Greetings from the Furious Fifties

Department of Conservation —  20/11/2012

By guest blogger, zoologist, award-winning wildlife film-maker, natural history writer and passionate story-teller, Alison Ballance…

Last week I blogged about the penguin flotilla heading down to Campbell Island and the Auckland islands to carry out a survey of yellow-eyed penguins. This blog comes to you from aboard the yacht Evohe, at anchor off Enderby Island at the northern end of the Auckland islands. We’ve just completed our fifth yellow-eyed penguin beach count, and we still have one to carry out tomorrow. Team leader Jo Hiscock, along with Department of Conservation colleagues Dave Agnew and Megan Willans are currently in the inflatable dinghy with Mate Murray Watson, cruising the shore of Enderby Island to identify counting sites for tomorrow morning. We are expecting this to be our biggest count to date, as 23 years ago Peter Moore counted nearly 600 yellow-eyed penguins at sites around the island’s southern and eastern coasts.

We feel as if we’ve achieved 10 days work in five, as we have very early morning starts, and are cramming two days worth of activity into each day. Jo’s alarm goes off at 3.30 am, and everyone is up and ready to go ashore by 4.30 am, although on a couple of mornings the Evohe crew were up at about 2 am, moving us from our safe, calm anchoring spot to get us in position so that we only needed a short dinghy ride. As it is still pitch-dark we are navigating by spot-light to find the handy pieces of reflector tape that the scouting team have put in place to mark our landing spots, and then we each scramble ashore to our designated watching spot. We officially count from 5-9 am, but I have to say it is still pretty dim at 5.30 am, which makes it hard to identify if the penguins we see are adults or juveniles. By 5.45 am, however, it is all go.

We have been incredibly lucky with the weather, especially given the reputation of the Furious Fifties as being cold, wet and very windy. A smooth sailing down here has been followed by day after day of mostly calm overcast weather, with intermittent rain showers and even occasional outbreaks of blue sky and sunshine (although I have to admit there has just been a shout of ‘hail’ from the cockpit). Temperatures are certainly low, and by the end of four hours of sitting we are all chilled and wanting to move and stretch. But despite the discomfort everyone is having a great time. The six volunteers report they are loving every moment of the trip, and there is a friendly rivalry as to who sees the most penguins each morning. The record so far is Katie’s 18 penguins on Ewing Island, although she has also had a few days with zero penguins.

In many places rata forest comes down almost to the coast, on which rocky boulders alternate with small bluffs blotched with white lichens. The yellow-eyed penguins have to be accomplished boulder hoppers to get in and out of the water. Photo: Alison Ballance

So far we’ve carried out beach surveys (and we’re talking rocky shore platforms and bluffs rather than gentle sandy beaches) on Ewing and Rose islands, which are small islands close to Enderby Island, in Matheson Bay and North Harbour on the northern coast of the main Auckland Island, in Waterfall Inlet on the main island’s south-east coast, and on the north shore of Adams Island. We are trying to survey the same sites that Peter Moore surveyed in 1989 so we can compare figures, and so far our counts have been generally lower, apart from Ewing Island where we counted exactly the same number of birds. We’ve got our fingers crossed that our final morning tomorrow will see us rushed off our feet counting penguins on Enderby, as we’d love to get as many birds as Peter. I’ll let you know later in the week what our final grand penguin tally has been, and tell you about our sideline work on albatrosses. O and before I sign off I do have to let you know that we are now basking in sunshine and the sky is almost entirely blue – one thing that is certain down here is that the weather here is very fickle!

Sandy Bay on Enderby Island is a popular site for yellow-eyed penguins as well as New Zealand sealions – we’re hoping to count lots of penguins here tomorrow. Photo: Alison Ballance