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A snippet from my volunteer work on the ‘Dedicated Naturalist’: Mary Gillham Archives Project, to celebrate Explore Your Archive, a campaign co-ordinated jointly by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association that aims ‘to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories’.

Dr Mary Gillham spent 1957 in my homeland, New Zealand and, though officially on an exchange lecturership at Massey University, she also used her time for field research into the country’s unique flora and fauna. Mary had a particular passion for seabirds so the huge range of avian life to be found along New Zealand’s lengthy coastline must have seemed like paradise found.

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Within weeks of her arrival she was marvelling at a magnificent male Royal Albatross on Otago Peninsula with ranger Stanley Sharpe: ‘a lone male was sitting out on the hillside and we were able to watch it at close quarters for almost an hour – he, having no natural enemies, taking little notice of us’; and, a week later, delighting in the antics of penguins at Ringa Ringa Beach on Stewart Island (pictured below): ‘[we] were entertained by a yellow crested penguin who had come inshore to moult and wasn’t going back to sea for any humans’.

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Mary was unsettled by the kakas on Kapiti Island: ‘it was most disconcerting to be firing the [camera] trigger at a couple of wekas and a tui with a kaka landing plomp on my head’; and entertained by blue penguins on The Brothers: ‘2 of them ran into a fallen Hebe bough and one got annoyed and blamed the other, leaping across his back and then slapping the bird’s sides with resounding thwacks of his flippers’. (Mary’s sketch of them is shown below.)

When she eventually returned to Britain, Mary wrote a book about her Kiwi adventures (A Naturalist in New Zealand, Museum Press, London and Reed Books, New Zealand, 1966). Not surprisingly, a painting of birds graces its cover.

For the full story about the Mary Gillham Archive Project, check out our website, and follow our progress on Facebook and on Twitter.

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