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!
November 15, 2014 at 8:08 pm
I know I keep repeating myself, but I hate when the weather forecast is right. For today they forecasted torrential rainfall. And in the afternoon we got it. Big time.
I arrived at Jackson Head around lunchtime and met Sam at our base on the rocks just beyond the penguin highway up to the Apartment Block. He was excited about something and he told me what it was.
The first chick had fledged at 10.30am this morning; and Sam was the only one to witness it. But not only that, what he witnessed was bloody interesting too. Because he saw the chick leave the shore together with a pair of adults, a male and a female. Moreover the male and the female seemed to be encouraging the chick to take the dip.
“Looked like mother and father”, Sam said as he got out his little Canon camera. He had taken photos as well as videos of the scene. And when I saw what he had recorded I could not deny the fact that he might as well be right.
The male would sometime peck the chick, but in a rather gentle, non-aggressive way like haven’t seen it before. And all the time the three birds stayed together. Then the chick took a false step and toppled of the rock. The female craned her neck looking down to the chick as if she was concerned like I have seen it before in Snares penguins when an egg or chick rolled out of the nest bowl. The chick eventually got back onto the rock and was washed off by a wave. It swam at the surface towards the horizon. The male and female jumped in after it and eventually joined the chick maybe fifty metres from the shore. According to Sam, they then swam out together, always at the surface until they disappeared far out at sea.
“Do you think they teach chick to forage?” Sam asked me.
“If it was indeed mum and dad, why not?” was my reply. The thought was pretty damn cool.
In penguins parental care generally ends with fledging. The chicks have to take the big dip alone. Except for Gentoo penguins, where it has been observed that the parents join their offspring on the first big outing.
And to be honest, in a way it makes sense for the parents to try everything they can to help their chick get along in the ocean. Like all crested penguins Tawaki only raise one chick per season. So it’s the one shot they have per year. Since crested penguins tend to start breeding at around five or so years, they might be able to produce nine, ten chicks in their lifetime. And not all of them will survive to become breeders. So every push, every tip parents can give their young will improve its chance of survival – and the perpetuation of the parent’s genes in future generations.
We really should have a look at this phenomenon next year.
I headed up to the Apartment block where really nothing was happening. The cave was crammed full of penguins. Six chicks ranging from fluffy downy ones to big ones fully moulted into their fancy blue and white feather suit were in there. On top of that I counted six adult Tawaki. All seemed to be waiting for something to happen.
What I also noticed was that they did not seem to care much about my presence when I peeked into the cave. A few weeks ago penguins would have started to clamber up the rocks to get to the far end of the cave, away from the horrible creature that was shining a light at them. Today they just looked at me not moving. I guess the constant presence of a camera man in the past two months helped them to get used to our presence. In fact, one of the chicks could not contain its curiosity and inched closer to me and my camera.
The film crew packed up just after lunch and headed back to Haast, red-eyed and positively looking like Zombies. The early morning hours of filming certainly take their toll. I on the other hand had slept until seven and was ready to assume my post in the tent hide.
By 4pm a rain had set in that made yesterday’s rainfall indeed look like drizzle. It was like Jackson Head was put under a waterfall. Of course, the bruised and battered tent hide was not rally built for this kind of weather so that after a short while through hundreds of tiny holes in the canvas it started to rain inside the tent. Paired with the fact that it was cold I was in for a very miserable afternoon.
At around 3pm a lonely Tawaki made its way up the path. When she spotted the tent she stopped in her tracks and started to inspect the strange object just next to the route she intended to follow.
After about 10 minutes of looking she suddenly fell asleep, right there and then. With eyes closed she stood in front of my tent occasionally scratching herself behind an ear with her foot, shaking her body sending water drops flying in all directions or flapping her wings briefly.
After an hour she woke up, shook her head, eyed the tent and was on her way.
By now I had to make a decision: weather it out and stay until 10pm or pack up and leave now. Because it was only two hours until high tide. I surrendered to the weather, packed my stuff and left.
It felt like a defeat even though I think it was a sensible thing to do. Several hours in this weather, wet, cold and without anything else to do but sit and wait was a recipe for hypothermia. But of course tonight could be the night that the logger bird finally shows up. Or not.
At the end of the day it was the right decision. Because for what could be the final time, I had dinner with the Japanese film crew at the hotel bar. Two more days and we’re out of here, off to Dunedin.
