Archives For yellow-eyed

By Cheryl Pullar, Partnerships Ranger based in Owaka

What do you do when a native bird just won’t learn to help himself? For one yellow-eyed penguin, it was time for the tough love approach.

This year we witnessed a disastrous breeding season for yellow-eyed penguins on the mainland. Every year in November and December, chicks begin to hatch around the wild beaches of the Catlins, Otago Peninsula and North Otago.

Yellow-eyed penguin wandering to the surf.

Juvenile yellow-eyed penguins are well-known for their wandering ways

There are often a few chicks that are abandoned by their parents or aren’t well fed, and need to be removed from their nests for supplementary feeding. 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.

To help protect the population of what is thought to be one of the world’s rarest penguin species, we remove underweight chicks from the nest before fledging and take them to rehabilitation centres like Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula.

Looking at penguin chicks at Penguin Place.

Penguin Place’s Lisa King and DOC’s Andrea Crawford check on chicks at Penguin Place

So earlier in the year, 63 chicks were removed from the Catlins and taken to Penguin Place. This included chick J19013 (a lively young male, according to his measurements), who was taken on 10 February from Penguin Bay, weighing only 3.8 kg.

J19013 was first released from Penguin Place on 20 March at a fine 5.2 kg, but returned to the release location in early April, again underweight. So he was taken back to rehab, fattened up, and released again 14 April. However, the same thing happened again; he returned to the release site a few days later underweight, and was fattened in rehab again. All in all J19013 was released six times!

After talking with J19013’s caretakers, we decided to take a ‘tough-love’ approach—by bringing this bird back to the Catlins, a 1.5 hour journey by road, for a hard release at Jacks Bay, close to where he hatched. The area was monitored over several days to ensure that this charismatic young bird took to the sea.

J19013 took off like a rocket when we let him out of the cage, and disappeared quickly into the surf. Now he’s either got a heck of a long swim back to Penguin Place, or he will have to learn how to catch his own dinner.

By Dave Houston

Declining nest numbers

Juvenile yellow-eyed penguins loitering on Sealers Bay beach in 2001

Waaaaay back in 1981 I encountered my first yellow-eyed penguin on Codfish Island or Whenua Hou.  20 years later I was back on Codfish with DOC colleague Dean Nelson and David Blair of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust (YEPT) as part of the first ever census of yellow-eyeds on Stewart Island and its outliers.  While the numbers found on Stewart Island were alarmingly low, things on Codfish looked good with 61 breeding pairs and more than 40 juvenile (1-year old) birds seen.

A ‘classic’ yellow-eyed penguin nest under a rata tree

Eight years later Dean and I went back to Codfish with Sandy King of the YEPT to see if the decline in penguin numbers on the Anglem coast of Stewart Island was mirrored there, we took the best cooler with us fulled with goodies.  A week of searching revealed only 46 pairs, down 25% on the previous count.  We also saw no juvenile birds, an indication that poor food year had reduced the survival of the young birds in their first year at sea.  To be sure that this was not just a temporary blip in a bad year, Dean and I again went to Codfish and searched for nests in 2011.  Again, no juvenile birds were seen and nest numbers had dropped further to just 39 pairs.

This year Dean is back on Codfish on his own to see if the trend is continuing.

Finding penguins

Supplejack tangle: There's a penguin in there somewhere.

Supplejack tangle: There’s a penguin in there somewhere

To the uninitiated, counting penguins seems like ‘a walk in the park’.  Instead it can be a dirty, frustrating and physically demanding task.  Yellow-eyed penguins nest in forest, ususally with their backs to a tree or in dense vegetation and up to 500m inland.  Finding them means starting at their landing point and following the often subtle signs of a penguin track, ocassionally dotted with tell-tale penguin poop.  Unlike us somewhat taller humans, penguins have no trouble negotiating the thick vegetation and seem to take delight in detouring through the thickest supplejack patches on the way to their nests, sometimes necessitating a hands and knees approach.  The smell of seabird poop can alert the searcher that a nest is nearby and then close inspection of all likely looking hollows and thickets is required.

Once found, the nest is checked for eggs, the attending bird is checked for a flipper band or transponder and the nest marked by GPS and flagging tape so that the nest can be revisited later in the season to determine breeding success.

What’s going on?

Dean checking a nesting bird for a transponder

Dean checking a nesting bird for a transponder

Yellow-eyed penguins are long-lived (Dean just found a couple of  birds he banded as chicks 20 years ago) and Codfish island is predator-free, so why isn’t it a penguin paradise?  Despite good breeding success in most years, first-year survival of penguins can be very low in years when food resources are low.  It seems that Codfish has experienced several of these poor years in recent times, meaning that few young birds have survived to enter the breeding population.

While adults are safe on their island sanctuary, at sea they are vulnerable to predators (mainly sharks) and by  enganglement with nets set for rig and elephant fish (species most often encountered in your fish-and-chip shop). The extent of this at-sea mortality is not well understood.

And in news just in…

Dean has just emerged from the bush having found 39 nests, no change on last year (read his search dairy here).  While not great news, it does confirm that last year’s low count was not a ‘one off’ low count and that something is really going on here.  The continued absence of  juvenile birds suggests ongoing unfavourable marine conditions.  Hopefully next year’s count will start to show a positive trend.

Yellow-eyed penguins at sea

Yellow-eyed penguins at sea