Posted on February 8th, 2013 No comments
Back in November 2012 a hardy bunch of keen volunteers joined Ranger Leith along with Jo Hiscock and others from the Department of Conservation for an expedition to the Auckland islands to survey yellow-eyed penguins. Alison Ballance was along helping with the counting, writing blogs and also recording material for a 25-minute radio story which has just aired on Our Changing World on Radio New Zealand National. To meet the people along on the trip and to get a real sense of what it was like in the field, have a listen to the audio below – it’s almost as good as being there, only warmer and without the 5 am starts!
Posted on November 26th, 2012 No comments
… and then suddenly the trip was over! It seemed as if we had barely arrived in the subantarctic before we had completed our planned six days of yellow-eyed penguin counting and were heading home. Time flies when you’re having fun and all that – and also when the skipper says the weather forecast is looking good then you take advantage of it.
With the southerly behind us our trip home was even faster than out trip down, for which the seasick few were very grateful.
But before we set sail we had saved the best for last – Enderby Island, which had been our first port of call, was to be our last penguin counting site, and it accounted for the 2.30 am start that I mentioned in blog 9. We needed to get 12 people ashore in the dark, and then spend up to an hour and half walking in the dark (with
head-torches!) to be in position to start counting by 5 am. Thank goodness for calm seas again, and also for the low tide that meant we could land in the ‘boat harbour’ on the rock platform rather than having to cope with waves rolling in on the sandy beach. Jo had arranged a super-sized counting team for Enderby Island as we had a large amount of coastline to cover. Evohe crew Dinghy Dave and Tori offered to help out, and Dave H. and Leith had finished their nest-finding duties on the island and were available to give a hand as well.
Back in 1989 Peter Moore counted about 550 yellow-eyed penguins on Enderby Island, and estimated that it was home to about a third of all yellow-eyeds in the Auckland Island group. And we had already seen quite a few birds loafing around during our initial scoping visit, so we had high hopes that we would see good numbers of birds. And we weren’t disappointed (Jo got the morning’s best tally of 70+ birds!) – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned. We counted 288 birds, to which we could add about 80 birds that Leith and Dave H. had already counted for us at several other landing sites. That gives us a total of about 368 birds -which is only two-thirds of the 1989 count. And if you add up all our other counting sites and compare them, then once again our numbers are just two-thirds of what Peter counted.
By the way that two-thirds figure seems to be a bit of a recurring motif – Dean Nelson has just completed the 2012 yellow-eyed penguin count on Codfish Island, and the numbers there are now two-thirds of the survey total from 2001.
These numbers are just the first rough summary of what the 2012 Auckland Island expedition found – Jo will be analysing the data in much more detail in the coming weeks, and trying to come up with a population estimate for the Auckland Islands, and we’ll tell you about that in a future blog. And while the Auckland Island penguin team is now safely home the Tiama-based Campbell Island expedition are still hard at work – we wish them the best for the rest of their trip, and we look forward to seeing their results.
Many thanks to the members of the 2012 Auckland Island Expedition for their hard work and great company, to the crew of Evohe for getting us safely there and back and looking after us so well, and to you for keeping us company on the blog. And of course a big thumbs-ups to the yellow-eyed penguins, those endearing and intriguing birds who were the reason we were down in the fabulous subantarctic – best wishes for a great breeding season!
Posted on November 23rd, 2012 No comments
Early morning starts (today we were awake at 2.30 am!), and four hours of sitting still in the cold and rain each morning for sometimes no reward don’t sound like a recipe for a good time – but despite all of that the yellow-eyed penguin team have been having a great time. I decided to ask the volunteer team members what their memorable moments were, and there was no shortage of anecodotes.
Alan enjoyed the rare opportunity to see yellow-eyed penguins at close quarters. Under normal circumstance yellow-eyed penguins are very wary when people are around, and it doesn’t take much to send them running back into the bush or rushing back out to sea, but we were sitting quietly and unobtrusively, and the penguins were surprisingly at ease with us. One morning two penguins spent half an hour sitting about two metres away from Alan, ‘winking’ at him and just hanging out, giving him some wonderful opportunities to take photos that he says will be on next year’s calendar to remind him of the subantarctic.
