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By Dave Houston

A presence of biologists?

Blue penguin at Oamaru

Blue penguin at Oamaru

I’m not sure that anyone has come up with a term for a group of penguin biologists (however a group of penguins is called a “waddle”), but whatever it is, one was recently sighted in Oamaru at the biennial Oamaru Penguin Symposium.  Around 60 researchers, conservation managers, and fieldworkers from DOC, Trusts, eco-tourism ventures and the community turned up to hear a variety of papers on the biology and conservation of New Zealand (and occasionally Australian) penguins.

14 years ago I attended the first symposium and it was all about sharing with the Oamaru community what we had learned about the impact of tourism on blue penguins at the nearby Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.  Today the symposium covers all the penguin species of the New Zealand region and attracts an Australasian audience.

Some good news, some bad

Counting Snares penguins

Dan Palmer counting Snares penguins

Actually, except for the continuing increase in the blue penguin population around Oamaru and the apparent stability of Snares penguin population, the news for other species wasn’t that good.  Yellow-eyed penguins had an OK year in Otago but on Codfish Island (off Stewart Island) a continuing decline has us puzzled.  Out on the remote Antipodes and Bounty Islands things are not great either with significant declines noted in the erect-crested and rockhopper populations.  Fiordland penguins have proved tricky to count, but despite the development of new, more accurate methods, the news isn’t great.

So what’s the problem?

Yellow-eyed penguins on Codfish Island

Yellow-eyed penguin nest on Codfish Island

In most cases we just don’t know.  Changes in food availability, perhaps related to natural or man-made climate variations, are a probably the most significant factor in current population declines, but we understand the how and why poorly.  The impact of fisheries in both bycatch and influencing prey availability is equally poorly understood.  Research in these areas is time consuming, difficult and hard to fund, so progress in understanding it is slow.

Snares penguin with GPS

Snares penguins headed for sea, one fitted with a GPS/dive logger. Photo: Thomas Mattern

In Trusts we trust

A lot of the management of blue and yellow-eyed penguins in the terrestrial environment is undertaken by trusts, community groups and even commercial enterprises.  These groups, along with DOC, have been successful in managing many mainland sites on which penguins nest; protecting habitat, controlling predators, educating the public and carrying out research.  Despite their good work much remains to be done.  More collaboration between community groups, universities, businesses and DOC is required to help understand and resolve the many issues affecting the long-term viability of our penguin populations.  Maybe you’ll join me in Oamaru in 2014 to hear what progress has been made.

Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust planting

Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust staff and volunteers planting penguin habitat. Photo: YEPT

By Juzah Zammit-Ross

A long history of restoration

Mangere Island in the Chatham’s provides an important predator-free refuge to many rare and endemic invertebrates, birds and plants. Restoration first started on the island in the 1970’s with the Wildlife Service planting akeake shelterbelts in Douglas Basin and on the Top Plateau in an effort to expand the habitat available to black robins. Since the early 1990’s tens of thousands of akeake have been planted on the island thanks to the Tuanui and Moffet families and planting contractors.

Mangere plantings 1981

Plantings in Douglas Basin in 1981. Photo: Dave Crouchley


As part of the ongoing restoration I led a team of seven people in a week of planting on the island in June.  Although the weather was a bit on the miserable side (gale force winds, very cold and hail most days), we kept warm carrying the heavy bags of plants from the boat landing up to the planting area in the basin.  We managed to plant 1850 plants under the emerging canopy, adding diversity amongst older plantings many of which are self seeding and spreading naturally in the basin.

Mangere and Douglas Basin

Looking over Mangere’s Douglas Basin towards Little Mangere

Local produce

The species planted this trip included Chatham Island nikau, kawakawa, hoho (Pseudopanax chathamica), ngaio, mahoe, ribbonwood and matipo. All the plants were eco-sourced, meaning the seeds were collected locally from Mangere, Pitt and South East Islands and were grown in the DOC nursery at Te One before being transported to Mangere and planted.

