More Subantarctic Stories

Department of Conservation —  28/11/2012

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

When I last blogged the 2012 Auckland Island expedition was getting ready for its final yellow-eyed penguin count on Enderby Island, and we were hoping for big things – or at the very least big numbers of penguins. Enderby Island is ‘the’ hotspot for yellow-eyed penguins in the Auckland islands – back in 1989, when he counted over 600 birds, Peter Moore calculated that it was home to a third of the island group’s penguins. We had a plan of action that would see us out of bed at 2.30 am and getting dropped ashore by inflatable dinghy by 3.30 am so that we could make our way – in the dark – to our counting sites, some of which were nearly an hour and half’s walk from the landing site in Sandy Bay. And as Enderby Island is also a hotspot for New Zealand sealions, we were all hoping that we wouldn’t encounter too many of those on the way!

Alan Magee, Sharon Kast and Jo Hiscock heading back to the yacht Evohe after a morning penguin count (photo: Alison Ballance).

Alan Magee, Sharon Kast and Jo Hiscock heading back to the yacht Evohe after a morning penguin count

By this stage of the expedition we had visited both Port Ross and Carnley Harbour and begun to get a good sense of the islands and their history as well as their wonderful wildlife and beautiful megaherbs, which are just starting to flower. There had been some exciting afternoon opportunities to visit some of the historic sites associated with the failed Hardwicke settlement and the many shipwrecks. And one memorable day, while most of the team took a much-enjoyed visit to the white-capped albatross colony at South-west Cape on Auckland Island, Jo Hiscock and I headed across to the south side of predator-free Adams Island to band some young Gibson’s wandering albatrosses. These birds have been the focus of a long-running study by Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott, who are concerned at the decline in fledging success each year and the disappearance of adult birds. It was a special privilege to get so close to the huge albatross chicks, which at nine months old are still patchily covered in soft white down, but which are already the size of their parents and well on the way to growing their adult feathers. I enjoyed the way each chick greeted our arrival with a percussion blast of bill clapping, and was very thankful that none of them chose to vomit oily fish over me (so my yellow PVC coat and trousers came home clean after all!). But it was very poignant to walk around the colony and find nest after empty nest which had already failed. Out of more than a hundred eggs laid in the study area earlier this year, only 40% or so still have a chick, and it is likely that more of these will die in the next few weeks before they are old enough to fly away.

The New Zealand sealions on Enderby Island, which have also been the focus of a long-term research project, have also seen a significant population decline over the last decade. For both species the causes of mortality include interactions with fisheries as well as possible changes in food supply related to changing sea temperatures and currents, while the sealion population has also been affected by several disease outbreaks. These stories highlight the fact that being isolated in the subantarctic is no guarantee of a safe future, which brings us back to the reason for our yellow-eyed penguin counting trip – to get a good estimate of their numbers now so that in future we’ll be able to tell if their population is increasing or decreasing.

Jo Hiscock amongst the megaherb Bulbinella flowering on Enderby Island (photo: Alison Ballance).

Jo Hiscock amongst the megaherb Bulbinella flowering on Enderby Island

Our Enderby Island yellow-eyed penguin count was certainly the highlight in terms of numbers of birds counted. Jo had the ‘landing of choice’ and clocked more than 70 birds heading out to sea. I was treated to a close-up and personal visit by some very curious penguins that couldn’t work out what this ‘thing’ on the edge of the cliff was, and Al was entertained by a penguin that got itself bluffed at the edge of an Auckland Island **** colony and took the only honourable option – a 3-metre leap into the waves below. But despite our one-day best we counted just two-thirds the number of yellow-eyed penguins that were counted on Enderby in 1989, and for the trip as a whole the figure was the same – 2012 penguin numbers were two-thirds those of 1989. These however are just the first crude results, and Jo still has to sit down for a more thorough analysis comparing search effort and many other variables.

When yellow-eyed penguins raise their head in an ecstatic display of calling they live up to their Maori name of hoiho, or noise-shouter (photo: Alison Ballance).

When yellow-eyed penguins raise their head in an ecstatic display of calling they live up to their Maori name of hoiho, or noise-shouter

In the meantime we can rest easily knowing that the 2012 Auckland Island Expedition was a success in every other way – we achieved all the penguin counts in all the sites that we wanted to survey, helped greatly by fine weather, smooth seas and a superb team of energetic and enthusiastic volunteers, who threw themselves whole-heartedly into their first subantarctic experience.