By Cheryl Pullar, Partnerships Ranger based in Owaka
What do you do when a native bird just won’t learn to help himself? For one yellow-eyed penguin, it was time for the tough love approach.
This year we witnessed a disastrous breeding season for yellow-eyed penguins on the mainland. Every year in November and December, chicks begin to hatch around the wild beaches of the Catlins, Otago Peninsula and North Otago.
There are often a few chicks that are abandoned by their parents or aren’t well fed, and need to be removed from their nests for supplementary feeding. But this year, a late breeding season and lack of fish to eat has meant a large number of chicks have gone hungry, and many have died.
To help protect the population of what is thought to be one of the world’s rarest penguin species, we remove underweight chicks from the nest before fledging and take them to rehabilitation centres like Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula.
So earlier in the year, 63 chicks were removed from the Catlins and taken to Penguin Place. This included chick J19013 (a lively young male, according to his measurements), who was taken on 10 February from Penguin Bay, weighing only 3.8 kg.
J19013 was first released from Penguin Place on 20 March at a fine 5.2 kg, but returned to the release location in early April, again underweight. So he was taken back to rehab, fattened up, and released again 14 April. However, the same thing happened again; he returned to the release site a few days later underweight, and was fattened in rehab again. All in all J19013 was released six times!
After talking with J19013’s caretakers, we decided to take a ‘tough-love’ approach—by bringing this bird back to the Catlins, a 1.5 hour journey by road, for a hard release at Jacks Bay, close to where he hatched. The area was monitored over several days to ensure that this charismatic young bird took to the sea.
J19013 took off like a rocket when we let him out of the cage, and disappeared quickly into the surf. Now he’s either got a heck of a long swim back to Penguin Place, or he will have to learn how to catch his own dinner.