Tree planting

Filling in the gaps

But wait, there’s more…

As well as planting, we also cleared tracks, checked rat bait stations, ran rodent tracking tunnels and collected seed for future plantings. We also had the opportunity to visit Robin Bush to view the black robins and walk up to the summit  to enjoy the spectacular views of Mangere, Little Mangere and Pitt Island. Next year will be the last year of akeake planting on the island however diversification plantings will carry on for the next ten years as part of the long-term ecological restoration of Mangere Island.

Mangere planting team

Mangere Island winter planting team 2012: Pete Lusk, Nadia Thomas, Ryan Jones, Juzah Zammit-Ross, Mike Van Velzen, Colin Bishop and Denny Prendeville


By Dave Houston

Mid-winter opportunity to work on Chatham petrel burrows

In early July each year a small group of DOC workers head out to Rangatira or South East Island in the Chatham’s to undertake end of season work on the Chatham petrel burrows.  This year we decided to give Chatham Island school children an opportunity to join us and experience the magic of Rangatira.

Rangatira Island

Rangatira or South East Island

We were joined by Year 11 Correspondence School students Harriet Graydon and Mia Foley, both of Pitt Island, along with Chatham Islander Jacob Hill, a Year 12 student at St Bedes College, for the 4-day trip. 

After completing quarantine procedures designed to keep the islands pest-free, we caught an early morning fishing-boat ride from the main island to Pitt, to pick up Mia and Harriet.  After a brief stop and exchange of mail and supplies, we departed for the forty minute trip to Rangatira.

The landing

Landing on Rangatira

Rangatira residents

No jetty means a bow landing on the rock platform and a frantic passing ashore of the buckets containing our food and gear, but the team handled it flawlessly. 

As soon as we were ashore we bumped into our first special species, the shore plover.  Once abundant around the coasts of New Zealand, this plucky little shorebird was eradicated by rats and survived only on Rangatira.  Fortunately, it has now been returned to several mainland sites.

Chatham Island black robin

Chatham Island black robin

While hauling the buckets up to the hut we bumped into our next special resident – the black robin.  With around 200 birds, Rangatira is the stronghold for the species and over the next few days we got to see quite a few as they jumped out of the forest at us in anticipation of a mealworm handout.

After settling in we fitted everyone out with petrel boards – special footwear designed to prevent us collapsing seabird burrows as we walked around the island.  We then set off on our main task, checking 250 burrows of the endangered Chatham Island petrel

After checking that this years chicks had successfully fledged (and unfortunately a few didn’t), we did a bit of housekeeping and then put a barricade in front of the entrance to stop other seabirds taking up residence while the petrels are away over the winter.

Checking chatham petrel burrow

Mia, Harriet and Jacob checking a Chatham petrel burrow

While wandering around the forest for a few days we got the opportunity to see more island residents – including the Chatham Island species of snipe, parakeets, tui, tomtit, warbler and skink. 

On our first night we hoped to introduce the visitors to the many seabirds and abundant invertebrates that call the island home.  Unfortunately, the great weather and full moon kept all the seabirds at sea so we had to be content listening to blue penguins braying in the forest.

Petrel boards

Fancy footwear: Petrel boards reduce damage to the many seabird
burrows in the forest floor

Reluctant return

All too soon it was time to pack up, lug the gear back to the landing and await the arrival of our ride.  Our skipper Glen King treated us to the scenic route on the way home, travelling around the bottom and up the western side of Pitt Island, taking in views of Mangere and Little Mangere Islands on the way as well as taking us into an impressive sea cave.

Rangatira view

Harriet, Mia and Jacob enjoying the view from the summit of Rangatira.
Pitt Island in background

Mia and Harriet’s  families were waiting on the wharf at Flowerpot when we arrived, glad to see their kids home safe and just a bit jealous of the experience.  Jacob had to endure another hour-long crossing of Pitt Strait before he could head home, but the experience can’t have been to bad as he wants to come back when we open up the petrel burrows again in November.  I think he’ll have some competition, as the girls want to go too.

Trip home

Jacob and Harriet enjoying the trip home along with
Ranger Juzah Zammit-Ross