Archives For Campbell Island

Laura Boren, one of our Science Advisors in the Marine Species and Threats team, tells us about the strange way sea lion pups are dying on Campbell Island, and the team that’s trying to solve the problem.

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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 shag 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.

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

Last week I blogged about the penguin flotilla heading down to Campbell Island and the Auckland islands to carry out a survey of yellow-eyed penguins. This blog comes to you from aboard the yacht Evohe, at anchor off Enderby Island at the northern end of the Auckland islands. We’ve just completed our fifth yellow-eyed penguin beach count, and we still have one to carry out tomorrow. Team leader Jo Hiscock, along with Department of Conservation colleagues Dave Agnew and Megan Willans are currently in the inflatable dinghy with Mate Murray Watson, cruising the shore of Enderby Island to identify counting sites for tomorrow morning. We are expecting this to be our biggest count to date, as 23 years ago Peter Moore counted nearly 600 yellow-eyed penguins at sites around the island’s southern and eastern coasts.

We feel as if we’ve achieved 10 days work in five, as we have very early morning starts, and are cramming two days worth of activity into each day. Jo’s alarm goes off at 3.30 am, and everyone is up and ready to go ashore by 4.30 am, although on a couple of mornings the Evohe crew were up at about 2 am, moving us from our safe, calm anchoring spot to get us in position so that we only needed a short dinghy ride. As it is still pitch-dark we are navigating by spot-light to find the handy pieces of reflector tape that the scouting team have put in place to mark our landing spots, and then we each scramble ashore to our designated watching spot. We officially count from 5-9 am, but I have to say it is still pretty dim at 5.30 am, which makes it hard to identify if the penguins we see are adults or juveniles. By 5.45 am, however, it is all go.

We have been incredibly lucky with the weather, especially given the reputation of the Furious Fifties as being cold, wet and very windy. A smooth sailing down here has been followed by day after day of mostly calm overcast weather, with intermittent rain showers and even occasional outbreaks of blue sky and sunshine (although I have to admit there has just been a shout of ‘hail’ from the cockpit). Temperatures are certainly low, and by the end of four hours of sitting we are all chilled and wanting to move and stretch. But despite the discomfort everyone is having a great time. The six volunteers report they are loving every moment of the trip, and there is a friendly rivalry as to who sees the most penguins each morning. The record so far is Katie’s 18 penguins on Ewing Island, although she has also had a few days with zero penguins.

In many places rata forest comes down almost to the coast, on which rocky boulders alternate with small bluffs blotched with white lichens. The yellow-eyed penguins have to be accomplished boulder hoppers to get in and out of the water. Photo: Alison Ballance

So far we’ve carried out beach surveys (and we’re talking rocky shore platforms and bluffs rather than gentle sandy beaches) on Ewing and Rose islands, which are small islands close to Enderby Island, in Matheson Bay and North Harbour on the northern coast of the main Auckland Island, in Waterfall Inlet on the main island’s south-east coast, and on the north shore of Adams Island. We are trying to survey the same sites that Peter Moore surveyed in 1989 so we can compare figures, and so far our counts have been generally lower, apart from Ewing Island where we counted exactly the same number of birds. We’ve got our fingers crossed that our final morning tomorrow will see us rushed off our feet counting penguins on Enderby, as we’d love to get as many birds as Peter. I’ll let you know later in the week what our final grand penguin tally has been, and tell you about our sideline work on albatrosses. O and before I sign off I do have to let you know that we are now basking in sunshine and the sky is almost entirely blue – one thing that is certain down here is that the weather here is very fickle!

Sandy Bay on Enderby Island is a popular site for yellow-eyed penguins as well as New Zealand sealions – we’re hoping to count lots of penguins here tomorrow. Photo: Alison Ballance

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

It’ll be action stations at the Department of Conservation’s quarantine store in Invercargill today as two expeditions check their belongings before heading down to the subantarctic on Tuesday, to ensure their gear is free of any possible introduced nasties.

