We’re fortunate to have some passionate farmers, Mark Armstrong and Francis Helps, who love the local wildlife and who have been the driving force behind protecting the penguins on Banks Peninsula. They had grown up with penguins and were used to seeing them around and they became very concerned when numbers started to seriously decline in the nineties.
Ranger Wayne Beggs and local vet Susan Shannon micro-chipping penguins
Mark and Francis didn’t muck around and bought their own predator traps to try and control the ferrets, stoats and feral cats that were decimating the local little blue and yellow-eyed penguin colonies.
Mark and Francis soon realised that they needed some help and sought support from the local DOC rangers. DOC ranger Robin Burleigh stepped in and added additional trap lines as well as assisting with monitoring the penguins.
Summer in Dunedin didn’t seem to stay around for long this year, but I wasn’t complaining. Unlike most years, where fly strike leads to the loss of young albatross chicks, we had such mild weather over the hatching period that no fly strike occurred.
Last season we had 26 chicks fledge. We are hopeful that the 24 chicks on the headland this season will all fledge, making a nice round 50 fledglings in two years.
Seven years abroad: Pukekura’s 500th royal albatross returns
After seven years abroad, the 500th royal albatross chick to have hatched at Taiaroa Head/Pukekura, has finally returned home.
Toroa, the 500th royal albatross chick to have hatched at Pukekura
Toroa, and two other chicks, had transmitters attached to their back feathers when they fledged in 2007.
All three survived their long journey at sea for the first year, after which the transmitters stopped sending back signals. It has been a long wait to see if any of these birds would return.
Map of albatross flight path from New Zealand to Chile.
Toroa, the grandson of ‘Grandma’—the colony’s oldest bird (over 60 years old when last seen in 1989)—arrived home to find his own parents breeding again.
The image below shows Toroa with a two-month old sibling. This chick is on its nest close to where Toroa himself was raised.
Toroa sitting in the background with his two-month-old sibling in the foreground
Toroa has been hanging around this same area not because of any bond with his sibling or his parent (there is no interaction between parents and returned chicks), but because he, like most males, will nest fairly close to the site where he was raised as a chick. Nest sites tend to be closer to the male hatch site than to the females hatch site.
Cook’s scurvy grass (Lepidium oleraceum) has had a population explosion here at Taiaroa Head/Pukekura.
Cook’s scurvy grass has had a population explosion
Just three plants of this threatened species (once abundant and used by Captain Cook to help reduce the effects of scurvy) were on Pukekura last year.
Now, nestled in among the 2000 pairs of red-billed gulls (that produced plenty of quality fertilizer), this species numbers over 40 large healthy plants.
The ice plant in the background of the image above is South African, and was probably introduced onto the headland to help hide the stone and concrete gun emplacements used during the Russian Scare of the late 1880’s.
Interestingly, the ice plant can not tolerate the excreta from gulls and dies back, whereas gull excreta doesn’t affect the native ice plant found in the same area.
Sometimes our native species have it tough out there in the wild. This year large numbers of yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho chicks – natives of coastal Otago – have had a particularly challenging first few months of life.
Yellow-eyed penguin chicks have thick fluffy feathers that they shed between three and four months old – which is about the age of this chick
Two of the underweight chicks at Penguin Place
Every year in November/December yellow-eyed penguin chicks begin to hatch around the wild beaches of the Catlins, Otago Peninsula and North Otago.
There are often a few that are abandoned by their parents or aren’t well fed, and need to be removed from their nests. But this year a late breeding season and lack of fish to eat has meant a large number of chicks have gone hungry and many have died.
Fortunately, around 80 of these chicks and juveniles are now in the care of Penguin Place.
Penguin Place is a privately run conservation effort and tourism operation, funded through the guided tours they conduct. This project began in the mid 80’s as a family-run conservation project and nature tourism experience. They now carry out a range of conservation work including a research programme, trapping predators, providing safe nest boxes, restoring a stretch of coastline to prime penguin habitat, and rehabilitating sick and injured penguins in its penguin hospital.
Penguin Place’s Lisa King (at rear) and DOC’s Andrea Crawford, look on as the chicks are rounded up for their dinner
Throughout the breeding season, a small team of DOC rangers and volunteers monitor the penguin nesting grounds, conducting health checks of the chicks to make sure they are well fed and gaining weight.
Aviva Stein (Zoologist), Leith Thomson (Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust Ranger), Eiren Sweetman (DOC volunteer) and Guy Brannigan (DOC Trainee Ranger), weighing yellow-eyed penguin chicks in the Catlins
Those that are showing signs of starvation or other ailments are removed from the nest where needed and taken to safe havens like Penguin Place till they fatten up and are ready for release.
DOC Trainee Ranger Guy Brannigan with four underweight yellow-eyed penguin chicks, on their way to Penguin Place. These chicks lost up to 1 kg and would have died before fledging if left in the wild
Penguin Place guide Tama Taiti hand feeding one of the juvenile penguins
Feeding 80 hungry beaks is a big job. It takes two keepers three hours twice a day to hand feed all of the penguin hospital’s current patients – and they’re consuming up to 80 kilos of fish per day! Plus, because they’re still growing, these young patients need fish that’s full of protein and other vitamins, preferably small whole fish with blood, guts and bones.
Thankfully some generous partners have come to the aid of Penguin Place this year. Talleys Nelson contributed an emergency supply of one tonne of pilchard; and seafood company Sanford Limited has just agreed to provide an ongoing donation of up to six tonnes per year.
DOC doesn’t run its own facilitates for providing the specialist care that’s needed to rehabilitate sick or injured wildlife. We work in partnership with a number of specialist organisations like Penguin Place, who have permits from DOC to care for native species. These organisations play a really important role in conservation. So next time you’re in Dunedin pop by, join a tour or make a donation, and show your support.