Posted on March 11th, 2013 No comments
Tragically, many dead yellow-eyed penguin adults were found on Otago Peninsula beaches and in breeding areas from mid January to the peak in early February 2013. By 8 February, 25 adult yellow-eyed penguins had been found dead. By 15 February the total had risen to 56, all of which were sent to Massey University for examination.
Yellow-eyed penguins in the Catlins and North Otago have not been affected, nor other sea birds and marine mammals.
Early suspicions that heat stress was the cause of death were discounted, and by 4 February a bio-toxin of some kind was suspected. As of 7 March, toxicology results are so far inconclusive, but more tests are being carried out. Although some other agent such as a virus or bacteria may be involved, the Massey vets still think it is some kind of marine bio-toxin.
Trust staff and volunteers checked the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust Reserves of Okia and Otapahi during the weekend of 16 and 17 February. To the Trust’s relief, no further dead yellow-eyed penguins were found.
Checks, however, continued over the following weeks so that any chicks found could be weighed and, if underweight, taken to the hospital at Penguin Place for feeding to reach a reasonable fledging weight. While many chicks have fledged and gone to sea, some are still in the vicinity of their nest sites and may be losing weight, especially if one or both parents have died.
Since the peak of the adult penguin mortality, only two freshly dead adults have been found – on 19 February and 3 March – bringing the total of dead adults to between 60 and 65. Further beach and breeding area monitoring is ongoing.
Posted on March 11th, 2013 No comments
A spate of adult yellow-eyed penguin deaths occurred on Otago Peninsula during late-January to mid-February. The explanation for this is unknown. Many chicks were also affected. About a dozen were found starving or losing weight because one or both of their parents had died.
Penguin Place, a private conservation reserve on the peninsula, gives rehabilitation care to penguins that are sick, starving or wounded.
Penguins are normally transported to Penguin Place in cat cages but, in this case, there weren’t enough cages for the twelve chicks. Fortunately, the Otago SPCA, based in the Dunedin suburb of Opoho, came to the rescue with five cat cages, and the chicks were safely taken from the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust reserves to their temporary home.
Posted on February 25th, 2013 No comments
View this article from the Otago Daily Times: http://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/247056/penguin-postmortems-could-strain-budgets
The cost of discovering what killed nearly 60 yellow-eyed penguins on Otago Peninsula could put pressure on tight conservation budgets.
The threat to the colony appears to have eased in the past week. Only one dead penguin was discovered in that time by Department of Conservation, Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, private landowners and volunteers who are regularly monitoring nesting sites.
Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust general manager Sue Murray said as testing so far had failed to pinpoint the cause. More extensive testing would probably be needed.
”To get to the bottom of this, we’re going to need technical expertise and we have to buy in these services at huge cost.”
It was vital to find the cause of the deaths so if it happened again the trust understood how to manage or mitigate the problem, to save penguins’ lives, she said.
”The financial strain is huge.”
So far the testing had been funded by Doc, the Ministry for Primary Industries and Massey University.
The trust was helping out in other ways, as it did not have the capital reserves to inject into the problem, Ms Murray said.
”We’d be looking for an injection of external funding in a crisis situation.”
Doc biodiversity programme manager Dave Agnew said, as it was an unplanned event, funding for the laboratory testing was coming out of existing budgets.
The costs of testing so far had not been too expensive, as only three penguins had been tested, but further testing would come at a cost, as more toxins or agents would need to investigated. Doc was taking its lead from Massey University staff, who were advising the department on what testing to do.
It was hoped when all the results came in, a paper could be written bringing together all aspects of the ”mass deaths” so those involved in caring for the penguins could learn from the situation.
Doc had a contract with Massey to undertake postmortems on native species, so those done on the penguins had not resulted in additional costs.
Investigations to determine the cause of deformities in penguin chicks on the peninsula a few years ago cost about $10,000, Mr Agnew said.
Posted on February 13th, 2013 No comments
View this article from the Otago Daily Times: http://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/245565/job-full-time
Looking after the chicks orphaned by the mysterious deaths of adult yellow-eyed penguins on Otago Peninsula has become a full-time job.
The chicks, who have lost one or both parents, are transported to the rehabilitation centre at Penguin Place, where they are fed and looked after until they are at the optimum weight to be released back into the wild. Penguin Place resident scientist Dr Hiltrun Ratz said 30 yellow-eyed penguin chicks, plus three adults and three juveniles, were being looked after.
The recent deaths of more than 40 adult penguins on the peninsula meant many chicks on the brink of fledging needed help.
”The season had gone really well until now. It will take those colonies years to recover,” Dr Ratz said.