November 14, 2014 at 11:37 pm
Boy, it’s cold today. I am sitting in my tent hide – this time with a small camping chair and not one but two Vapor repellent doodaddies that magnificently keep the sandflies away. But it is cold.
They have forecasted a change in the weather which will bring rain towards the evening and will develop into heavy rain all day tomorrow. I hope they are wrong about this.
Ida-san has changed his strategy. His team now operates in shifts, with Haruki-san, Ida-san and Sam covering the morning shift from 2am to 11am while Hongo-san and I will keep watch – each at his own spot – from 11am until 11pm.
What Ida-san and his team are hoping to film is the actual process of fledging. Half of the chicks at the apartment block have shed their down and look like fully functional penguins now. Granted, their plumage has a blue-grey hue to it, their crests are little more than a faint line of pale, yellow feathers over their eyes and their bills are black. But they seem to match their parents in size and built. So theoretically they could go.
Unfortunately, they don’t seem to feel the inkling to do so just yet. Which adds to Ida-san’s worries as he needs, to use his own words (translated by Sam), “fledging, otherwise no story”. However, they’ve been quite lucky so far, and I am sure that it will work out for them in the end. Who knows, the chicks might fledge any minute.
So while Hongo-san waits for the chicks of the apartment block to make their move. I sit and wait for the logger bird from JH06. And I am worried too.
Not so much that the birds might not return (or rather continue to elude me); that’s a possibility I have accepted three weeks ago. No, what I am worried about is what happens if I actually see the bird going past my tent. Because sitting in here and waiting is one thing. But getting out quickly to capture the penguin before she has disappeared under a kiekie thicket is a whole different thing. Yesterday, for example when trying to get into the tent I nearly skewered my left thigh on a rotten piece of wood that sticks out of the slope at just the right angle. And getting into the tent is the easy bit.
I actually tried it out earlier. It takes me a whopping 15 seconds to open the zipper of the tent flap, wriggle my way out of the tangle of canvas and strings, avoid the piece of wood (no, I could not break it off, I tried, believe me) and get out onto the penguin path. I probably have to use the stealthy approach of slowly and quietly opening the zipper, carefully exiting the tent and then sneaking after the unsuspecting Tawaki.
Will that work? I honestly don’t know. I guess, no, I hope we will see.
6.30pm: Another six and a half hours gone without anything in particular happening. Three penguins have gone up the hill, none with anything attached to its back.
About an hour ago I spotted two Tawaki a bit downhill from my tent hide climbing onto the trunk of a large tree that arches at a precarious angle from the slope. While it is probably the first tree to fall in the event of an earthquake it is also privileged to be climbed by Tawaki.
Sitting perched on the tree for a while, the two reminded me of my time on the Snares where non-breeding penguins would also scale leaning trees, some of them three or more metres above the ground. Better still, in the 1970s John Warham actually found a Tawaki nest in a tree 10 metres in the air. And here at Jackson Head no less. Maybe we’re looking in the wrong places when we search for Tawaki nests? (As if Stewart Island hadn’t answered this question already…)
Well, another 3 and a half hours to go.
Traffic certainly picked up when it started to get dark in the forest. Had there been just the odd penguins for most of the day, now the counter started ticking up to a grand total of 14 penguins. None of which carried a GPS logger.
Just before 10pm Hongo-san had enough. I had enough as well. And since it started to rain we decided to pack up and leave an hour early (we were supposed to stay until 11pm). By the time I teamed up with Hongo-san just below the Apartment block, the rain reached a strength that “I-don’t-mind-the-rain-but-I-hate-bloody-drizzle” Morgan would have approved of.
By the time we were down on the rocks and started this evening’s boulder hopping exercise, it “rained strings” as they say in Germany. Only thath here they strings lashed at us horizontally.
And to make matters worse, the batteries of my head torch died on me. No problem, I though and got out the spare batteries. These were flat also. Nevermind, I thought, and I rummaged through my bum bag to get the spare head torch out. Of course, Murphy’s Law had to have a go at me, because the batteries in my spare torch were also spent. So in the dying light of two head torches I had to find my way across the rocks (Hongo-san only had AA batteries when I needed AAA. Thanks, Murphy.)
That I made it back to the car and hotel without any broken limbs is a minor miracle.
