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 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.
October 30, 2014 at 11:35 pm
I should use my superlatives more carefully. Because if yesterday’s swell was impressive, the waves that shook Jackson Head today were tremendous!
However, when I first came to the Wharekai Te Kou walk car park I could only suspect that. I dropped off Hongo-san and Kamai at the car park – the Ida-sans and Sam were today on a penguin safari with Gerry Sweeney up North. I headed back to Neil’s Beach. I had to pick up a couple of sleeping bags I forgot in the Dibbens residence when we left a couple of weeks ago. I had a quick chat with Jimbo, a fishermen and owner of the Backpackers next door, and then I headed further down the road to have a quick chat with Geoff Robson.
I was all geared up and ready to do my daily boulder hopping routine to our study site about 2 hours before high tide. The tramp along the rocky shore is never really easy, but today this turned out to be more difficult than I thought. That there weren’t any penguins on the shore should have given me an indication what I was getting myself into.
The tide was coming in and combined with the heavy swell it created freak waves at regular intervals. Very short intervals. While finding my way from rock to rock I also kept an eye out on the approaching waves. Whenever one of these monsters seemed to just grow rather than break I had to seek refuge behind some rock and wait for the short moment of mayhem that would ensue.
With an enormous thunder, the wave would break straight onto the rock, creating a white wash that would leap over rocks at an alarming pace. Most of the time I was lucky and only my gumboots ended up in a shallow swirl of white water. But in the 10 minutes it took me to get to my cave, two waves got me good. Crouching behind a rock the wave would wash over my shelter leaving me briefly inside an enclosed water cave that would collapse around me, water raising up to my thighs. It was dangerous being out here.
And the penguins knew it.
I had barrels of adrenalin rushing through my system when I finally dragged myself into the amazingly dry cave. No sign of Butch or Ahab. Just the thunder of monster waves crashing onto the shore, occasionally sending tremors through the rocks I was sitting on.
Here I stayed for the next few hours. The tide rose and rose, and the waves got bigger and reached higher up the shore. Only my cave was miraculously spared from the wild floods. After high tide, I spotted the first penguins trying to land.
When their attempts to get ashore were impressive yesterday, today it seemed like sheer madness. Again and again the birds would get close to the rocks or even attempt to get a foothold only to be violently washed away again by another wave. But always they would pop up again in the white water of the wave’s surge. I timed a few of the landing attempts. The longest lasted 42 minutes after which the bird eventually giving up and disappeared again in the depths of the ocean.
However, a lot of birds made it somehow. And for every successful landing I gave a loud cheer. I was thoroughly impressed how such small a bird could not only withstand the brutal force of nature but actually outsmart vicious waves that seemed to have a mind of their own.
A human would have had no chance down there. For the penguins it’s a mere nuisance.
Around 6pm penguins started to appear on the rocks around my cave again. One of them was Ahab. And as if to reinforce the fact that I chose the right name for the guy, he started to beat up one of the female penguins that had just landed after a 30-minute ordeal.
Now, the aggressive behaviour in crested penguins has always astounded me. While during the early breeding period, fights for mates and nest sites seem to make sense, it is the countless attacks particularly on females by non-breeders that seemingly do not serve any purpose. Pure hooliganism. And Ahab’s behaviour clearly fell into that category.
He would walk up to the female bump into her with his breast and then peck her in the neck trying to grab the skin and twist it. If he successfully latched on to her neck he would start to bring down a staccato of flipper beats on her back.
The purpose of this exercise? None other than solidifying Ahab’s image as a tough bugger.
The female, of course, wasn’t stupid and simply moved on leaving Ahab behind who shook his head and looked somewhat forlorn. I have to say I did not feel particularly bad for him.
Another interesting observation was a juvenile penguin that trotted after an adult up the rocks towards the breeding area. Now that in itself is not that an unusual a sight since a few days now. However, this juvenile was a bit different. It had a white beard. On first sight I wondered whether we a different species, a Chinstrap penguin perhaps, had made it to the West Coast. But of course a peek through my binoculars revealed the short yellow crests and the clumsy movements of a tawaki juvenile.
The rain never really stopped all day. But it turned to drizzle in the late afternoon. Of course, mixed with the vast amounts of spray in the air it was still enough to get you wet in seconds.
And that accurately describes the state I was in when I climbed up to the apartment block to watch tonight’s play. As yesterday, it is quickly summarized.
Hongo-san and Kamai packed up all valuable gear and secured the cables as we would not return for the next week and a half. Loaded with gear we got back to the car park just before 10pm.
October 29, 2014 at 11:59 pm
Wow! Yesterday’s swell was good, but today it was impressive. Huge wave monsters stormed towards Jackson Head and crashed with a thunder onto the rocks when we headed out to the site just around lunchtime. Although it was still 3 hours until high tide, it was really difficult to get through without being washed off the rocks.
That would make for some rough landings for the tawaki returning to feed chicks today. And these waves offered such a dramatic scenery, that I thought it was a foregone conclusion that Ida-san (the director) would order Ida-san (the camera man) to film how small penguins battled big waves.
But Ida-san did no such thing. Instead Hongo-san assumed his usual post at the apartment block while Ida-san and Ida-san tried to get footage of penguins walking in the forest.
