A day in the life of a ranger: Searching for yellow-eyed penguins on Banks Peninsula

Department of Conservation —  28/03/2017

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a DOC ranger? We got in touch with Tom MacTavish, the ranger in Akaroa, and asked him to tell us about his day.

What were you doing today?

The plan was to check on a possible yellow-eyed penguin nest in Scenery Nook, a cove off Banks Peninsula.

With towering cliffs and a view that stretches uninterrupted into the Southern Ocean, Scenery Nook is an incredible natural amphitheatre and fitting accommodation for some very special inhabitants.  It’s also extremely difficult for us to access and it wasn’t until this unprecedented two week spell of calm seas and fair weather that I was able to get ashore and confirm the presence of penguins (there were two) and snap these photos.

What is the Scenery Nook like when the weather is bad?

We’d been down to have a look with Marie Haley (from the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust) a few weeks ago and it was too rough to get ashore.  Scenery Nook is semi-enclosed, so every time a southerly swell rolled in it looked like someone had corked a bottle of champagne – the sea would accelerate vertically and then spill over the rocks in a cascade of foam and bubbles.  Not a nice place if you’re a human on a boat.  A yellow-eyed penguin on the other hand…

How do you access the area?

By boat only. Scenery Nook’s giant cliffs prevent access from the land.


How did you get to the nest?

The hardest part is always getting from the boat to the shore.  In these situations the skipper has to nose the boat up to the edge of the rock so that the Ranger can then jump ashore.  The skipper then has to reverse off again quickly…

Once I was ashore in Scenery Nook I would have spent a good 10 or 15 minutes clambering along the rocky coast and skirting around slumbering seals before I came across where we thought the nest may have been.

 What equipment did you need to gain access?

Our new DOC vessel Kahukura, a lifejacket, and a sturdy pair of boots.


How did you find the nest?

I found one bird that was obviously an adult amongst the seals and then another big fluffy bird up on the ledge that I initially thought was a chick but that Marie thinks, from analysing the photos, was a moulting adult rather than a chick.  I now reluctantly agree with her!


Good signs of nesting activity are lots of poo (it looks a bit like someone has spilt a can of white paint across the rocks …), a strong fishy smell and a nest roughly sculpted in the soil or with straw.  While there was lots of poo on the track to the ledge, there was none in the straw that had been fashioned into a rough nest.  Thus, it’s more than likely that there was no chick at Scenery Nook this year.  However, we were late getting there, so it’s possible that there had been a chick and that it’d already gone to sea.

Regardless, it was first time the site had been properly checked for several years, and it was exciting for us to discover that there are still yellow-eyed penguins there!

Was there any monitoring that you had to do once you found them?

Not this time.  But a lot of the birds have been micro-chipped over the years so that they can be identified and tracked.  Our aim next year will be to see if the Scenery Nook birds have ever been micro-chipped and take a more active role in assessing their condition and any attempts they may make to nest and raise a chick(s).

What can you tell us about your work with the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust?

Our efforts to search for yellow-eyed penguins at Scenery Nook have been part of a push by Marie Haley of the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust to get a better understanding of the yellow-eyed penguin population at Banks Peninsula.  Good management of a threatened species requires accurate estimates of population size and Marie has counted 25 different yellow-eyed penguins around Banks Peninsula this season. Every one counts when numbers are so low.

Marie, whose role is made possible by the DOC Community Partnership Fund, started working on protection of Banks Peninsula’s small  and fragmented population of yellow-eyed penguins eight years ago. When she started there was only one nest on the peninsula, and more often than not, she says that she would find dead chicks in the nest, and ferrets caught in nearby traps. Since then she has worked to have traps laid further up into the valleys to catch the ferrets before they got to the nest. These traps also catch feral cats and stoats that predate on the penguins. Marie has seen steady success over the last seven years, and there has been no recent sign of predation!

This summer has been particularly good because the chicks raised on Banks Peninsula were microchipped, and those chicks returned to the peninsula throughout their juvenile year and brought some friends. Two microchipped juveniles from Otago and four un-microchipped juveniles came back with them, making a total of eight birds that will hopefully return to breed and boost the population.

What can we do to help the yellow-eyed penguins on Banks Peninsula?

The best thing people could do is become a member of the Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust, which you can do on their website. You can also help by making a donation or buying a book from the online store.


There are so few yellow-eyed penguins left in NZ it’s very exciting every time you find one.  It adds to the flavour when it’s in such a beautiful, remote place.

One response to A day in the life of a ranger: Searching for yellow-eyed penguins on Banks Peninsula


    This must be such a rewarding job – heartbreaking too at times but generally so rewarding.