November 13, 2014 at 11:23 pm
I am back inside an old friend, the stalker’s tent hide we used to recover the last two loggers. Surely, the camouflage tepee is a good omen, a talisman of luck. It is not quite as comfy as I don’t have the chair nor the room for one. I’m sitting on a flat stone looking out of the half opened flap of the tent downhill onto the forest path.
It is almost 3pm so I have spent the last 3 hours in here already. In all that time one Tawaki has come past my hide-out, a shy female inching her way down towards the coast past the tent without a logger on her back.
The sun is out today, but it is quite windy and the sides of the tent shake quite a bit.
And without anything happening outside I’m rather bored. I pour myself another cuppa from my thermos flask and raise the cup.
“Here’s to a successful logger recovery today!”
If I only I could believe that though. I’ve got the feeling that today will turn out to be very, very quiet day. Because when I came out just before lunchtime I hardly saw any penguins. All in all I counted four birds, three of which were youngsters hanging out under a rock together, when in the past weeks there were always 10 to 20 penguins at any time of the day.
When I met Sam at the base on top of the rocks, he told me that it has been super-quiet all day, including the early morning hours. Yesterday he spotted in his own words “soooo many pengins going out” (Sam always calls them “pengins”) but today “maybe two, three”.
It seems all the birds have left yesterday probably falling for the irresistible call of food wafting as a scent down with the wind from somewhere out at sea. Then again, the wind is blowing from the South whereas logger data so far suggest that the birds tend forage to the North.
But who knows, maybe the birds also have heard the weather forecast which predicts pretty rotten weather from tomorrow on so they might all return tonight. It’s certainly a thought that helps me keeping my faith that there is a chance to get the last logger back.
And there’s another ray of light on the horizon. While sitting here in the tent I finally had the time to go through the data of the camera we have operating at JH06. And just as Haruki-san said, on 27 October there she is, logger bird at the nest reunited with husband and child.
The chick returned to the nest almost every night since then if only for half an hour. And on five days there were adult penguins with the chick. The last family gathering occurred two days ago around the time when I was heading back to the car park. So I’ve missed her by a heartbeat! D’oh!
But, and here’s the aforementioned ray of light, she did not return to the nest last night while the male and the chick showed up even this morning. On top of that there is a hungry chick begging what looks like its father for food but he just shakes his head as if to say “Wait till you mother returns.” And I have a hunch that chick and father belong to the logger bird. So she will return soon.
Today, I hope.
Two hours and three penguins going uphill and one going downhill later I am still waiting for the logger lady. At the moment, a rather plump female has made herself comfortable about 5m below my tent hide. She takes short naps, preens or scratches herself behind her ear with her short legs or, from time to time, trumpets a lonely solo. Surely if she were a breeder she’d show more determination to go up the hill. So even though I haven’t seen her backside yet I am more than sure that this is not the bird I am looking for.
An hour ago, however, a female waddled by with the determination of a breeder. She was rather wary of the tent but she nevertheless carried on up the hill. The amazing thing about her was that a large chunk was missing from her left flipper. Right in the centre of the flipper an oval gape extended all the way to the bone. It is an old injury healed and all. I wonder how she sustained it, or to rephrase that, what creature had literally taken a bite out of her. In terms of size, shark et al seem out of the question. This brings back the old placeholder the Barracouta.
But what would a Barracouta do with a penguin? Firstly, I don’t see how a fish of the size of a Barracouta could kill a penguins – so why try? Of course, Barracouta could hunt in groups and it could be a team effort to dispatch a penguin. This, secondly, raises the question why penguins sport mostly single “Barracouta” injuries. Something doesn’t seem to fit with the Barracouta theory…
Well, it’s 8pm and the number of penguins that have gone past my hide out in six hours is meagre. 4 penguins have gone up since 2pm. That’s three more than yesterday, so I shouldn’t complain. Problem is that one of them is fast asleep just outside my tent hide – and I need to go to the loo. Granted, if I set foot outside the tent the poor fellow will get the fright of his life. So I’ll just stay where I am for the time being. Maybe if another penguin shows up he will move too.
