The man who solved one of New Zealand’s ornithological mysteries in Kaikoura more than 40 years ago was recognised with a prestigious award on Saturday.

Christchurch man Geoff Harrow, 80, has won an Old Blue award from the New Zealand Forest and Bird Protection Society for outstanding contribution to conservation for his efforts in protecting hutton’s shearwater.

The award commemorates the famous black robin who saved her species from extinction and is awarded each year to people who make an outstanding contribution to conservation.

Hutton’s shearwaters winter in Australia and return to the Kaikoura Ranges each August to breed at altitudes of 1000-600 metres above sea level.

It is the only New Zealand seabird which breeds in a sub-alpine environment.

Each day the adult birds fly about 20km to the sea to feed, reaching speeds on the downhill trip of more than 150kph ? which means they can make the journey in as little as seven minutes.

The return journey, climbing more than 1000 metres in altitude with a bellyful of fish to feed their chicks, takes them considerably longer ?about 38 minutes.

Mr Harrow was nominated for the award by the Kaikoura branch of Forest and Bird.

Branch secretary Barry Dunnett said Mr Harrow’s confirmation that this was the location of the world’s only breeding colonies of hutton’s shearwater, and his subsequent work studying and protecting the birds, had been a valuable contribution to conservation.

“He told the ornithological world about the shearwater, and it is to his credit that we know so much about them now.”

Mr Dunnett said local deer hunters, the Hislop brothers, had spotted burrows in the remote and rugged area in the early 1960s and mentioned it to Mr Harrow whose ears “lit up” as he realised the potential of their observations.

A keen tramper, mountaineer and naturalist, Mr Harrow set out on a difficult search to find the breeding site of the shearwaters, which nest at about 1300 metres above sea level at the steep, inaccessible location ? a location completely unknown to science till the 1960s.

“Over the past 40 years, at great physical risk to himself from the rock fall and avalanche danger of the sites, he studied and recorded the shear-waters’ unusual breeding habits, identified threats to the birds’ survival from introduced pests such as pigs and stoats, and has campaigned and gathered others to work for the protection of the species, the plight of which would have remained largely unknown without his dedication and support.”

Mr Harrow joined Forest and Bird in 1936 at age 10.

Even now at age 80 he remains actively involved in the shearwater recovery programme, in particular efforts to establish a new colony of hutton’s shearwaters on the Kaikoura Peninsula, and in educating community and school groups.

“He remains largely unrecognised by the general public, despite the huge respect for him from all who know him.

“He is a man who has made a great environmental difference to Kaikoura and is an inspirational figure, responsible for much of the environmental awareness that our local youth show today.”

Today the adult population of hutton’s shearwaters stands at about 460,000 but it is classified as nationally endangered because of its rapid rate of decline.

It is thought that hutton’s shearwaters once bred in at least eight sites in the Kaikoura Ranges, but now just two colonies remain. Wild pigs are thought to have been the main factor in the demise of shearwater colonies.