December 29, 2016 at 6:55 pm
Well, here’s a little secret for anyone who’s planning to watch the upcoming next movie in the Alien franchise. The scene pictured below is not on an alien planet – it’s Milford Sound. And there are two tawaki breeding colonies in the frame, Sinbad Gully and Harrison Cove. The latter one, of course, is our main Fiordland study site.
So a great opportunity to let the person sitting next to you know of your insider knowledge and tell them about the Tawaki Project. (Perhaps you may want to wait until the movie is over before spreading the word about our work.)
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 16, 2014 at 9:36 pm
I wanted to get a reasonably early start out at Jackson Head today. I was really keen to have a lookout for fledging chicks on the shore for a few hours, just to see if I would be able to observe a similar “family outing” that Sam had observed yesterday.
I got to the Head just after 9am, some 7 hours after the film crew had left the Hotel. When I approached the study site, I could see Haruki-san with his camera perched on one of the rocks below the base. He was pointing his lens up towards the creek and I could only assume that another fledgling was in the process of making his way to the water for his big splash.
And indeed, there the bird was. It looked positively unsure where to go and what to do. And unlike the fledgling yesterday which seemed to have been guided out to the sea by some adult tawaki that may or may not have been its parents, this one was all by itself.
The young penguin scratched his bottom. Then it flapped its wing. It turned around, looked up the hill, turned once more, looking down at the sea… and decided to scratch its bottom some more.
Once more I found Sam slouched down in his folding chair between the rocks at the Base, trying to catch up on some sleep. He was wearing his mosquito net hat to keep the Sandflies at bay. As an Australian resident I would have expected a cork hat, these hats with wine corks dangling from the brim, but then again he’s Sam, not Bruce…
I made my way up to the apartment building and found Ida-san snoring inside the director’s tent while Hongo-san patiently waited behind his camera without any sign of fatigue. After a quick peek at the happenings in the cave of the apartment building (one adult tawaki and six mostly moulted chicks being bored stiff) I meant to head over to my observation tent for a few hours of waiting. But instead Ida-san stirred and crawled out of his tent, his eyes red and bleary.
“Thomas-san. This afternoon I would like to use multi-copter. Is that okay?”
A while ago, when we were still having beers at night, Ida-san had talked about his adventures with flying drones to get aerial footage. The crew has two of the quad-copters with them, each equipped with GoPros mounted with gimbals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimbal) to the base. When I asked why two units, Ida-san casually replied “Oh. In case we lose one.”
“When we were filming bower birds in Papua New Guinea a few months ago, I lost one. I flew it over the trees and then it just disappeared. Never found it.”
So, there’s an expensive multi-copter with an even more expensive gimbal and a GoPro lying around the Papuan jungle somewhere. I’ll keep my eyes peeled next time I’m up there (if ever).
Ida-san indicated that he would like to work with the drone around lunch time. Apart from the fact that it was my responsibility to oversee such activities I was far too curious not to witness that attempt. But first, I was to meet with Paul Elwell-Sutton from the West Coast Penguin Trust around 1 pm to pick up the trust’s trail cameras. But I was sure Paul would be curious to observe this novel style of film making.
Ida-san and I agreed to give it a go around 2 pm.
Now I am spending some time in the tent hide. So far two tawaki went past me; none had an extra package on its back.
Paul, Sam (whom we met down at the beach) and I made it to the apartment block just after 2 pm. Down on the beach not a lot was happening. In fact, we had sneaked past Haruki-san who lay spread-eagled on a rock having a bit of a nap in the shade of his camera tripod. At the apartment block itself, also nothing happened. Although I have to admit I was amazed to find Hongo-san sitting patiently in exactly the same position I had left him more than two hours ago.
Ida-san wanted to go up the hill and find a bit of a clearing. The wind had picked up and he wanted to give his drone-flying skills a bit of a refresher. So we climbed up to Hilltop which by now seems pretty deserted. Hardly any signs of chicks or breeding adults; they must all moved on down the hill in anticipation of fledging.