I have spent the last couple of hour reading Lloyd Davis’s “Professor Penguin”. The book is kind of the scientific memoirs of my former supervisor. It’s a great read for anyone interested in penguins. Lloyd has gone to great lengths to cover the many interesting aspects of penguin biology and weave in his field work experiences. He has met, worked with and was influenced by a great many researchers, ranging from the Elvises to Justin Biebers of penguin science. He features biographies of the researchers he considers most influential for him and just reading these short bios of people I have met and know personally is quite enlighening. Just goes to show that even if you think you know a person you have merely scratched the surface.
But the weirdest thing is to read about all those researchers and their work – catching a glimpse of penguin science as an outsider, so to speak – and then I look up realizing that I am sitting in a tent hide waiting for a penguin with a GPS logger to return while outside four Tawaki carefully tiptoe uphill.
What a privilege.
I left the forest a few minutes short of 10pm. All in all 16 penguins made their way up to the Hilltop area today. None of them bore a GPS logger. But despite having sat in the bloody tent hide for more than 10 hours today, I felt good.
November 11, 2014 at 9:37 pm
And so begins the last week of Tawaki filming. With a long, long drive from Dunedin to Haast.
I actually made it to Haast in a bit over five hours only to find that I left the sunshine behind and dived head first into typical West Coast weather. I quickly checked into the Heritage Hotel, geared up and was just about to leave for the Heads when I spotted Sam sitting in his hotel room.
It turned out that the Japanese film crew took a break today; the weather was abysmal and they decided to do night shifts from now on. Leaving the hotel and 2am to be ready in the penguin colonies if the first chick decide to fledge in the morning.
I actually agree with the idea that it is more likely to film fledglings leaving in the morning, when the majority of adult penguins also take their leave.
Well, I’m after a logger penguin that might still be running around on Jackson Head. So I told Sam that I would be out till late and therefore would join them sometime in the morning tomorrow.
Less than an hour later I arrived at the Hilltop beach access. On my way across the rocks I came across many juveniles. In fact, most of the penguins loitering on the rocks this evening turned out to be juveniles. Very few penguins in adult plumage were present. I guessed that most of them were somewhere up in the bush. I climbed up the creek to get to nest JH06. The sun peeked through a hole in the clouds and illuminated the Hilltop in golden colours.
On a narrow mud ledge under a fallen log, in a nice and cosy sun spot, I saw a penguin bum minus the typical long tail feathers. Further up the massive body patches of brown fluff quivered in the evening breeze. The bird lay flat on its stomach, the flippers tightly tugged onto the belly, the head slightly raised. I just love to watch penguins that are fast asleep.
This one was a chick that by the looks of it wasn’t far from fledging.
An adult sat upright hidden in the kiekie not far from the chick, its bill pointing skyward with its eyes closed, also fast asleep. The gentle rumble of the surf, the whispering breeze and the setting sun… this was pure serenity.
I enjoyed the moment a bit longer, then when I was about to quietly retreated down the hill junior got up, stretched and shook is upper body, sending down flying in all directions. Then it hunched down, spotted me and remained decidedly undecided where it was, just looking me up and down. I couldn’t resist and remained a few minutes longer.
I spent a couple of hours not far from where Haruki-san sat when he saw our logger bird coming up the hill. Needless to say, it didn’t show up while I was there.
November 1, 2014 at 8:37 pm
After a night in an obscenely large unit of a motel in Invercargill – I had a two floor unit with four beds for myself (the requirement for each member of the film crew to have his own unit is something that never ceases to amaze me) – our troupe drove down to Bluff where we got on board the 9.30am ferry to Stewart Island.
We arrived in Oban, the main settlement on the island, a mere hour later. We were just in time for the rain to set in which made transferring the equipment which had been shipped over in seven large bins (in other words: loads and loads of gear) a real joy.
Luke Simeon, a bearded guy with a dark complexion and green eyes, waited for us with a flat bed truck and helped shuttling the massive amount of gear to the hotel. Luke is a commercial Paua diver and crayfisherman. His fishing boat Stingray will be our floating base and has ample room to store all the diving equipment and filming gear. His fishing buddy Morgan will be acting skipper on Luke’s boat given that Luke potentially will spent considerable amount of time in the water with the two camera men.
In theory that would sum up the day adequately, if it wasn’t for what came out during the dinner I had with the crew at the hotel restaurant.
