Archives For penguins

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 if you’d like to find out more.

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

An occasional diary by Maud Island ranger, Chris Birmingham

Return of the King

The BGBOL, His Highness, Sir Occo, whatever people like to call him, returned home to Maud Island/Te Hoiere recently after conquering the mainland and capturing hearts and minds alike.

Daryl Eason with Sirocco

It was a reasonably bouncy boat journey back to Maud for Sirocco, the kākāpō conservation superstar, and his human passengers, so we decided that for his own comfort and safety it would be better if he were out of his transport box. With the cabin door safely shut he spent most of the trip sitting on Kakapo Recovery Programme scientist Daryl Eason’s knee. He seemed to enjoy being able to see where he was going and having the sea air ruffle his feathers. Daryl on the other hand did not seem to enjoy Sirocco “stabilising” himself with his beak on the softer fleshy parts of his arm.

He did look a little ‘green’ at some stages though, and was more than willing to get back in his box for the short walk to his pen on arrival at Maud. A pirate’s parrot he is not, it would seem.

Daryl Eason, Linda Kilduff and Sirocco Kakapo

I think Sirocco enjoyed getting back to “nature” after so long in the spotlight. He won’t be free to roam just yet though. He has to go through a quarantine process to ensure he hasn’t brought any diseases back with him. Although Sirocco is very important, there are also other species here to consider such as the takahe, orange-fronted parakeets, and the Maud Island frog. Once he receives a clear bill of health he will be allowed out of his quarantine enclosure.

Don’t panic though, it’s not a cage. He has a large outdoor pen here to loll around in while he waits for the all clear. It’s a catered arrangement too, no macadamias or grapes though, sorry buddy. I’ll keep you posted on his progress and antics.

Takahe chicks

Another significant event here has been the hatching of our first takahe chicks. While it’s too early to count them as members of the overall takahe population just yet it’s looking promising.

Takahe chick

The first to hatch came on the day of the Rugby World Cup final. My partner Linda and I went up to the nest to check the egg for fertility and we discovered a small black chick in the nest, still moist from hatching. It was a great way to kick off a big day for New Zealand.  We have unofficially christened it McCaw. Its dad is named “The Captain” so we thought that was appropriate.

It’s fascinating to watch takahe parents in action, and The Captain and Rangi are great examples. Initially the parents were very protective of their chick. They kept it stashed away in the long grass and ferried bits of food to it, calling to it to tell it to lay low. As it got older and more mobile they have started to bring it out. We give them supplementary food – a mix of blended veges, clover and takahe pellets.

The other day I watched them for 20 minutes. It was awesome to see how dedicated they are to their young chick.  They have a keen sense of danger and will let the chick know if it isn’t safe to be out in the open, such as when the resident NZ falcon lets out its piercing call from high above. The parents turn their eyes to the sky and “whoomp” to send the chick scurrying for cover. Awesome!

Spring has sprung

On a final note, spring has well and truly sprung here on Maud. The grass has really taken off and mowing the tracks has become an all too common occurrence!

Fantail chick

Other locals are breeding too. We have a fantail nest right outside our lounge; the parents have already fledged the first clutch of three chicks and appear to be considering a second! Underneath them, and below the deck, is a family of blue penguins. They aren’t the best flat mates, being quite smelly and prone to late night bursts of noise when mum and dad come home with a belly full of fish to regurgitate, but we don’t hold any of that against them. It’s still very cool to have nature literally on (or under) your doorstep. They will be gone soon enough and maybe we will miss them, but not their smell.

We have a fantail nest right outside our lounge

That’s all from Te Hoiere for now but hopefully I’ll get round to blogging more regularly now that we have settled in.

Every Monday Jobs at DOC takes you behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation.

This week we meet some of the people working on Operation Rena in Tauranga  

At work…

“Would you like bubbles with your bath?” Penguin cleaning, a part of the de-oiling process

Name: DOC staff involved with Operation Rena

What kind of things do you do in your role?