Doesn’t look good for our logger recovery.
The drone flight attempts turned out to be pretty average. Ids-san seldom managed to keep the drone up in the air for more than a few seconds before a wind gush pushed it into the vegetation which sent it crashing down to the ground. Remarkably robust these drones!
Ida-san gave up after ten minutes remarking: “Too windy. Tomorrow.”
Considering it’s our last day tomorrow we better hope it’s not as windy.
Paul headed back to town, Ida-san & Sam joined the rest of the team to call it a day. And I resumed the watch in the tent hide.
It’s getting darker outside as I am writing this. Outside a lonely tawaki is sitting in the kiekie not quite sure what to make of the tent hide flapping in the breeze. It’s one of three more logger-less penguins I have seen this afternoon. I think I’ll head back to town once this fella has decided to move on.
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 12, 2014 at 10:58 pm
At 2.30am I heard the Japanese crew leave the hotel. I happily turned over and continued to dream of sleeping penguins.
When I reached the base below the apartment block around 10 hours later I found Sam sitting hunched and apparently fast asleep on a camping chair in the sun. He jumped up when I said “Hello!” looking around bewildered as if he didn’t quite know where he was. Yup, it was a short night and a very long morning for the guys. And a miserable morning too because not only was it bucketing down when they had to negotiate the rocks in the middle of the night, but it was also high tide so that they had to climb most of the way. As Hongo-san put it when I spoke to him “We were like Super Mario. I lost three lives. At least.” Yes, I can picture that.
And no chick had fledged but loads of juveniles crowded the now sun flooded shoreline.
Haruki-san was up on the track below the Hilltop, this time filming penguins leaving their colonies. The logger bird he did not see.
While I spoke to Haruki-san – or rather communicated using a strange form of sign language – I heard quite a racket form up near JH06. Had the logger bird returned?
As fast and quiet as I could I climbed up the hill. But, alas, it wasn’t the bird I was looking for. Nevertheless I had quite a show in front of me. A pair of Tawaki were performing an extended trumpet concerto which eventually lured their big chick out of hiding. What followed was a feeding chase with the chick running after mum who obviously did not feel like regurgitating food just yet and started running away from her hungry offspring. In fact, the two of them kept on circling a lump of grass. After each successful loop, mum would stop and regurgitate food for the chick before continuing the wild goose chase for another round. And dad supplied the soundtrack to the show, trumpeting his heart out.
“Hang on”, I thought “What was that?” While singing the male stretched his body with his bill raised high and his flippers outstretched. While mum and kid came running by he turned to follow their progress and revealed his left flipper to me. He was banded.
A band on a Tawaki? Have they ever banded Tawaki? I thought DOC had used transponders to mark the population during their monitoring programme in the 1990s…? But this one was clearly banded. What was the number?
Frantically I searched for my binoculars. But yesterday I had already realised that I had forgotten them in Dunedin. Blast it! So the camera it had to be.
I don’t know how many pics I snapped – a lot – but eventually I got one that revealed the band number – 1179. If this band came from the same series that was being used on Yellow-eyed penguins this must be a really old bird. But YEP bands are far too large for Tawaki, so I suppose there must have been a Fiordland penguin specific series of bands issued.
I will certainly try to find out who this guy is.
(It turned out that the bird was banded in 2000 as an adult on Munro Beach some 50km North of Jackson Head. So the penguin is at least 16 years old).
Interestingly, while I was busy trying to snap pics of the band, momma penguin had disappeared into a nearby burrow leaving kiddo and daddy behind. Kiddo, ever so hungry as a chick getting close to fledging should be, started begging dad for food. He stopped trumpeting and indeed regurgitated a good number of meals for the chick.
In other words, both mum and dad arrived together. And both fed their offspring. Another indication that in the later stages of breeding pairs might go out foraging in tandem.