Now, one thing that I feel was a bit of an issue these last days, was that I spent hardly any time with the guys outside after our daily work in the field. Since the return of the film crew, I had hardly spent time with them outside the field. The days were too long and we always left early in the morning and returned late at night. So we had pretty little time to a chat over breakfast or dinner about what was going on and how we would continue the work.
So in a sense here on Stewart Island we had the first evening the team spent together since the crew returned from Japan. Finally some time to catch up on the things that happened in the past week and which are planned for the next few days.
Just to avoid confusion from here on: we have finally found a solution for our double Ida-san problem (i.e. the director vs the cameraman). We call Ida-san (the cameraman) by his first name, which makes him Haruki-san.
Anyhow, there we were having the first proper dinner together and Haruki-san asked me how deep Tawaki would dive (Sam translated.)
‘We don’t really know yet, but we will find out next year, when we will have dive loggers’, I replied.
Haruki-san raised his eyebrows. “But you have devices on the birds. I saw it.”
“Yes”, I replied. “But this year we have only GPS loggera available that do not record dive depths. We got the last logger back a couple of weeks… hang on… you saw what?!?”
“When I was filming in the forest. A bird with a logger on the back came walking up the path. I filmed it so we can show you.”
My jaw hit the table in astonishment. He had seen the final missing logger bird! He had even filmed it for me!! And I only find out about it by accident days later when we are on Stewart Island??? I turned to Sam.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell Haruki-san about the logger. So he didn’t know what to do”, Sam apologised who I had instructed to brief all the team members about our final logger bird up on Hilltop. They were to give me a call the moment they saw the bird.
Guess my instructions got lost in translation. Doh!
Well, opportunity lost. At least I know what to do when we get back to Haast – sit in the forest to catch our last missing logger bird.
October 27, 2014 at 11:58 pm
Sitting on a desk all day is quite nice sometimes, but usually I prefer field work. A lot. And today was a prime example why that is so.
For most of the day the weather was gorgeous. Hongo-san was back in business, the two Ida-san’s and Sam were back from filming Tawaki swimming in creeks. Today they wanted to get footage of penguins landing on the beach and making their way up to the colonies.
Of course they are lucky as at the moment, a lot more penguins land on Jackson Head than there are breeders. That’s because a lot of young birds – juveniles and pre-breeders (according to Warham Tawaki start to breed when 5-7 years old) – are returning from almost 10 months at sea. So the traffic on the beach is considerable.
The two Ida-sans have moved a bit further along the rocky shore to one of the busiest landings some 200 metres past our rope ascent to the Apartment block. At first I wasn’t sure about them filming there as there seemed to be an awful lot of fur seals there. But when I checked the area I could confirm that these were just male animals that had a rest in the spring sun. And pretty much unlike your ordinary fur seal, they did not mind the camera man and documentary director at all. Instead they actually posed, staged a bull fight and generally gave the guys a great show to ban on film (or rather hard disks).
I spent most of the afternoon sitting high up on a rock overlooking Jackson Head West. Had the penguin traffic in the previous weeks been a bit slow an restricted to the main colony access points, the Tawaki now landed around us anywhere and at any time. As far as one could see we’d spot penguins preening, hopping on the rocks or just dozing in the sun.
As it was getting darker I decided to head up to the Apartment block to have a look at Hongo-san’s filming efforts there. He wanted to give filming with artificial lights a go. I had agreed to that because if one thing became clear in the past weeks then that when it’s dark Tawaki could not care less about being in the spotlight of a head torch. It’s as if they don’t eve perceive the artificial light.
It was already quite gloomy up in the forest and Hongo-san had just switched on a LED panel that illuminated the Apartment Block. Only problem was that there weren’t any penguins in sight. The chicks and guarding adults were all back in the cave and none of the parents had returned yet to feed their chicks.
I clambered up the slope to where Hongo-san had squeezed himself and his enormous camera into the tent hide. I looked around and thought that the almost horizontal branch above and a bit behind the tent hide would make an excellent perch and vantage point to observe the show. I quietly climbed up the tree and found a really comfortable position up there. The Apartment block lay like a stage in front of me. Now we just had to wait until the prelude was over and the play would commence.
At first not a lot happened. A chick was heard issuing begging calls somewhere from the depths of the kiekie at the top of the Apartment block. The high pitched “weep-weep-weep” in my opinion was enough to make any caring living being want to regurgitate some food. Apparently the adult penguins that certainly were present somewhere in the shadows thought otherwise.