Marcy immediately commented on the juvenile penguin that spent an entire morning count lounging around close by, and was at one point overtaken by a fit of sneezing – she thought it was very cute. She also enjoyed the spectacular basaltic columns along the shore of Enderby Island that are home to a colony of Auckland Island shags, which are in breeding colours at the moment and looking particularly gorgeous.
For many of the team, the yellow-eyed penguins were just one part of a much bigger experience. Katie had read lots about the history and shipwrecks before she came down, and she loved the opportunity to see historic relics such as the finger posts point the way to castaway depots for ship-wrecked sailors, and the Second World War coast-watchers depots. She was blown away by the rata forest as she had never seen it before, and her only regret is that she isn’t here later in summer to see the rata in flower.
Al was sold on coming on the trip when he discovered it was the perfect trifecta of yachting, the subantarctic and conservation, and he has not been disappointed. While he has thoroughly enjoyed the yellow-eyed penguins – particularly the cliff-diving penguin that fearlessly jumped off a 3-metre cliff into the sea below – he was completely captivated by the white-capped albatrosses at South-west Cape, nesting on spectacular cliffs high above Victoria Passage, a feeling that was shared by everyone.
After intense communal living on the yacht, Rachel also had the most remote experience of her life, when she was put ashore on an isolated point of Enderby Island in the pitch black. As dawn broke her surroundings – which had until then been just an unknown world of rustlings and strange sounds – slowly revealed themselves as bushes and birds, and also a sealion, whose presence unsettled her slightly for much of the morning (but not as much as some more boisterous sealions unsettled some other trip members).
A highlight for Sharon was the Auckland Island snipe that was flushed out of long grass during an early morning torch-lit walk out to a penguin count site this morning – she was struck by its small size and it’s kiwi-like shape. And of course, as a dotterel fan, she was delighted to see the Auckland Island banded dotterels on Enderby Island, which are common in the open tussock and megaherb fields.
Another common comment from the everyone in the team has been about the weather – we have been incredibly lucky, and although there has been a brisk 30 knot wind for much of the afternoon it is forecast to drop by the time we pull anchor and set sail for the mainland later tonight.
Posted on November 21st, 2012 No comments
Awesome, amazing, and any other amount of A words describe our trip to the southern end of the Auckland islands. After we had completed our morning penguin count on Ewing Island it was a three hour-or-so journey down the east coast of Auckland Island to Carnley Harbour. Then Jo Hiscock and I parted ways with the rest of the team, heading up to the top of Adams Island for a spot of wandering albatross work, while the others remained on yellow-eyed penguin duty, heading out along the north coast of Adams Island to sort out their penguin watching spots for the following morning.
Adams Island is a remarkable place. It’s the largest pristine island in New Zealand – even though sheep were farmed for a while, no other introduced mammals ever arrived there. Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott have been carrying out a long-term study of the Gibson’s wandering albatrosses, which breed only on Adams Island, since 1991, as well as researching another sub-species, the Antipodes wandering albatross, which is found only on the Antipodes Island. Their field season in the subantarctic is January-February, at the beginning of the breeding season when birds are laying eggs and chicks are starting to hatch. Kath and Graeme need to put leg bands on the young albatrosses before they fledge and leave the colony so they can identify them when they return after a few years at sea – but by the the time Kath and Graeme return the following year many of the chicks will have already flown. So, they enlist the help of passing DoC staff such as Jo to band the chicks once they have reached adult size, and since the job takes two people I was keen to volunteer.
The study began because there were concerns that the albatrosses were being caught as by-catch in the longline fishing industry, and it was important to establish the size of the population and the breeding success. In the early 1990s the annual breeding success was 67%, but in the last few years it has dropped to a worrying 40%, and Kath and Graeme report that a concerning number of adults are also failing to return.
The evening we arrived in the study area Jo and I headed out to make the most of the long summer evening, as we had nearly a hundred nests to check. I was clad in head-to-toe yellow PVC (very attractive) as I had been warned that the young albatrosses were highly likely to regurgitate a fishy oily slurry over me (their only means of self-defence), and I wore light leather gloves as protection against their large sharp bills, which they clack fiercely when anyone approaches.