Before assuming lookout along the forest track up to Hilltop, I once more went down to have a chat to Ida-san. The crew was about to go back and call it a day. It was past 4pm and they have been up since 14 hours – and they looked the part. Ida-san squinted at me through small, red eyes looking like he was about to keel over. His plan is to come back again next night and hope that one of the chicks from the apartment block would fledge in the morning.
And fledging is indeed imminent. There are quite a good number of chicks around that are wearing their new penguin outfit of shiny blue-black feathers with a hint of a pale yellow line running over their dark eyes. Their bills are still black and will only over the course of the next one or two years to turn to the reddish-orange colour of an adult tawaki’s bill.
I spent the next four hours sitting on a tree waiting for penguins to come up the forest track below hilltop. But except for one bird that actually climbed up the steep slope, only a handful of Tawaki that were making their way down the hill presumably out to sea. There was just not a lot happening tonight.
November 8, 2014 at 7:31 am
We’re leaving the island and will head back to Dunedin today. All the gear has been packed away again in seven storage bins that are being stowed on the Foveaux Express. Once we hit the mainland Hotte and I will part way with the Japanese film crew. They will drive up to Haast today to continue filming at Jackson Head for another week, while I will spend a few days with my family and attend a meeting concerning penguins in New Zealand on Monday.
I will head back up to Haast on Tuesday.
November 7, 2014 at 9:49 pm
About 20 years ago, Ian MacLean devised a cunning plan to count Tawaki along their entire breeding range. He employed tourists to take part in an adventurous survey of the Fiordland penguin in some of the remotest areas of New Zealand. Places no other tourist had seen. A pretty good selling point, quite literally.
The “volunteers” paid for the privilege of being part of this survey and spend several weeks on a ship slowly cruising along the shores of Westland, Fiordland and Stewart Island searching the coastline of sign of Tawaki like scat marks, scratches on the rocks or, of course, the penguins themselves. Occasionally they would land to do a quick search of the bush to count number of nests. These numbers eventually were used to estimate the total number Tawaki.
2,500-3,000 breeding pairs. This number is what the IUCN red list uses as the baseline for the Tawaki population today.
Strangely, though, the survey of Stewart Island was limited to the Western Coastline as well as Port Pegasus in the far South; almost the entire east coast was simply ignored. Which, as it turns out, was quite a faux-pas.
In all McLean and his co-authors found a total of 32 penguins around the sourther tip of Stewart Island and concluded that the “limited observations of Fiordland Crested penguins […] suggest that there are relatively few birds there”.
This, of course, is wrong as I know from my own observations while working with Yellow-eyed penguins a few years ago. Hotte and I had seen lots of Tawaki while sea kayaking between our study sites at Golden and Rollers Beach, i.e. exactly the area that was left out in the survey. Particularly Gull Rock stood out because we would regularly see feeding flocks of terns and tawaki in considerable numbers. In fact, whenever we kayaked past Gull Rock we would always see foraging tawaki.
Which is why we are on Stewart Island right now in the first place. And today was the last day of filming.
We went out very early this morning just before 6am. The idea was to be out at Gull Rock for two turns of the tide. The film crew had decided they wanted to be at the rock during slack water in the morning and the afternoon in an effort to get more underwater footage.
Hotte had come to the island a couple of days ago for a bit of a holiday. But I convinced him that holidays are for retirees and got him to join us on the boat for a day. I decided that we’d do something useful for a change and let us get dropped off at Golden Beach (the site where Hotte and I had worked with Yellow-eyed penguins) which is just a few hundred metres from Gull Rock. I was keen to check out the sea caves in the rocks on either side of the beach and look for Tawaki.
In 2006 when I last set foot on the beach, I had checked out one cave to the South an saw some Tawaki in there. But back then I didn’t really make an effort to find out if the birds were actually breeding in there. Today I was more determined to get to the bottom of this.
When we approached the beach Morgan who was driving the dinghy spotted a penguin on the rocks north of Golden beach. After jumping onto the soft sand I decided to have a look there first. While Hotte started counting the tracks of Yellow-eyed penguins along the beach (10 birds) I clambered across the rocks to where I saw the tawaki five minutes ago.