Yet the stage remained deserted. From time to time I saw some movement in front of Hongo-san’s tent hide, but it always turned out to be the lens of the 4K camera moving this way or that way to film the vast emptiness of the lit Apartment block.
After about an hour of sitting and waiting and just letting the mind drift, a male Tawaki waddled out of the overhanging kiekie leafs that covered the left side of the Apartment block like a stage curtain. He moved to the centre of the stage in the slender walk posture that is so commonly seen in Snares penguins – both flippers pointing forwards with a craned neck as if the penguin wanted to duck under some hidden obstacle. Then suddenly he stopped, stretched his neck and looked to the left, looked to the right, stood like that motionless for a few seconds. And then, as if he realised that no other penguin was watching his shoulders dropped, the flippers relaxed and he retracted his head looking slightly bedraggled. After a while he shook his body and moved off to disappear behind the kiekie again.
It started to feel as if the penguins suffered from a case of stage fright. So far they seemed to prefer to stay behind the kiekie curtains or the depth of the backstage area which was the cave. But around 10pm they got over that and the show finally started.
First a couple of chicks, their downy brown baby suits smothered in mud, wandered out of the cave and onto the stage. They apparently aimlessly moved from one side to the other and back until they finally seemed to have honed in on their destination and settled at their respective nest sites. There they sat and waited, occasionally flapping their wings that looked at least a couple of sizes too long despite the fact that the chicks were already quit big. T
Then a female tawaki arrived from the front left and entered the lit area. Its plumage was still wet and without hesitation it headed to chick number which immediately started begging with a high pitched peeping and rhythmic head shakes. The female gave a short but sharp trumpeting display to quickly turn her attention to her chick. To indicate its readiness for food it brought its head upwards from below her bill which required quite some contortion skills on the chick’s behalf as it was almost as tall as its mother. She opened her bill and the chick did not hesitate to poke what looked like its entire head into her mother’s throat.
Whenever I see penguins feed their chicks I do value the human way of feeding babies. Just imagine Mums would have to pre-digest and then vomit up the food for their offspring. What a mess this would create.
However, nothing was wasted here. The chick emerged again from its mother’s gape and both raised their heads to gulp down the bits and pieces that remained in their mouths. I peered through my binoculars in the hope to see what kind of food was transferred between mother and child, but not even a trace of the regurgitated meal was visible. Not 15 seconds after the feeding was completed the chick started begging again and the whole process was repeated. All in all I counted 7 feeding events before the mother decides to move of her nest and start preening right in front of Hongo-san’s camera.
Hongo-san was happy. Not long after the feeding show was over I saw him put the lens cap onto is camera and crawl out of the tent hide. He stretched his back looked up and saw me in the dim light of the LED panel sitting up the tree and released a piercing cry “HAAII!!” Apparently he had not expected to see me – or any other life-form – perched high up in the tree above him. His flight instinct almost made him jump of the ledge and down into the darkness but he gained control again and mumbled something like “Ohh, you scared me”.
Yet another form of stage fright, I thought.
October 24, 2014 at 7:59 pm
A week with the family in Dunedin and here I am again, back in Haast. Today the Japanese film crew around Ida-san returns for the second stint of Tawaki filming at Jackson Head.
Well, that was the plan anyhow. I got a late start in Dunedin so no time for a lunch break as I had to make it across the Haast Pass and the Diana Falls before 6pm. And while I made it, my Japanese companions did not.
Not long after I checked in at the Heritage Hotel, my phone rang. The receptionist told me that the rest of the crew will be spending their night in Makarora until the road has opened again.
Oh well, no Tawaki briefing tonight then.
October 15, 2014 at 4:46 pm
Just a quick note jotted down before we head across the Alps and back to Dunedin.
This morning we finished the second half of the camera run. Now the devices have to operate for a bit more than a week without our care. I will return for a second stint of filming with the Japanese film crew in the last week of October. But I am sure that the batteries will last until then.
While it was rather gray when we finished our camera maintance, it has turned into a glorious blue-sky-and-sunshine day. Perfect house cleaning weather. Now, I will spare you the details of what we all cleaned. Suffice to say that it took us all day and now we have to rush back to Haast to make it past the Diana Falls slip before they close the road on us!