, Richdale's work is still a major reference point for those engaged in seabird research.

- mark.price@odt.co.nz

 

 

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