Seabird Genius: the Story of L.E. Richdale, the Royal Albatross and the Yellow-eyed Penguin, by Neville Peat (Otago University Press, 2011), 288 pp. $45
The establishment of the albatross colony at Tairoa Head on Otago Peninsula is iconic, but not so the individual largely responsible. Lance Richdale, born just days into the beginning of the twentieth century, saw his first albatross egg in November 1936 and was later devastated when he learned that vandals had stolen it. In fact, because of predators, no chick had successfully fledged in many years. He lobbied for the building of a protective fence, and the following season camped in his spare time near the nest of a single surviving chick. When after eight months it flew out to sea, local and foreign newspapers reported this exceptional event.
Prior to his contact with albatross, Richdale had begun intensive observations of yellow-eyed penguins on Otago Peninsula. After five seasons encompassing 800 visits to the colonies, he produced a two-volume manuscript, which unfortunately was not published because of the Second World War. He also began a twenty-year study of petrels on tiny Whero Island off the coast of Stewart Island.
Richdale was the first person in New Zealand to band seabirds systematically over time, and the second in the world to band penguins. His close observations of seabirds enabled him to debunk various fallacies, and to make many discoveries. He disproved the widely held notion that albatross deliberately starved their chicks in the later stages of rearing; and in regard to penguins he identified ‘14 types of behavior when pairs interacted’. Long-term studies of seabirds are still a rarity.
After his most gruelling period of fieldwork in the 1940s, Richdale, assisted by awards including Nuffield Foundation fellowships, processed his vast amount of data on penguins into two books, Sexual Behavior in Penguins, published by the University of Kansas Press in 1951, and A Population Study of Penguins by Clarendon Press in Oxford in 1957. He also wrote several book-length monographs on sooty shearwaters, numerous scientific papers and articles, a series of self-published booklets on natural history, and even Podgy the Penguin for children. He gained an international reputation and several honours.
Surprisingly, Richdale’s scientific career was part-time. He even liked to think of himself as an ‘amateur’ but of course he was not. Starting out with an interest primarily in native plants, he came to bird studies, as he later often said, ‘accidentally’. From 1928 until his retirement in 1960, his day job was as an itinerant natural history instructor for the Otago Education Board, based in Dunedin. According to the testimony of some of his pupils, he had a great rapport with children, who called him the ‘Nature Study Man’. In some of his dealings with adults, there was less rapport. Renowned bird researcher and museum director Robert Falla never forgave Richdale for being ‘territorial’ and not sharing a particularly rare seabird sighting; but Richdale did have a number of fruitful relationships with other scientists. Some of his family members regarded him as ‘bossy’ and ‘a loner’.
His key human relationship was with his wife of 50 years, Agnes. She was more sociable than him, and interested in literature and drama. She supported his bird studies, particularly editorially but also occasionally in the field, and accompanied him on his overseas fellowships. Yet their relationship is veiled in this biography. Their childlessness, and what it might have meant to them, is not broached. ‘Perhaps Lance, reserved in public, enjoyed jokes with her in private’ is characteristic of this reticent treatment. The only hint of his attitude to politics is that the couple ‘were happy with the result’ when Muldoon won the general election in 1975. At the end of his scientific career, Richdale wrote about Agnes and himself: we have come to the end of our tether as far as serious work is concerned. They retired to Auckland, where he died in 1983, and Agnes in 1998.
Richdale was sometimes daunted by the amount of material he had accumulated, and likewise this book struggles with the complexity of his career and archives. In Chapter One, the reader is breathlessly introduced to Richdale heading to the albatross colony on his motorbike for his first visit, but then attention immediately veers to his early life, and the albatross saga is dispersed. There are a few other examples of minor disorganisation and repetition, but a patient reader can easily construct a mental map of times and places.
Quotes by Richdale from letters or other texts are illuminating, but they are rare. This paucity is not explained: perhaps the archive of personal papers by and relating to Richdale is small, in contrast to the extensive archive of scientific papers now lodged mainly in Otago University Library’s Hocken Collections. Wildlife Service employee and bird researcher Christopher Robertson carried out the initial research on Richdale’s scientific career, and also located Richdale’s extensive archives, much of which had been purchased from Richdale and cared for by an early devotee, Terry O’Callaghan, a farmer in Northland. Robertson’s foreword to Seabird Genius is insightful as he knew Richdale in his later years and judiciously evaluates his achievement. Neville Peat, the astute synthesiser of all this raw material, acknowledges Robertson’s foundational efforts and scientific overview.
The photographs of people, places, birds and notebooks more than complement the text: they compensate for its omissions. For example, there is a warmth to many of the photographs of Richdale: he seems composed, a half-smile on his face. The pages from his notebooks vividly evoke his tenacity and perspicacity.
As a natural history of Lance Richdale, this book is only a draft. The failure to explore his life as rigorously as he observed albatrosses, penguins and petrels is puzzling until one realises this is a book compiled by a Trust (the Lance Richdale Trust begotten by two others, the Otago Peninsula and Yellow-eyed Penguin Trusts) with an agenda to promote environmental awareness and eco-tourism. Beneath a cover that is utilitarian in design, with a vague quote that ‘Richdale’s story is awe-inspiring’ and a rather tabloid title, lies a very good and readable book, more a hybrid natural and social history than an in-depth biography.
DENIS HAROLD is a researcher and editor who lives on the Otago Peninsula.