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.
September 13, 2015 at 1:39 pm
Season 2 of the Tawaki Project is finally underway. After purchasing field supplies in Dunedin last night, we headed over to Milford Sound last night.
First thing this morning we headed down to the tourist wharf to meet up with Andrea Faris of Southern Discoveries. Those guys really go out of their way to help us pull off our field work in Milford Sound. They will help us with all the logistics involved in Milford Sound. So we should not have problems getting to Harrison Cove whenever we need.
Southern Discoveries operate the underwater observatory in Harrison Cove which not only allows people to take a look at what’s going on under the surface of Milford Sound. It will also serve as our research base for the first two weeks in October.
So everything looks really good except for the fact that we had no idea how many tawaki are actually breeding in Harrison Cove. And of course, this being Fiordland, there was a bit of a question mark behind the fact whether we could actually do our tracking work in the rugged and densely overgrown terrain.
A wee recce trip was in order before we arrive in full force in October. We met Andrea just before 9am and hopped on board of one of the Southern Discoveries vessels and headed over to Harrison cove, a 15 minutes ride from the wharf.
The observatory is pretty cool. It’s a pretty large floating structure that not only features the submarine viewing facilities but also sports a sea kayaking shed with an automatic launch. Andrea pointed out that we could always use sea kayaks to go independently over to the penguin colony.
“Of course, we can always give you a ride in one of our boats”, Andrea said.
Did I mention that Southern Discoveries a bloody marvelous? So if you ever go to visit Milford Sound and you wonder which company to go on a cruise with…
Hotte and I jumped into an aluminum dinghy and Andrea shuttled us over to the far end of the cove where we hopped onto the shingly beach. While we checked our radio communication with Andrea the first tawaki dropped by to say hello to us. The bird emerged from the crystal clear water and preened on the rocks not far from where we stood. Certainly a good start to our recce.
We geared up and dived head first into the dense bush. Lichens dangling from low branches, mosses growing on windfall and lots of green surrounded us. And before long we heard tawaki calling from somewhere to the right of us. Hotte and I fanned out (as much as a two person team can fan out) following obvious penguin tracks.
Not more than 50 metres in we came across the first nest. Sheltered underneath a fallen tree trunk a male tawaki the bird was incubating two eggs. It did not stir when I peeked into its nest, although I’m sure he wasn’t too comfortable with my presence either. I retreated quickly.
Getting a GPS position of the nest proved to be a lot harder than I would have imagined. Because of the steep fiord walls rising steeply to 1000 metres on either side of the fiord, the GPS did not have that much sky to look for satellites. That might also be a problem for our GPS loggers. Good thing though, once latched on to some sats the accuracy was in the 10m range which is not at all bad considering the dense vegetation.
Over the course of the next 1½ hours Hotte and I found 10 nest and installed four time lapse cameras to record nest attendance patterns. Half of the nests had birds still incubating eggs, the others sitting on very small chicks. Hatching is underway. Which is a bit of a worry.
The Fiordland tawaki are believed to lay eggs about a week or two later than the birds from the West Coast. That might mean that we have to hurry up once we’re Jackson Head, at least if we want to get data from birds during the chick guard stage.
We made our way back to the shore. There are likely more nests in the Harrison Cove bush which we’ll find once I’m back with Ursula and the fabulous Dave Houston in October. Hotte will hold the fort with Klemens Pütz taking over the scientific lead at Jackson Head then. So we will work simultaneously at two sites. A first for all of us, I believe.
Hotte and I will be heading from Milford Sound to Neils Beach today – an epic journey indeed. Tomorrow I’ll head back to Queenstown to pick up Ursula from the airport as well as albatross expert Junishi Sugishita who will help us out in the first few days before Klemens arrives next Friday.
Busy times ahead of us.
November 17, 2014 at 7:38 pm
Our last day. As per usual, the film crew headed off to Jackson Head in the middle of the night. I took it easy and left town around 9am.
