Searching for yellow-eyed penguin nests

Department of Conservation —  13/11/2014

By Andrea Crawford, Communications Advisor based in Dunedin.

I was recently offered the chance to go searching for yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho nests on the Otago Peninsula.

Ranger Mel and Andrea Crawford on Boulder Beach.

Ranger Mel Young and I on Boulder Beach

This search provides data to predict how successful the breeding season will be and how best to manage this precious endangered species.

Firstly, rangers Mel and Barry explained how to look for the nests, then the seven volunteers walked in the sun down the hill towards Boulder Beach.

Rangers and volunteers during the penguin nest hunt.

Rangers and volunteers during the penguin nest hunt

Scrub surrounding the beach makes a superb breeding site for yellow-eyed penguins. There is lots of vegetation to build nests under—although they are not really nests but smooth bowls of bare dirt, occasionally built up with grass, twigs and other soft leaf litter.

The good news is that predators are scarce thanks to trapping by local volunteers.

Wearing overalls, gloves, eye protection and sunscreen, we plunged into the dense and prickly undergrowth, looking for tell-tale signs of the distinctive-looking penguins with eyes framed by a yellow band—a large splatter of white, fragrant penguin poo.

Volunteer points to a trail of penguin poo.

Volunteer points to a trail of penguin poo

The first nest we found had one resident perched on an egg. We mark it with orange ribbon and GPS the location so Mel can return in a few weeks to check on parent and offspring.

I walked along the boulders to the furthest point of the beach and spotted white splodges leading up the bank. Following the marks up a steep well-used track, I nearly stepped on a penguin nesting halfway up the hill. She eyed me suspiciously as I got close enough to read the number tag on her flipper.

The feeling of achievement at finding my first nest made all the hours of searching worthwhile. More competitive volunteers try to outdo each other by seeing who can find the most nests.

I wasn’t sure if she was sitting on an egg so I went and fetched Barry. She let out an indignant squawk when Barry gave her a gentle lift to see her eggs, but it had to be done.

Ranger Barry Atkinson marks the GPS location of a nest.

Ranger Barry Atkinson marks the GPS location of a nest

Over the past ten years, Mel has got to know the family tree of most of the Peninsula yellow-eyed penguins by closely studying 34 years of data collected by DOC, Otago University and many other conservation groups. She tells me the penguin I found is 11 years old and well-known for being feisty.

Mel hand-picks volunteers, as they need to be fit and agile. For other volunteering opportunities, such as attaching tags and transponders, volunteers need to have experience handling penguins. They may look cute and fluffy but they’re wild animals which can painfully grab a beakful of human skin when handled.

Penguin bravely protecting her egg.

Penguin bravely protecting her egg

One look at the scars on Mel’s arms and legs confirmed this, although her specially modified ‘penguin combat’ trousers usually offer some protection.

Mel was disappointed, but not surprised, that we only managed to find five nests on our search. She was expecting 10-15 but it’s a similar story at other penguin breeding sites on the Peninsula.

These beautiful seabirds need all the help they can get—last season many chicks starved to death and the reason is still a mystery.

In previous years, many succumbed to avian diphtheria, heat stress and dogs often kill penguins on Otago beaches.

Nesting boxes above Boulder Beach.

Nesting boxes above Boulder Beach

Mel’s role as midwife and Plunket nurse for expectant penguins and their chicks will be even more crucial this season to ensure the survival of as many chicks as possible.

3 responses to Searching for yellow-eyed penguin nests

    Peta Hudson 10/12/2014 at 8:27 pm

    Is it such a mystery that they are starving? Isn’t the fishing industry to blame?


    Thanks Andrea, excellent article.


    Nice article Andrea! 🙂 Great description of what it’s like to be a nest searcher. Although I must disagree with the statement about competitive volunteers (for the sake of any future volunteers reading this)… it’s not a competition at all, at least in my humble opinion. It’s all about covering an area of bush/ beach efficiently and thoroughly, with the hope of finding any nests at all, let alone more than a fellow volunteer. We work together as a team to make that happen. That being said there is a dose of pride when finding, labeling a new nest, a connection with that particular breeding penguin. I am always excited to find out if they went on to produce healthy chicks. Cheers!