September 17, 2017 at 10:32 pm
As planned we went out late last night to deploy GPS dive loggers on female tawaki. And as forecasted it started pouring down about two hours before we left our research base in Neils Beach. Despite getting wet to the bone, we managed to fit two devices to penguins. Now let’s hope the tape we use to attach the devices holds. Applying it in such wet conditions is always a bit iffy. But I consider this a good start.
Because we returned around 2am we took it easy this morning.
Tonight, high tide is going to be around 9pm. With the current swell that hits the coast this means that we can’t get in or out of the penguin breeding areas between 6pm and midnight. So no logger deployments tonight. This is why we hoped to find any volunteering penguins in the afternoon.
By lunchtime, the weather had cleared up once again – welcome to the West Coast, or indeed, New Zealand. We prepared three more logger packs and headed out to Jackson Head. But, alas, no females anywhere in sight. So no loggers out today.
But on our search for females, we made a worrying discovery. Three of our 30 monitored nests have failed already. In a bad year, that can happen. But firstly all the environmental signals point to this being a good year for the penguins, and secondly the nests were all empty. No trace of eggs or chicks. 50 metres below the ‘apartment building’ we found a penguin egg with obvious bite marks. So either, the egg was scavenged by a possum after it had rolled out of the nest. Or we may have a stoat problem again.
We decided to keep a close eye on what is happening at Jackson Head. So we have abandoned our plan to go to Milford Sound tomorrow and will instead check all breeding area for signs of another stoat invasion.
September 16, 2017 at 11:27 pm
We arrived at Neils Beach, the small settlement about 5 km from Jackson Head late yesterday after witnessing substantial flooding along the Jackson Bay Road. The weather over here was really bad the past few days. I think our 24 hours delay for our departure was a good call.
Indeed it was, as today the West Coast enjoys beautiful blue skies and sunshine. Perfect conditions to go out and get cracking with our work.
Just after lunch we made our way out to the penguin breeding areas with the intention to deploy a few more nest cameras and to fit the first GPS dive loggers on chick feeding female tawaki. As could be expected, we found mainly male penguins guarding their small chicks or incubating eggs that should hatch very soon. On a couple of nests we found pairs, where the females had returned early to feed their young. Access to these nests was difficult, so that we did not bother these birds to stick devices on the females. Later afternoon, early evening seens most of the females return to feed their chicks, so that that time of the day is much better for what we want to do.
Unfortunately, the tide was not on our side. High tide was at 8pm. This combined with the fact that there was a considerable swell hitting Jackson Head meant that we could not get in or out of the penguin breeding areas between 5pm and 11pm.
So it will be another nightshift for us. We’ll head out around 10.30pm tonight. Hopefully we will manage to bring out three devices. Problem is, that the weather forecast predicts rain for tonight. Hard to imagine when you look at the blue skies that stretch over the West Coast at the moment.
Then again, this is the West Coast. So we better brace ourselves for a wet evening.
September 4, 2017 at 2:00 pm
Boy, it was a long, cold winter and an even longer wait until – finally! – field work is again upon us. Tawaki have completed their winter migration and are back in their breeding colonies. In fact, breeding is well under way with hatching set to get into full swin in the next week or two. We know this, because we have just completed a first nest search trip to Jackson Head.
We marked close to 30 nest for monitoring over the next 12 weeks to determine the fate of eggs and chicks, record breeding success and track adult penguins on their foraging trips to find food for their offspring. The good news is that, so far, there were no obvious signs of stoat predation.
As for the timing of the penguins… they seem to run like clockwork this year. We mainly found females incubating eggs, which means the birds have entered the final stage of the egg incubation phase. After laying both adults hang around the eggs for a while before the females leave on 1-2 week long foraging trips. After that it’s the males turn to go on a longer trip and return when chick hatch. From what we saw, this is going to happen in the next week or two.
It was particularly good to see, that the ‘apartment building’ is once again fully occupied by tawaki. Last year, the area was completely devoid of nests. Because of stoats stealing eggs and chicks prior to our arrival as we later learned from camera trap footage. Maybe the Jackson Head tawaki will have a bit of an advantage this season though, as the Department of Conservation this year has installed two traplines along the peninsula in an effort to control stoat numbers. We will see if that helps!
It was good to be back out in the field after a long winter of reports, analyses, grant applications and other desktop work that is not good for your back (and belly circumference). Nothing beats being out in the bush with the penguins on a warm, sunny, early spring day. Let’s hope we have many dry days like this one in the next weeks. We will move into our research domiciles at Neils Beach and Milford Sound in a couple of weeks when field work will start in earnest!
February 27, 2017 at 3:13 pm
The tawaki moult is in full swing. All of the penguins we fitted with satellite tags have returned to the mainland to grow a brand new coat of feathers. The question we had was whether they would do this in the comfort of their own home (aka ‘nest’). After we found Jackson Head almost devoid of any penguins in February last year, we started to doubt that the birds return to their colonies to moult as it is commonly believed.
So last weekend, we headed over to Milford Sound to catch up with our friends at Southern Discoveries, hitched a ride to Harrison Cove and, together with Andrea Faris, dived into the bush to have a look for penguins. It did not take long to find ample signs of moult – feather trails leading to piles of the fluffy stuff. All clear indications that Harrison Cove is indeed a popular hang out for a change of feathers.