It was an incredible opportunity to get close to one of the largest birds in the world, with a wing span of 3-metres. The chicks were already as big as their parents, and although they had grown most of their adult feathers they were still covered in varying amounts of the lightest powder-puff white down. The banding procedure is quick and simple – my job was to hold the bird, which is so large that I could only just fit my arms around, with one hand holding its bill firmly, and my other arm keeping its long wings tucked in. Jo had two leg bands to put on – the usual metal numbered DoC bird band, and a plastic band with large letters and numbers that Kath and Graeme would be able to read at a distance using binoculars. Jo quickly had both bands on, and then an indignant albatross was released with a volley of bill clapping and grumpy calls. Not every nest had a chick greeting us – many were sad and empty, and a handful still had the bones and feathers of recently dead chicks.
As the evening light began to fail we retired for the night to the small bivvy and the following morning Jo and I carried on nest checking and chick banding while the the penguin counting contingent assumed position along the island’s northern shore. We worked in the albatross colony into the afternoon by which time the penguin team were off on their own albatross adventure at South-west Cape, visiting a colony of white-capped albatrosses (a kind of shy albatross) nesting on ledges on the cliffs. These smaller mollymawks are just starting to breed at the moment, so when we made it back to Evohe just on dark, after a cold wet walk back over the island, we were greeted with x-rated reports of goings-on on the cliffs as well as excited reports about adventures trying to find several of the historic sites.
The slightly less good news was that the Gibson’s wandering albatross chick survival so far this year is just 40%, and more chicks will likely die before this breeding season is over. And the yellow-eyed penguin tally for Adams Island was a rather meagre 21 birds, compared to 52 birds in 1989. Hmm, lots to think about until we bring you more news tomorrow.
Posted on November 20th, 2012 No comments
Sorry about the short break in communication, folks, but we’ve been having a super busy time down here. We feel like we’ve been on the go for 10 days rather than 5, but we’ve realised that’s because every day is effectively two days: we get up at 4 am, and get back to the boat by late morning, which is one day, and then we have a busy afternoon and late evening which counts as our second day. And mealtimes are erratic so they’re no guide to the passing of time! Most of us are short of sleep, and every time Evohe relocates many take the opportunity to nap for an hour or two.
Since Blog 7 we’ve counted yellow-eyed penguins on Ewing Island, Adams Island and Waterfall Inlet on main Auckland Island, and after two nights at the southern end of the islands we’re now back in Ross Harbour at the north end. O and a few Gibson’s wandering albatross chicks have been banded (I know that they’re not penguins but they are equally magnificent seabirds, and I’ll tell you more about them and other southern adventures in tomorrow’s blog).
Ewing Island is a small island not far from Enderby Island, but it is quite different as it is covered in Olearia forest, rather than the rata forest that blankets everywhere else. Our penguin watching day on Ewing Island was straight-forward – Jo and Dave A. had scoped the island the previous day and marked all the landing sites with reflector tape so they were easy to find in the early morning dark. I had a spot on a little headland, from which I could see a small harbour on each side, and another headland that we thought might be a penguin highway. The wind was quite strong (but nothing compared to what the usual gale force wind conditions down here), and it rained steadily for about an hour, but fortunately I had my back to it, and I was well rugged-up. Judging by all the remains of small seabirds lying about my headland was a popular skua hang-out, and indeed two birds came and went all morning, happily settling themselves a metre or so away from me. All up I saw six yellow-eyed penguins, but only two went into the water during my official four hour watch. Three birds came down to a rock shelf about 4 metres above the water and hung out there for about an hour. They began with a refreshing dip in a freshwater pool, then spent their time displaying to one another, having a couple of small fights (flapping their flippers at each other), and engaging in a bit of mutual preening.
The grand result from Ewing Island was that between us all (which amounts to 40 hours of observations) we recorded 61 birds – which, amazingly, is exactly the same number recorded in the 1989 survey. The results from Matheson Bay and North Harbour, on the main Auckland Island which I wrote about in Blog 7, are not quite so reassuring – in 1989 they recorded 30 birds, whereas our intrepid commandos only counted 4. And in North Harbour we counted 49 yellow-eyed penguins, which compares to 72 counted in 2009, and 88 counted in 1989. What those differences mean it’s hard to say – are we seeing a decline in yellow-eyed penguin numbers, or is is just random day-to-day variation in the numbers of penguins going out to sea each day. Regardless, we are following the same survey protocol as in 1989, and it’s the best we can do in the time and people available. And the yellow-eyed penguin watchers we have on board are great – it’s a motivated, hard-working team and we’re having a really good time, especially since the weather continues to be astonishingly calm and pleasant for these parts of the world. That’s all for now and I’ll be back tomorrow with more yellow-eyed penguin tales from the southern end of the Auckland islands, along with a few albatross anecodotes.