Of course, I couldn’t get there even though it was low tide. A carpet of slippery bull kelp lined the rocks and there was a trench where the water still stood a couple of meters deep preventing me from getting to where I thought the penguin had been. While I was considering my options I heard muffled Tawaki cries. In fact, they were so faint that it took me a while to register them as such. At first I looked up but the idea of Tawaki scaling a three-metre cliff to breed in the bush seemed rather silly.
Then I noticed a gap rocks coevered in bull kelp. A narrow cave. Perhaps a penguin roosting in there?
I got out my head torch and climbed from the rocks down onto the sand which effectively is the seafloor for the 20 hours outside of low tide. I ducked into the crevasse and noticed green sea weed lining its ceiling. Obviously this cave gets flooded at high tide. I was about to turn back when a Tawaki bark echoed through the darkness – and it clearly originated from the far end of the cave. I climbed up a short slope high enough to clear of water even at high tide.
I looked behind me and saw the narrow cave entrance. I turned my head slowly until I saw them in front of me – little cave men with white bellies wearing what looked like rugged, brown, furry coats. It took me a while to recognise two Tawaki chicks almost ready to fledge in front of me. They were quickly joined by two adult penguins that eyed me curiously. The cave itself continued around a corner.
With two chicks there must be at least two nests in this cave.
I remembered one sentence from the MacLean survey publication…
“Unfortunately, our sightings of penguins […] suggest little relationship between the number of birds on a beach or in the water and the number nesting.”
Of course you don’t expect them to breed in bloody submerged sea caves! If you look for conventional breeding sites – like I would have too until today – you will end up with a considerable discrepancy between birds in the open and nests found.
But Tawaki take the term “cryptic breeder” to a new level. The cave I was in, was quite suitable to hide a veritable pirate’s treasure. I would have never, ever looked down here if it wasn’t for the calls I heard.
I was – and still am – truly awestruck by these penguins. How they manage to find caves suitable for breeding even below the waterline is pretty amazing. Not to mention that they manage to raise chicks in complete darkness. They must have amazing eye sight. Surely light too faint to be registered by the human eye must penetrate the cave.
Seeing two chicks was enough for me to assume that at least two nests were in this cave. I did not want to cause too much of a stir and retreated rather than pushing ahead to have a look round the corner. I left the cave. I wanted to check the rocks on the other side of Golden Beach.
In the next couple of hours, Hotte and I found and checked five more caves occupied by tawaki on a stretch of no more than 200m of coastline… ranging from large amphitheatres to the narrowest tunnels that even a child could not crawl into. In three of the caves I saw chicks, the other two were impossible to check without a burrowscope or some such. With the two chicks in the submarine cave I saw a total of 6 chicks, although I am certain that there were more in the farther reaches of some of the cave systems.
Now, it’s a moot point to try use our mini-survey to estimate the number of breeding tawaki along Stewart Island’s Northeast coast. But considering the many caves between Halfmoon Bay and Gull Rock I would not be surprised if we had some 50 breeding pairs on that stretch of the coast alone. And that is probably an underestimate.
The MacLean survey recorded 32 tawaki for Stewart Island. If anything this must be an underestimate by at least an order of a magnitude. If not more.
November 3, 2014 at 10:06 pm
I am relieved. We found tawaki in the water. And lots of them. And exactly where I said we would find them. So my job is basically done. After the relative penguin-scarcity we had experienced on our random walk tour yesterday, we managed to get out to Gull Rock today. It was still quite bouncy but Ida-san managed to sleep through another potential bout of sea sickness.
It was a cold day though. And the wind blew pretty hard, first still from the North but then from the West. And it rained. A lot. All in all not a pleasant mix to be standing on the deck of the Stingray to look out for penguins.
But we did not really have to.
When we approached Bungaree Bay we could see a considerable feeding flock of white-fronted terns feeding off Gull Rock.