”They’re very lucky to have been found by us or Doc [the Department of Conservation]. We make them fat again and then let them go.”
The chance of rehabilitation was much better when the chicks were rescued while still in good condition.
As Penguin Place was looking after two snares penguins and two Fiordland crested penguins, as well as the yellow-eyeds, it was taking two hours twice a day to feed them all, Dr Ratz said.
There was also the cleaning and the two to three hours it took to cut up the 1kg of fish each bird ate a day.
Luckily, Bluff fishing company Urwin and Co Ltd had donated 2.5 tonnes of smooth dory, which had eased the burden of feeding the chicks, she said.
Posted on February 12th, 2013 No comments
View this article from the Otago Daily Times: http://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/245439/penguin-deaths-devastating
The bodies of more than 40 endangered yellow-eyed penguins have been found on Otago Peninsula, raising concerns of a repeat of a ”mass mortality” event which wiped out 60% of peninsula breeding adults in 1990.
Adult penguins have been found dead at 13 of the 15 breeding sites on the peninsula during nest checks in the past three weeks.
It is not known what caused their deaths but it was suspected a marine biotoxin eaten by the penguins was the most likely cause.
Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust chairwoman Lala Frazer said it was ”absolutely devastating” and had all the hallmarks of the 1990 event, when 150 breeding adults were found dead, possibly also because of a biotoxin, but it was not known for sure.
”We’re really worried as the population has only just recovered now to being back to a viable population from that episode.”
The trust was also ”afraid it is not over yet” and could have an even greater impact on the population. The loss of adult breeding birds reduced chick numbers. Department of Conservation ranger Mel Young described the deaths as ”tragic” as the breeding season had seemed to be one of the best seasons she had seen. There were 181 nests found on Otago Peninsula this season.
Most of the dead penguins, including several juveniles and chicks, had been found near their nests or on pathways to the beach. More were believed to have died at sea or on land but whose bodies had not been found.
”This is quite hard. The adults were in excellent condition.”
About 42 bodies recovered from sites from Blackhead to Aramoana during routine end-of-season chick monitoring had been sent to Massey University for postmortems but results had been inconclusive.
Further testing of the stomach contents of the birds was being undertaken by the university’s Wildbase in association with the Cawthron Institute.
It did not appear any other Otago breeding sites had been affected.
The deaths of the adults was doubly tragic as it meant many of this season’s chicks had been left without parents to feed them, Ms Young said.
It meant chicks were losing up to 1.5kg in weight and many had been transferred to the penguin hospital at Penguin Place so they could be fed until they were at the optimum weight for releasing.
Contingency plans were being developed by the Department of Conservation and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and would be implemented as soon as the test results became available, she said.
In the meantime, Doc and trust staff and volunteers will continue to monitor breeding sites. They urged anyone who saw distressed or dead penguins to contact Doc.
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 December 14th, 2012 No comments
Anyone who visits Otago Peninsula’s Allans Beach hopes to see a yellow-eyed penguin or a sea lion. Swiss backpackers Debbie Flueck and Alexandra Bangerter saw both – and what an encounter!
It was Saturday 8 December 2012. Debbie and Alexandra were thrilled to see a juvenile yellow-eyed penguin walking up the beach and into the dunes. But what happened next was most unexpected. The penguin suddenly, and rather rapidly for a penguin, popped out of the dunes, with a young male New Zealand sea lion in pursuit! Surprisingly the penguin seemed to think that offence is the best defence and turned around several times to face the sea lion, while moving steadily but not quickly towards the water. The sea lion was equally determined to ‘round it up’. A game of cat and mouse (sea lion and penguin?) ensued. The young sea lion had no idea what to do with his unexpected visitor, but seemed intent on playing with it. Finally, after several minutes of confrontation, escape, confrontation, the penguin made it back to the water. One minute the sea lion had an unwilling playmate; the next minute the penguin was gone.
An excited Alexandra and Debbie, who took photos of the incident, visited the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust to tell their tale. The Trust identified the yellow-eyed penguin as a juvenile because of its pale feather colouring, especially around the head, and its lack of the striking yellow band seen in adults. The male sea lion was two to three years old.
Similar confrontations to that witnessed by Debbie and Alexandra have been observed by researchers on subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands where both species co-exist.
Allans Beach, on the ocean side of the peninsula, plays host to both New Zealand sea lions and yellow-eyed penguins from time to time, although the latter don’t breed there. New Zealand sea lions are re-establishing a breeding population on Otago Peninsula for the first time in several centuries. Perhaps encounters of this kind will be seen more often around the peninsula’s coast.
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.