A 12-person team aboard the 25-metre yacht Evohe are off to the Auckland islands, and a 6-person team aboard the 15-metre yacht Tiama have Campbell Island in their sights. The aim of the ‘penguin flotilla’ is to count hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, to establish a good population estimate for the subantarctic, which is considered the stronghold for yellow-eyed penguin populations, although we don’t know how many penguins live there!

A yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho on Enderby Island.
Photo copyright Alison Ballance

The last time a good survey of hoiho on Campbell Island was carried out was in the early 1990s, while there has only ever been an educated estimate of hoiho numbers on the Auckland islands, made in the late 1980s. Three years ago a joint DOC and Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust expedition braved a month of terrible winds and high seas around the Auckland islands to map every possible place that hoiho seemed to use as a breeding site, and this latest trip will build on that work.

We’ll be locating ourselves at these sites, and spending a few hours from dawn each morning watching the coast, and counting hoiho as they travel between their nests and the sea.

At this time year the subantarctic birds are incubating eggs (they’re a bit later than their mainland cousins, which is probably to due with colder temperatures and a differing food supply down there), and each pair takes turns sitting on the eggs and feeding at sea. It’s a bit like surveying commuters at a bus station, noting the numbers of arrivals and departures, although I suspect the Furious Fifties usual gale force winds, constant drizzle and low temperatures will make the job quite a lot colder and more unpleasant than any inner city bus survey!

As well as counting yellow-eyed penguins the Campbell island team, led by Sandy King, will be using a specially trained rodent dog to make sure that the island is still rat-free, while another dog, this one trained to find birds, will be checking out the Campbell Island teal, to see how their numbers are doing since they were reintroduced a few years ago.

The keen penguin watchers on the Auckland islands include Jo Hiscock, Dave Houston, Dave Agnew and Megan Willans, all DOC staff with lots of experience in both penguins and the subantarctic.

Leith Thompson is a ranger with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in Dunedin, and he spends much of his working days keeping an eye on the more than 500 breeding pairs of hoiho which call the Otago and Catlins coasts home.

Carnley Harbour side of Adams Island (part of the Auckland Islands group). Photo copyright Alison Ballance

The other willing workers are six keen volunteers, who have each paid to be part of the trip, as it is a rare opportunity to spend time in the subantarctic.

Sharon Karst and her husband sailed their yacht around the world, before settling at Matakana, north of Auckland, where Sharon has become dotty about New Zealand dotterels, helping out at the Tawharanui open sanctuary.

Alan Magee is a retired engineer from Invercargill, and he’s particularly keen on geology and history, so will be taking every spare moment to immerse himself in the Auckland islands’ shipwreck stories.

Marcy Taylor grew up on a farm and still works in the farming industry. She says she’s always been fascinated by the subantarctic and that this trip sounded like an amazing opportunity, too good to pass up.

Katie Underwood works by day as Wellington real estate agent, but every moment of her spare time is filled with conservation volunteering, The Zealandia sanctuary is her usual stamping ground, but she’s also spent time weeding on Raoul Island.

Alister Robinson is a funds manager who lives and works in Sydney but was Dunedin-born and bred. He volunteers on conservation projects in Australia, and has been building up his fitness for the trip with a few weeks of volunteer work at the Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin.

Rachel Downey is from the UK, but now lives in Australia having got their via several years work in Antarctica. Sponges have been more her thing, but an introduction to penguins on the Antarctic peninsula got her yearning to learn more.

That leaves me, Alison Ballance, the 12th member of the team. I co-produce and co-present Radio New Zealand’s weekly science and environment programme Our Changing World, I write books about natural history, and I spent four months on Campbell Island (in the middle of winter!) researching feral sheep for my master’s degree. This will be my 5th trip to the subantarctic and I can’t wait to be back. Of course there will be the usual problem – that small matter of 460 kilometres of sea between Bluff and the Auckland islands. My plan is to get on the boat and go straight to bed! When I emerge at the other end, and once we have started work, I’ll send another blog letting you know what our weather is like and how the penguin counting is going. I’ll also be posting blogs on the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust web site – head to http://yellow-eyedpenguin.org.nz if you’d like to find out more.