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 *** – 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
Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Today we profile Dean Nelson, Programme Manager – Biodiversity Assets.
Name: Dean Nelson.
Position: Programme Manager Biodiversity Assets, Twizel Te Manahuna Area Office.
Lunch on the summit of Dasler Pinnacles, Hopkins Valley—Mt Ward in the background
What kind of things do you do in your role?
I primarily manage the staff and the resources involved in undertaking the Biodiversity Assets programmes in the Twizel and Aoraki Areas. The key one is the kaki/black stilt recovery project and the associated Tasman predator control programme, but there are numerous others involving plants, fish, lizards and invertebrates. Examples include the delightfully named ‘fish guts’ plant (yes it smells), a fish only found in the Mackenzie Basin called bignose galaxiid (it has a bulbous ‘nose’) and the recently rediscovered knobbled weevil which hadn’t been seen since the 1920s.
Occasionally I still manage to get out in the field when the team needs someone to help out with bird surveys or something similar. I also enjoy doing a bit of fish work where we are having some excellent results with using weirs as trout barriers to protect the bignose and lowland longjaw galaxiids.
What is the best part about your job?
Working with some incredibly dedicated people who never stop trying despite everything that gets thrown at them. Also the chance to work with some really cool species and visit some stunning places.
What is the hardest part about your job?
Dealing with some of the decisions being made by people further up the line who seem to have a relatively limited grasp of the reality of operating at an area level.
What led you to your role in DOC?
I did the old Parks and Recreation Diploma at Lincoln College (now University) and got a job as a Park Assistant at Makarora where I had spent some of my practical year. Not long after I was offered a ranger job at Mount Cook National Park – this was back in the Department of Lands and Survey days. After about seven years of doing all sorts of stuff, I shifted to Dunedin in the middle of the 1989/90 yellow-eyed penguin population crash and got thrown into hand rearing orphaned chicks which led to the species management work I had always been keen to do.
Checking for a transponder in a yellow-eyed penguin on Whenua Hou Codfish Island
What was your highlight from the month just gone?
A trip to Whenua Hou/Codfish Island to resurvey the yellow-eyed penguin population which is declining for some reason. This is my fifth trip to the island for penguin work and it is a very special little haven for biodiversity. I’ve been fortunate to have a few kākāpō encounters, including having Sirocco do his thing on my head—a painful experience. Have also met and worked with some special people down there.
I wrote a diary (probably should call it a blog or something these days) of this trip which was organised by the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust.
The rule of 3…
Getting into the outdoors, walking, tramping, hunting, mountain biking, fishing …whatever it is as long as it’s away from built up areas.
Holidays which generally involve the above two. I think it is really important to give the kids adventures and experiences that they will remember and treasure.
Family adventures. Arriving at Saxon Hut on the Heaphy Track
3 pet peeves
Idiots who think that it is entirely appropriate to take their 4WD wherever they can, regardless of the damage it causes or the impacts it has on wildlife.
So much of our beautiful Mackenzie Basin disappearing under pivot irrigators.
The habit/fashion (whatever you want to call it) that people have of wearing their pants at half mast, exposing undies, boxers and/or bits of their anatomy that shouldn’t be seen.
Tasman Bay scallops fresh out of the water and quickly fried in a wee bit of butter – melt in your mouth, but unfortunately a bit of a distant memory now!
Crunchy peanut butter and honey, spread thickly together on warm toast.
Good quality boutique brewery beers – we have got some stunners down south but sadly, Emersons has sold out to Lion. Hopefully it won’t affect the quality and variety of the beer!
3 favourite places in New Zealand
Totaranui – I holidayed there as a kid for many years and we are now going back as a family.
Nelson Lakes – my tramping playground as a teenager. Beautiful valleys, easy tops and the best shingle screes to run down anywhere in the country.
Any backcountry hut at the end of a hard day’s tramping with the trusty pit laid out on a bunk and a brew on.
Family fun in the lagoon while on holiday at Totaranui
Favourite movie, album, book
Movie: showing my age here—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A classic.
Album: Pink Floyd—Wish You Were Here
Book: there are heaps of books which could fit the bill however, for someone who has done a wee bit of climbing, an excellent read is ‘Savage Arena’ by Joe Tasker. He delivered the manuscript of this book on the eve of his departure for the British Everest Expedition 1982 where he lost his life. A dramatic tale from a guy who lived life on the edge. “Every step was dogged by a presentiment of catastrophe, as if, out of the mists above, a white wave of death would engulf us.”
Deep and meaningful…
What piece of advice would you tell your 18 year old self?
Get out and do it—you are a long time old and decrepit or even worse—dead.
Who or what inspires you and why?
Our rangers. They are our unsung heros at the bottom of the heap, paid peanuts but they do some stunning work.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a kid, the usual list of suspects, but then in the third form at college, a mate and I wanted to be marine biologists. He is—working for NIWA—and I guess I ended up on terrestrial stuff.
And now, if you weren’t working at DOC, what would you want to be?
I’ve always had a hankering to be a helicopter pilot or failing that, a photographer for National Geographic.
Talking to Otago University Wildlife Management Diploma Students about threatened fish and the trout barrier we are using to protect them
What sustainability tip would you like to pass on?
Turn down the thermostat on the hot water cylinder by a couple of degrees—they are often set too high. I’ve done it a couple of times and my wife who loves her hot showers hasn’t squealed yet.
Which green behaviour would you like to adopt this year—at home? At work?
Get the compost working better and grow more veggies.
If you could be any New Zealand native species for a day, what would you be and why?
There are a whole lot of them that I really admire—the diminutive wee rock wren, the fearless falcon (I saw one trying to attack an Iroquois helicopter that came too close to its nest) the melodious kaka – the list is endless. However, imagine going back in time and being Harpagornis/Haast’s eagle. Now that would be something.
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
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
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 **** 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
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.