While some yellow-eyed penguins head straight out to sea to feed others hang around on the shore, keeping the penguin watchers in a state of suspense – will they or won’t they leave in time to be counted!
Posted on November 16th, 2012 No comments
Well folk, we’re finally in the business of counting penguins! And that involves getting up earlier than the earliest birds – yesterday the crew had us on the go at 1.30 am, motoring around the north side of Enderby Island. By 4 am the first five penguin watchers were doing their best commando impersonation over the side of the yacht in the pitch dark into the waiting dinghy. They were off into Mathiesson Bay to position themselves strategically around the edges in prime penguin watching spots. That, at least, was the cunning plan. The sheer bluffs around most of the bay (invisible until the dinghy nosed up to them) quickly put paid to that idea, and the penguin commandos ended up settling in the dark into the three available sites, waiting for the official start time of 5 am.
Bluffs and cliffs might be unpassable for a yellow-eyed penguin, but they make great nesting sites for Auckland Island shags. Photo Alison Ballance
Evohe, meanwhile, headed further along the coast of the main island to North Harbour, dropping anchor about half-way up the harbour in 20 metres of water. Loaded with three penguin commandos the dinghy headed further up the harbour to serve as a floating spy base, while two of us remained on board the mothership, using her as our strategic lookout point. It was still pretty dark by 5.30 am, and moderately gloomy when I saw our first penguin – or rather our first four penguins – just before 6 am. The next three hours were spent scanning our stretch of shore with binoculars, trying to catch the fast penguins before they bolted out of the bush and straight into the water, and attempting to keep track of the slow penguins who loitered amongst the dark black rocks, blending in and sometime disappearing from sight.
I saw 12 penguins, most in a rush-hour between 6 and 7 am, but they were too far away for me to tell if they were adult or juvenile birds. Marcy, on duty on the other side of Evohe saw a dolphin, convinced herself for a brief while that the white belly of a shag was that of a penguin (an illusion that was shattered when it flew away), and finally logged her first penguin just four minutes before the survey ended at 9 am.
The dinghy team were in yellow-eyed penguin heaven, counting nearly 40 birds between them. Many of their birds were taking their time, with one group of hanging about together for several hours before they finally took to the water en masse.
Back in Mathiesson Bay the pickings were a little leaner with just five birds, one per person, but that was not surprising really given how much of the harbour was ringed with unpassable bluffs, and that enthusiastic sealions were making access difficult on the one small beach.
There are plenty of bonuses apart from yellow-eyed penguins – the haunting calls of light-mantled sooty albatrosses serenaded us this morning, and we’ve see the first Anisotome flowers of the season opening on the bluffs. Photo: Alison Ballance
So what did the team make of their first morning’s work? Despite the light but persistently wetting rain for about half of the time, the chill of sitting in one place for four hours, and some slight queasiness from using binoculars in a rocking dinghy the verdict was unanimously great. Sharon declared it the best wildlife experience of her life (until she remembered just how much she loves New Zealand dotterels!). The mysterious whales sighted on the way back round to Sandy Bay in seas that can only be described as glassy added to the day’s quota of enjoyment – we’ll be pulling the whale chart out soon to try and identify the slow square-nosed whales with the tiny dorsal fins, but before then there’s another island to recce and mark with strategic reflector tape, so that our next landing in the dark isn’t quite such a mission into the unknown!
Posted on November 16th, 2012 No comments
We arrived in the Auckland islands today! The forecast was looking promising on Monday so we set sail from Bluff at 9 pm, and had a smooth sailing, arriving at Enderby Island just on dawn, after an uneventful 31 hours. O joy and thanks to the weather gods for such a pleasant passage!
After an early (and much needed!) breakfast we began shuttling supplies for Dave Houston and Leith Thompson ashore at Sandy Bay, as well as extra supplies ready for the sealion team who arrive next month for their summer of work.