I first paid a visit to Geoff Robson of Greenstone Helicopters at Neil’s Beach. Geoff is a great supporter of our project both in terms of sharing his expertise on the region and funding much of our field work. We had a pretty good chat that gives me quite a bit to think about.
He reckons that Gorge River, some 50 km South of Jackson Head, might be a better site for our work. Less treacherous terrain and a DOC hut situated close to the tawaki breeding sites. On top of that there is the Long family living at Gorge River and they not only know tawaki inside out (they have been living with the birds as neighbours for decades now), the whole family has been involved with tawaki monitoring in the past. Robin Long just completed a comprehensive survey of the coast line around Gorge River and produced one of the most thorough survey reports on tawaki I managed to get my hand on. It would surely be awesome to get Robin and her family involved in our project somehow.
After half an hour I continued on to Jackson Head and walked out to our study site one final time this breeding season. My main task today was to pick-up all our trail cams, remove the tent hide and help the film crew to carry out all of their gear.
Today was not only our last day out here. It was also the last day for one of the chicks that we have been filming for nearly three months now to fledge. Last night, Ida-san mentioned that if it doesn’t happen today, Hongo-san and Sam would have to stay another few days until they finally could get the footage to finish the story.
When I approached the base I noticed Sam nervously jumping up and down on the rocks looking out towards the far side of the beach. Either he was trying to dodge a horde of sandflies or something happened out if sight.
Five minutes later I was at his side. He smiled from ear to ear.
Below us, Hongo-san was balancing his camera tripod precariously on a rock while peering through the view finder. Haruki-san sat in the grass above us also filming.
“Thomas! It happened! Chick left today! And we got it all the way!”
What a finish! The penguins left it literally to the last minute. Of course it was unclear whether the chick they were filming was actually the one from the balcony nest which received most of the film crew’s attention, but, hey, artistic liberty!
“Ida-san is upstairs”, Sam said. “He wants to film with much-dee-copta.”
Multicopter-flying time. I looked up, overcast but not much wind. That should work.
Sam and I headed up to the apartment block via the creek route so as to not disturb the filming on the beach. Up there, Ida-san was unpacking the drone and checking all functions.
First he wanted to get aerial footage of the apartment block. Which meant he had to fly the multicopter through the forest. I was amazed how accurately he managed to do that.
Only the vegetation closer to the cave made it difficult. In the end, Ida-san gave up, grabbed the device and held it high up over his head while walking around the rocks, guiding the camera mounted in its gimbal from cave to cave. Pretty cool make-shift steadicam.
After half an hour, Ida-san took the drone down to the rocks protruding from the vegetation above the base. With one hand he held the device, with the other he operated the remote control. The rotors started to whizz, Ida-san let go, and the drone rose slowly into the air.
The filming of the aerial footage was quite cool, actually. Because Ida-san let the multicopter fly at considerable speed along the coast until it was nothing but a dot on the horizon. Pretty good range, I thought. But one tiny glitch and the thing is a goner. No wonder Ida-san brought two units with him.
I let the crew finish up their filming and did one last camera run. Camera after camera ended up in my backpack, some of them artistically modified by the penguins using guano as principal working material. This is going to be a fun scrubbing session once I’m back in Dunedin.
The further up the hill I got, the fewer penguins there seemed to be. One last check of the surroundings of nest JH06 made me accept the inevitable – we would not get our logger back. The devices probably already rests at the bottom of the ocean as I write this. The penguin is certainly going to be a lot happier about this than I am.
I returned to the apartment block at 4pm. All the gear, cables, tripods, tend hides, the director’s tent, tarpaulins and plastic boxes were gone. Only the worn out path leading from the rope to the director’s tent and up to the platform in front of the apartment block bore witness to the hard work the film crew had done here in the past weeks. Now all of them were searching the ground for bits of plastic and trash.
“All good?” I asked Ida-san.
“Yes. All good. We can go to Dunedin” he replied.
The filming as well as the Tawaki Project’s first season are officially a wrap!