Message in a bottle

Bottle, date unknown. Collection of the Southland Museum & Art Gallery Niho o te Taniwha. Gift of Kevin W Ritchie, 1976. C76.38

DON’T let appearances fool you – most common-place looking objects are gateways to incredible stories.

In 1973, this bottle was found on Pigeon Island in Tamatea/Dusky Sound history of the conservation movement in New Zealand.

In 1891, neighbouring Resolution Island was designated as a reserve in a bid to combat the damaging impact predation and habitat loss were having on native bird populations.

The role of caretaker fell to Richard Henry (1845-1924) who took up the post in 1894.

Born in Ireland and raised in Australia, Henry had immigrated to New Zealand in the 1860s. He had no formal training in natural history but was passionate about the environment and worked out his own methods for studying animal behaviour. Upon arriving in Tamatea, Henry built a three-roomed house, a store and a boatshed on Pigeon Island.

Pioneering techniques to find and transport kiwi and kakapo, he shifted more than 500 birds from the mainland to Resolution Island between 1895 and 1897.

He then became their caretaker, monitoring their populations and protecting the birds.

It was not an easy task was remote and physically demanding, the weather often wet and windy.

In 1900, things took a turn for the worse when it was discovered stoats were strong enough swimmers to reach the island from the mainland.

Increasing competition from foreign birds for resources added to the problem and the native bird population Henry had worked so hard to develop began to dwindle.

Henry stuck it out until 1908 when, at the age of 63, he accepted a new post as a ranger on Kapiti Island.

While at first glance Henry’s efforts on Resolution Island may appear to have been a failure, his true legacy lies in his writings.

Rediscovered in the 1970s, the observations he recorded in his articles, letters and journals provided an invaluable resource of information about bird behaviour and techniques for the rescue and relocation of critically endangered species.

One of several items recovered from Henry’s home base on Pigeon Island, the bottle, is a small reminder that individuals can make a huge difference.

  • Kimberley Stephenson is the collections manager at the Southland Museum & Art Gallery