Dave H. and Ranger Leith are staying on Enderby Island, and we’ll pick them up at the end of the trip. Their job involves putting up remote cameras at several key penguin landing sites, to automatically count all the penguins coming and going from the sea. The pair will then head into the bush to look for nests – when they find a nest they will put a small paint mark on the back of the bird, which they’ll then be able to see on the cameras. The proportion of marked (painted) to unmarked birds they see will help Jo work out how the number of birds we count compares to how many nests we can expect.
It was too late to carry out any morning penguin counts, so while Dave and Leith began their work the rest of us set out around Enderby for a recce and much-needed leg-stretch. It drizzled in a very classic subantarctic manner for maybe an hour – although it wasn’t windy – and then to our amazement the rain stopped, and the sun came out. We saw about 15 yellow-eyed penguins on our way round, young birds loafing around together and enjoying the warmth, as well as lots of sealions, an elephant seal, skuas, dotterels, pippits, and even a couple of snipe and Auckland Island teal.
Jo, Dave A. and Megan are out in the dinghy at the moment, working our penguin counting sites on Rose and Ewing islands. Then the plan is for an early night, as at 2 am Steve the skipper will up-anchor and head out north around the exposed coast of Enderby Island to get us to North Harbour by 4 am. Then we’ll be dropped off at our counting sites by torchlight, and settle in for our first penguin count. Here’s hoping the glassy calm seas we have at the moment will continue!
Posted on November 14th, 2012 No comments
I have a confession to make about this blog – I’ve prepared it in advance! And that’s because as you read this we are all at sea, somewhere south of Stewart Island but not yet at Enderby Island, which is our first stop. I can be much more precise about my own location – I’ll be in my bunk, keeping company with my sick jar, seasick tablets and an iPod. So apologies for not sending you a blog from the cockpit, detailing the state of the sea and raving about the albatrosses and mollymawks soaring alongside. But I can at least sleep easily, knowing that we are in safe hands on a yacht that has been well-tested in some of the windiest, roughest and most remote seas on the planet.
Evohe is 25-metres long, and made of steel. She’s been to the Antarctic and through the North-west Passage, and is a frequent visitor to the subantarctic islands. Evohe is owned and skippered by Steve Kafka, who has had her since 1984. His right hand man and The Mate on this trip is Murray Watson. Murray lives in Dunedin when he’s not at sea, and he’s been with Steve and Evohe for more than six years.
Hiromi Fujiwara hails from Japan but now calls Oamaru home. She’s been on Evohe for much of the past 2-3 years, but while she was a landlubber she walked the length of Japan. Tori Muir has been The Mate on Spirit of New Zealand – she has great subantarctic credentials as Steve first met her a few years ago, in Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island, on a small yacht with her boyfriend.
As we make our passage down to the Auckland islands our intrepid crew will be taking turns on watch. Once at the islands they’ll be moving us between yellow-eyed penguin watching locations, ferrying us ashore, and keeping us well fed. And I’m certainly looking forward to that first meal once we’re in the lee of the islands!
Posted on November 13th, 2012 No comments
Wahoo – the weather forecast is looking more promising that it has for quite a while, we’ve finally all met one another, and we’re off!
We’re a varied bunch, that’s all I can say. We range from a retired engineer to a mid-20s woman who works for Ravensdown and spends her days talking to farmers. And that’s just the penguin team – the yacht crew is an equally eclectic group of folk (more on them tomorrow). But what unites us all is a shared passion for the subantarctic and its wildlife, especially yellow-eyed penguins. Some of us are subantarctic newbies, while others of us find ourselves returning again and again.
The team in the quarantine office in Invercargill ready to set sail: (back row from left to right) Marcy, Sharon, Leith, Jo, Rachel, Dave H., Dave A., Megan; (front row from left to right) Alison, Katie, Alistair, Alan
Expedition leader is Jo Hiscock from the Department of Conservation in Invercargill. She’s been the one sweating all the details for the last few months – letting everyone know what they need to bring, deciding just how much food to put in the emergency buckets that go ashore with each party on the off-chance they can’t get back on the yacht, working out the survey methods, and worrying about the weather forecast.