“That’s where we need to go”, I said to Morgan. But considering that it was too choppy to go out in the dinghy let alone dive, we decided to head into calmer waters of the bay to prepare the equipment and get Hongo and Haruki-san ready for diving.
At around lunchtime we headed back out. Getting closer to high tide, the waves had settled quite a bit and it looked a lot calmer generally. As soon as Gull Rock came into view, we spotted once again a large group of terns dive bombing into the water.
“There’ll be penguins” I proclaimed and Morgan replied “Then that’s where we go.”
Well, not only did it turn out that I was right, but that I was super-right because there easily 30-40 tawaki foraging around Gull Rock amidst a true dive bombing staccato of white-fronted terns and Sooty shearwaters.
Some smaller groups of tawaki were rather close to the boat, others a bit further away. Some groups were obviously foraging where birds spent little time at the surface before they disappeared again, while others were resting and just sitting on the surface like ducks in a pond.
A huge weight was taken off my shoulders. I have gotten the guys their diving tawaki. I had kept my promise and done my job. Now they had to do theirs.
And this is where it started to get really, really complicated.
It wasn’t that it took Luke, Hongo and Haruki-san long to get the gear and themselves into the rubber dinghy. It wasn’t even that they did not manage to get closer to some of the groups of penguins. No, the problem was that as soon as one or two of the Japanese camera men had entered the water that the penguins disappeared.
Hongo and Haruki-san would clamber back into the dinghy and Luke drove them off to the next group of dive-bombing terns for that was where the penguin now were. For the next hour or so the dinghy just zoomed from here to there only to find the penguins gone once camera men and gear were in the water.
While the dinghy was doing its thing the tawaki would show up next to the Stingray looking up at us (or as I had the feeling, particularly at Ida-san) as if laughing to our faces. It was a slick performance by the birds, as cool and composed as Leonardo Di Caprio in “Catch Me If You Can” while Ida-san got more and more frustrated trying to direct the dinghy form here to there by waving his arms frantically. I reckon he outdid Tom Hanks by at least a mile in his desperate demeanour.
After the tide had turned fewer and fewer penguins seemed to be around. However, more and more fairy prions showed up and by 2 o’clock some 300 of the tiny petrels were hovering directly above the sea surface around our boat, ducking their heads into the water to check for prey and then disappearing below for a quick feeding dive.
I would say that must have looked pretty spectacular from below the surface. But Ida-san is here to get Di Caprio aka the penguins and the beauty of great numbers of fairy prions diving in tightly packed groups eluded him completely.
As the tide got stronger the waves started to make finding Tawaki difficult for the guys on the dinghy. The frequent downpours did their thing to complicate things even further. Ida-san weathered any changing condition at the stern of the Stingray trying to direct the dinghy from here to there. But the guys out there probably did not even see him. They just kept on zooming hither, thither and wither. Very infrequently one of them would go in the water only to be picked up by Luke a minute later after an obviously unsuccessful splash.
At around 6pm they gave finally up. Not a single second of underwater footage was recorded. Hongo and Haruki-san had hardly used any of the air in their tanks. When I asked Hongo about the deepest depth he reached his reply was “30 centimetres”.
And when I asked him if he had seen any of the penguins underwater he said “Yes, one. For 0.5 seconds.”
We steamed back to town. The weather is supposed to improve somewhat tomorrow, especially the swell should be a lot better with little wave action if any.
November 2, 2014 at 10:39 pm
This morning I found myself with the rest of the film crew on the wharf at around 8am. The Stingray was ready to go. But Luke looked at Ida-san with a bit of urgency and said “Well, the conditions out there are pretty rough. I wouldn’t go out fishing in this.”
He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder roughly in the direction of the Foveaux Strait. Granted, it did not look rough from where we were. But looks can be deceiving a Halfmoon Bay is pretty sheltered in most conditions.
“It’s blowing straight westerly so we will have the waves hitting us broad side if we go out to Gull Rock today” he said and added “Believe me. It will not be pleasant.”