Overall we encountered 20 penguins, some holed up with (presumably) their mates in their nesting caves looking rather bedraggled, others in the final stages of shedding the old feathers, but many apparently through the moult entirely and more or less ready to go on yet another long migration.
For us this means that we can plan to come back this time next year to deploy trackers on these birds to examine where they travel to get in shape for another tough breeding season.
December 3, 2016 at 4:08 pm
So much for ‘once chicks fledge they will not touch try land again for almost a year’. This tawaki chick from Rollers Beach, Stewart Island, obviously had different plans. After its first splash in the big blue, it found itself a nice little rock not far from the cave it hatched in. It then spent the better half of a day perched there preening extensively and enjoying the life in fresh air (as opposed to the ammonia contaminated, dank gas not really qualified to be called ‘air’ inside said cave).
Ultimately, however, high tide forced the young one to get wet again… and start the adventure of its first year at sea.
December 1, 2016 at 4:22 pm
The 2016 tawaki breeding season is coming to a close. Along the north-east coast of Stewart Island, where tawaki tend to occupy every nook and cranny, few birds are still patrolling along the coastlines. Soon all of them will head off to fatten up for the annual moult in February. Where they go is still a mystery… but not for much longer. We’re on it.
November 19, 2016 at 4:27 pm
The Tawaki Project field season 2016 is under wraps. At least the part where we crawl through the bush trying to find tawaki nests and recover data loggers from penguin volunteers. That doesn’t mean that there is no fresh data incoming. Because the satellite tags we deployed on tawaki to examine their at-sea movements before the moult will keep on transmitting data until the birds shed their feathers in February.
Around Gorge River we have probably the highest concentration of tawaki in New Zealand. The birds really seem to like the long stretches of bouldery beaches and the gently sloping forest beyond them. The tangle of bushlawyer, supplejack and kiekie makes for good breeding habitat. Robin Long has conducted several searches in the region over the last few years and has found nest numbers in the order of several hundreds.
And we encountered juvenile tawaki! With short crests, and grey beards they tend to sit around on the beaches or along the penguin highways up into the forest, looking quite unsure as to what they are supposed to do. This is a very good sign for the species, because after the disastrous breeding outcome at Jackson Head due to El Niño last year, one could have expected that none of last year’s chicks made it through the winter migration.
Over the course of the next weeks we will track the progress of the birds we fitted with satellite tags. It’s nice not to have to wait until we recover the devices to get to the data. Hopefully all of them will return to Gorge River to moult so that we can get the tags back. Otherwise the devices will fall off wherever the penguins decide to gwor some new feathers.
November 16, 2016 at 4:08 pm
This Sunday, we went out to Jackson Head once more to have a look whether the setting of several stoat traps in the last active breeding area Popi’s Plaza made a difference for the surivival of the last few remaining tawaki chicks.
When we left in mid-October there were three chicks large enough to be running around freely but small enough to be taken by stoats. At that stage, two stoats had been trapped in this particular breeding area. The traps remained active for a few weeks after we left under the care of DOC Haast.
The good news is that, yes, all three chicks in Popi’s Plaza are alive and well. They all hang out together under the watchful eye of two adult males. So it seems the trapping did the trick. The problem is, however, that trapping Jackson Head is a logistical nightmare and not really a viable solution for such inaccessible habitat. So we need alternatives…
October 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm
After an overnight stint in Harrison Cove the Milford Sound team we managed to deploy the last three loggers before the first light on females departing the breeding area; one of which was a transponder tagged bird that carried a GPS dive logger last year. So the day’s chores were completed before breakfast! As the day was young we decided that this was an opportune moment to check whether there are any tawaki breeding in Sinbad Gully, just across the fjord from Harrison Cove.
Dan and Sam from Southern Discoveries dropped us off at the mouth of Sinbad River sometime after 10am which left us about 1.5 hours to have a look for tawaki in an area that has thus far has not been recognized as a breeding location. However, one the GPS tagged birds last year had spent 3 days over here, so we felt it was worth a look. There were no signs of tawaki in the shore (i.e. poo) or any other indications that the birds may hike up the hill to breed. But since we were here, we scrambled upwards through the thick forest.
Tawaki nests are never easy to find. But lots of windfalls and fern leafs littering the forest floor made it virtually impossible to look for the usual cues for tawaki presence. However, seemingly out of nowhere we came across a rock that had scratch marks from tawaki claws. And then finally, the pipping of a tawaki chick gave away the first nest.
Overall we found 9 nests, two of which had failed recently. However, within the limited time we had, it is obvious that there must be quite a few more tawaki nests in Sinbad Gully. It would take a few days of proper searching to get a better idea how many nests the Sinbad colony comprises of. But it’s likely going to be a significant two-digit number.
September 17, 2016 at 8:25 pm
We carried out nest searches and showed a camera team from NHNZ round Jackson Head. Nest numbers appear way down this year with lots of empty nests being guarded by one or two adults. It seems that many birds decided to give this season a miss and just hang out in the breeding area. Could also be that some birds died over the winter migration and left single mates that are now waiting for a partner that will never return. El Niño took a significant hit on the Jackson Head tawaki’s breeding success last year and probably also affected their foraging success during the winter. So it will be interesting to see what the breeders do this season while at sea.