Leith Thompson is a ranger with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in Dunedin. He and Jo are veterans of the 2009 expedition which laid the groundwork for this trip. He’ll be dropped off, along with the Department of Conservation’s Dave Houston, to conduct an intensive nest survey on Enderby Island. That will involve lots of time on hands and knees under the scrub, looking for nests, and in the case of Leith, keeping a constant eye out for sealions (he had some memorable encounters on his previous trip!).
Dave Agnew from Dunedin and Megan Willans from Te Anau make up the remainder of the DoC team – they are both wildlife experts, with lots of experience working on remote islands.
What makes this trip unique is that it is not just made up of wildlife professionals. Working alongside them will be six volunteers, who have each paid to come along on this ‘trip of a lifetime’. Alan Magee is a retired Invercargill engineer, who has spent time in Antarctica, and has a strong interest in history – he’s keen to visit some of the historic sites that relate to shipwrecks and Second World War coast-watching.
Katie Underwood works as a real estate agent in Wellington but fills every spare hour with conservation volunteering – she is an eel feeder, kiwi counter and night guide at the Zealandia sanctuary, and following a stint weeding on Raoul Island she’s looking forward to adding to her growing list of islands.
Formerly from the UK but now living in Australia, Rachel Downey is an Antarctic biologist more used to working on creatures such as sponges. After her time on the ice I’m betting she’ll find the subantarctic weather positively mild!
I’m also betting that Sharon Kast won’t have any problems living on the yacht and coping with the trip down – she’s already got more than 10,000 sea miles under her belt, having sailed from her native USA to New Zealand. New Zealand dotterels are her passion, but she’s already feeling a strong affinity for yellow-eyed penguin, reporting that when she has all her thermal layers on she waddles a bit like one!
Alistair Robinson is a weekend yacht racer in Sydney but he reports that being a keen sailor doesn’t mean he has good sea legs. By day he is a funds manager, and the rest of the time he’s involved in organisations such as the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. He’s been ‘in training’ at the Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin to get his fitness up.
Marcy Taylor was brought up on a farm, and spends most of her day talking to farmers on the phone. It’ll be interesting to see if hoiho supplant kakapo as her favourite bird by the time this trip is over!
The trip down should take us about 48 hours, and for much of that time most of us will be in our bunks keeping to ourselves. But one thing is certain – once we get to the islands and in the confined living conditions of the yacht we’ll very soon be much more closely acquainted with one another!
Posted on November 12th, 2012 No comments
Eleven days in the subantarctic counting yellow-eyed penguins – up to four of those days will be spent on a 25-metre yacht at sea, getting there and back. So the big question is – what to pack? And how do curious sealions come into it?
Factors to consider:
- the weather (cool, wet and windy)
- shore landings (scrambling in and out of a small inflatable onto slippery rocks with waves of unknown size) the terrain (mud and thick vegetation) camping ashore on some nights (sleeping bag and sleeping mat needed) up to four hours each morning sitting and watching birds on the shore (sitting still means you get cold fast) days at sea (how seasick will you be?) space on the yacht (not much!)
The pile of gear on the floor of the spare bedroom is growing alarmingly, and I won’t bore you with the full gory details. Here, however, are a few of the key things:
Waterproof boots, a pile of merino thermals for lots of layering, chemical hand-warmers and a Thermos flask (to provide warmth on counting mornings), an empty peanut butter jar (the nautical equivalent of an airline sick bag), peppermints for sucking on whilst lying in bed feeling under the weather, a walking pole for waving assertively and maintaining a small degree of personal space between self and any curious sealion, leather gloves for holding Gibson’s wandering albatrosses while Jo puts leg bands on, good old yellow PVC over-trousers (as afore-mentioned albatrosses are likely to regurgitate their fishy dinner all over you), and binoculars for watching the yellow-eyed penguins waddle up and down the beach.
Speaking of waddling, volunteer Sharon reports that she has been packed for days (if not weeks – clearly better organised than me!) and she has the following to say about her subantarctic look: ‘I waddle like a penguin in all my layers, I was going to say duck, but penguin seemed more appropriate.’
On Monday afternoon we will all have to unpack our carefully packed gear at the the Department of Conservation quarantine store in Invercargill to prove who has the cleanest socks and shoes. Hopefully we will be declared seed- and mud-free – got to keep those lovely subantarctic islands free of introduced nasties, eh!