Now, I for one would have thought that if a Stewart Island fisherman says it is too rough that was reason enough to come up with an alternative plan for the day. Especially since the conditions are forecasted to improve from tomorrow on.
But for some reason Ida-san decided to do another recce to Gull Rock regardless. What he hoped to find there in three metre swells will remain his secret, because currently he is in no condition to speak. He is pale as a sheet and sits hunched in the corner of the Stingray’s galley.
As soon as the Stingray had steamed out of Halfmoon Bay and Morgan at the helm had turned the boat to the north towards Bungaree Bay and Gull Rock, the swell hit us broad side. Exactly as promised. The boat started to bounce and sway violently. Morgan and Luke kept on chatting while the boat rolled and sent gear flying through the wheel house. The two Ida-sans – sorry, Ida-san and Haruki-san -, Sam and Hongo had squeezed themselves in behind the galley bench and tried to hold on to what ever they could find. Which mainly was the guy sitting next to them. I stood behind Luke trying to balance the violent boat movements as best as I could.
We just got around Horseshoe Point when two extreme broadsides hit us. The engine whined and the boat rolled far enough so that I could almost stand upright on the wall. Ida-san slipped off the bench and found himself sitting in front of the Diesel stove.
What really astounded me though was that he started to crawl out onto the aft-deck. The waves kept washing over the deck no doubt soaking Ida-san to the bone. Ida-san grabbed the railing and started to feed the fish in a rather violent, explosive manner. When ever the boat rolled over to the side he was standing he came precariously close to being completely submerged in the water washing onto deck.
Luke immediately ordered Morgan to turn around. I don’t think that at this stage Ida-san had any objections.
We decides to steam into smoother waters of the sheltered Patterson Inlet to see if we would spot Little penguins or even Yellow-eyed penguins. It was a relief to be able to stand upright again.
The Stingray chugged along, entering the islands in the south eastern reaches of the inlet known as the Bravo Group. It is where a good number of Yellow-eyed penguins breed. But, alas, the birds were out on a mission and nowhere to be seen. Same applied to Little penguins.
I mentioned that a friend had told me he had once seen tawaki somewhere around The Neck, a narrow stretch of sand dunes that connect a small peninsula at the southern entrance of Patterson Inlet to the mainland. Luke called a few locals on his cellphone and asked for permission to land there. His idea was to walk over to the other side of the neck to look for penguins form land. It would give Ida-san some time off the boat and hopefully get some colour back in his face.
Morgan dropped us off with the dinghy and then headed off to pick us up with the Stingray on the other side of The Neck an hour later.
The Rakiura Maori have established a walkway that provides some breath-taking views of the Patterson Inlet, the Titi islands out in Foveaux Strait and the South-eastern coastline of Stewart Island. I have never been out here, so it was a really nice side trip for me.
We even saw a few Little penguins from up here.
An hour later we were back on the boat and steamed to a small rocky outcrop in one of the bays where we had spotted a feeding flock of sooty shearwaters. The black seabirds landed on the water and ducked under the surface staying down for quite some time before re-emerging and gracefully taking flight again. I peered through my binoculars but could not see any penguins in amongst the action.
Since we had nothing better to do we decided to anchor and wait a while to see if penguin would show up at that rock.
They didn’t. Instead the weather packed in and it started to rain so that everyone and their dogs crammed themselves into the Stingray’s wheel house. Too crowded for me so I retreated down into bow section made myself comfortable on one of the two bunks.
And now, I am going to take a nap.
Well, not much else to report. After nearly three hours of waiting with nothing but a single Yellow-eyed penguin that surfaced exactly once to see, we headed back into town.
I have the feeling that apart from still suffering from the effects of his seasickness, Ida-san is a bit concerned about the outcome of today. What if the weather is that bad the entire time we’re here? Unlikely but it’s springtime and it can always turn bad in no time. But I think what he is really worried about, is that we hardly saw any penguins.
Or is it me who is worried? I mean we’re here because I said that if there’s one place where they could film tawaki under water it would be Stewart Island.
Ah, she’ll be right.