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.
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.
Dave supports biodiversity programmes anywhere between Auckland and the Auckland Islands, but specialises in the Chatham Islands and penguins.
Using a band or ring has been vital to the monitoring and conservation of birds for more than 100 years. Yellow-eyed penguins were first fitted with leg bands as part of a landmark population study by schoolteacher-biologist Lance Richdale in the 1930’s.
A flipper-band on a yellow-eyed penguin
Unfortunately, leg bands proved to be difficult to read and also caused some injuries so, by the late 1950’s, flipper bands became the standard for marking penguins.
The current banding programme for yellow-eyed’s started in the 1970’s and has enabled the monitoring of penguin survival (to a ripe old age of 24 years) and allowed researchers to know the age and history of the individuals at the focus of their research.
Flipper bands are not without problems. They decrease the underwater efficiency of the bird and, particularly if poorly fitted or maintained, can cause feather wear and injury. Alternatives to bands have been explored and one under investigation at the moment is the use RFID tags of the same type used in dogs and cats. While safe and long-lasting, they do have the downside of requiring electronic readers to find out if a bird is marked and who it is.
Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust staff inserting a RFID tag into a penguin chick
Whichever method used, it is important to ensure that those applying the tag are doing so correctly in order to minimise the risk to the bird and maximise what we learn as a result. Penguin chicks get tagged just before they go to sea and I recently took the opportunity to join DOC staff, Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Massey University Veterinary students and oversee the tagging of this season’s batch of chicks on the Otago Peninsula.
Ranger Mel Young showing Wane Begg and Jim Fyfe the best way of measuring head length
Assisted by volunteers willing to crawl through flax, gorse and nettle, we visited several sites, going to nests found earlier in the season, before locating and capturing the chicks. Bags are used to restrain the birds while they get weighed, measured and tagged before being released back at their nest site. The weight tells us how good the food supply is (5-6 kg is the normal range) and measuring the head and feet of the chicks gives us an indication of the sex – the males are slightly larger.
Volunteer Monika Fry with penguin chick ready for weighing
Also along for a day was Jeff Corwin of “Animal Planet” fame, filming for the third series of “Ocean Mysteries”. Jeff, trailed by his camera crew, enthusastically crawled through the shrubbery, helping capture and measure chicks. Later in the day he assisted researcher Dr Thomas Mattern with the retrieval and deployment of GPS/dive loggers attached to the parents of some of the chicks we tagged as part of a long-term project looking at where the birds feed.
Ranger Mel Young talking penguins with Jeff Corwin
The opportunity to assist with this work, and spend a few days on the beautiful Otago Peninsula in no less than spectacular weather, was very much worth the being stung by nettle, scratched by gorse, bitten, beaten and pooped on by penguins.
Dr Thomas Mattern and Jeff Corwin waiting for a GPS-fitted penguin to return
Since my visit some 57 adult yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula have died suddenly, possibly due to a marine biotoxin. Birds found dead on the beach have been identified by their tag, enabling rangers to locate the nest and keep a close eye on their almost-fledged chicks. Understanding how the penguins encountered the bio-toxin will be helped by the GPS and dive logger data.
Yellow-eyed penguin foraging tracks. Credit: Dr Thomas Mattern