DOC is providing operational support for the Massey University led National Oiled Wildlife Response Team on behalf of Maritime New Zealand. To cut a long story short, DOC staff are contributing to the following:

Crew Leaders, Sector Supervisors, Skippers’ Safety, Division Commanders, Iwi Liaison, Radio Operators, Wildlife Handlers, Information, Finance, Personnel, Operations, Logistics, GIS/Mapping, Night Operations, Admin Support, the Situation Unit, and the Resources Unit.

What is the best part about contributing to Operation Rena?

People have come from across the planet to help out. They come from a variety of backgrounds, organisations, businesses and agencies to assist in the efforts of the operation. There is an incredible commitment by these people to get the job done—and to meet the objectives of the operation with a huge amount of collaboration and a real lack of egos getting in the way.

What is the hardest part about Operation Rena?

The Minister of Conservation keeping an eye on proceedings at the Oiled Wildlife Recovery Centre at Te Maunga, Tauranga

A number of the staff are spending time away from home and family.

The unpredictability of a boat precariously grounded on a reef in changeable weather is also hard!

What led you to your involvement with Operation Rena?

DOC’s Deputy Director-General of Operations, Sue Tucker, asked and, as keen and willing DOC staff members, we have all happily put our hands up to help out when and where required.

What was your highlight from the month just gone?

To date, we have managed to cover 60–80km of coastline per day since the grounding. This has enabled us to recover 402 wildlife members, including little blue penguins, gannets, shags, shearwater and seals. A part of that number was 60 nationally vulnerable New Zealand Dotterels before the spill! All of this was undertaken while keeping our cool, with a high team morale. Phew!

The rule of three…

Three loves

  1. Clean seas
  2. Clean beaches
  3. Clean birds

Three pet peeves

  1. Grounded boats
  2. Leaking oil
  3. Missing shipping containers

Three things always in your fridge

  1. Milk for the coffee to start the day off
  2. Sardines for the birds
  3. Beer for winding down after a long day

Three favourite places in New Zealand

  1. Tuhua (Mayor) Island—An awesome volcanic environment that is pest free and home to numerous indigenous species with an amazing marine reserve. 
  2. Maketu— the landing site for the Te Arawa canoe and a nesting area for estuarine species including our New Zealand Dotterels.
  3. Motuotau (Rabbit) Island—Penguins galore!

We also used to quite like Astrolabe Reef for its amazing sea life with great diving and fishing, but we’re a little indifferent to it right now!

Loading the DOC boat for Tuhua (Mayor) Island

Favourite movie, album, book

  1. Movie: Free Willy. We’re not a big fan of movies like Titanic or Poseidon at the moment!
  2. Album: Time and Tide by Split Enz, especially the song Six months in a leaky boat.
  3. Book: We’re often found perusing Rena Operation Astrolabe Incident Action Plans for a  bit of light reading at the moment, and have been considering finding a copy of Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound, but don’t really have the time right now.

Deep and meaningful…

What keeps you motivated and why?

Seeing the huge community effort that has gone on over the last few weeks in response to this disaster. There are an incredible number of small but important jobs that need to be done for an operation like this to keep moving. Often these jobs are picked up by volunteers—anything from sifting sand at local beaches and picking out tiny pieces of oiled sand, to cleaning mucky pens at the wildlife centre after the de-oiling of the birds.

Wildlife Incident Management team in action at the Incident Control Centre in Tauranga

And now, if you weren’t working at Operation Rena, what would you want to be doing?

Working back in my day job at DOC, tirelessly making New Zealand the greatest living space on Earth.

If you could be any New Zealand native species for a day, what would you be and why?

“Kia ora whanau” Iwi Liaison Taute Taiepa making the calls and loving it!

A massive pod of Maui or Hector’s dolphins. We’d go back in time by about 4-5 weeks and be patrolling off the Bay of Plenty coast. There would be so many of us that if a large container ship came past we could nudge it out of the way of any obstacles and escort it safely into port!What piece of advice or message would you want to give to others when it comes to Operation Rena?

A huge thank you to all those that have helped on the operation to date. The support from people who have ‘downed tools’ from all over the country to come and help has been amazing.

To those that haven’t come—we still need your help! This thing isn’t going away in a hurry and it will only continue to function with the support of you all.

For all the best and current info on the situation check out the Maritime New Zealand website.