Isn’t that a wasted opportunity?, I wondered. But then, I am no film maker.
Ida-san (the director) went up with me and Sam to the scenic nest; he wanted to get footage of penguins arriving in the Hilltop colony. As soon as he assumed his post above the gully that the penguins climbed up, it started to rain (although “rain” is too neat a word to adequately describe the amount of waters that were dumped on top of us).
Sam and I headed downhill again to place some action cameras along the penguin pathways in the kiekie further down the hill. We made it as far as Ida-san (the camera man).
When we wanted to head past him, he signalled downhill with one hand. There were two Tawaki standing on the trail looking sceptically up at Ida-san who had built himself a make-shift hide out of two Bunnings Warehouse umbrellas.
Sam and I dropped behind some bushes and waited.
10 minutes passed. The penguins did not move. With no canopy to speak of above me my ageing Oringi gear was all that protected me from the almost tropical-strength downpour (minus the corresponding air temperature, that is). In short I felt really uncomfortable after a very short time. I had to move or I would get cold.
Sam, who had hidden behind a fern on the other side of the penguin trail seemed to have crept into his GoreTex jacket, was unresponsive to my gesticulations trying to tell him I had to move. I moved anyway. I made it to the creek that ran through a steep gully to my left and got down to the shore. It was raining mackerel and trout. As fast as I could I moved to my cave hide out.
Once in the cave I started to worry about Sam. The problem with Sam is that his way finding skills are not too flash. And with me sneaking off to get out of the rain he would have no one to guide him out of the forest once the penguins had moved past Ida-san (the camera man). To make matters worse, Sam’s radio seemed to be dead as I could not raise him via my walkie-talkie.
Aw, come one, it’s the middle of the day, he’ll be fine, I said to myself but deep down inside I knew that wasn’t really how I felt.
A couple of hours later my radio crackled “Sam to Thomas.”
“Oh, I am with Hongo-san. I finally found the tent I got lost for an hour.”
Oh bugger, it had to happen. Sam spent more than an hour lost in the bush, getting tangled up in kiekie and always ending up where he started before he finally managed to find his way back to the apartment block.
I left my cave and climbed up the ropes to meet Sam at the director’s tent. Sam looked a bit shaken but as fine otherwise. I promised him not to leave him behind anymore and we both headed down to the creek area to finally deploy the action cameras.
First we climbed into the kiekie next to the rock arenas. Quite obviously a lot of penguins used a tunnel through the tangle of vines – a perfect spot for one of the cameras. We climbed into what henceforth will be known as the “kiekie tunnel” to set the cameras. While Sam was busy placing the device a penguin came down the tunnel, walked up to me and ducked under my legs apparently oblivious of the fact that I was not part of the vegetation.
After both cameras were in place we headed down to the rocks again where we spent the rest of the afternoon watching penguins land in the surf which was still considerable despite the progressing low tide. While it was still impressive to watch single tawaki land in conditions that can only be described as spin program of a washing machine that forgot to drain the suds first.
Sam and Ida-san (the camera man) headed back to town around 8pm, while I remained behind with Hongo-san and Ida-san (the director) to watch tonight’s play up at the apartment block. Where really nothing happened in nearly 3 hours.
It was going on midnight when we finally headed out to the car park.
October 28, 2014 at 11:57 pm
I’m not sure if I’m sitting or lying in this narrow cave in the rocks just below the ropes up to the Apartment Block. It doesn’t really matter because it is uncomfortable. Luckily I have an entertaining companion. A juvenile tawaki has joined me and takes an interest in my Oringi jacket, which is soaking wet because outside our little abode it has been bucketing down for most of the day. From huge buckets, I might add.
Outside our cave, penguins try to land in rather rough conditions; some of them take ages to finally make it. I don’t blame them.
Good waves crash onto the rocks which should make for dramatic filming by the Japanese film crew. Originally the idea was that I keep an eye out on the ocean to tell Ida-san (the cameraman) when penguins arrive. But his radio is not working and mine is out of juice so I just sit and wait and supervise. And enjoy the company of the young penguin.
Even though he’s just over a year old, his size and his considerable honker identifies him as a male. Despite his butch appearance – quite a fitting name, Butch – his behaviour is positively child-like, all curiosity, carelessness and a bit of clumsiness.
I think I have seen Butch a few times already these last couple of days. He seems to be hanging out in this part of Jackson Head. One of the many juveniles I have seen since returning to Jackson Head. And now he’s disappearing through a crack in the back of our cave. See ya, later.
It’s going on 6pm, so roughly another 2.5 hours to sunset and another 5 hours until we head back to town. Hongo-san will again try film the nightly chick feeding and socialising up at the apartment block. If it is not raining I will again assume my place up in the tree above Hongo-san’s hide tent and enjoy the show.
Butch comes back. For a member of a species that is said to be very timid and does not like the presence of humans, Butch is rather oblivious of this fact. He is again busy with my rain jacket and finally loses interest, wanders around my legs and hops out of the cave.
The beach has become rather busy now with penguins landing in a considerable surf, like getting out of a washing machine that’s running its main cycle. Most of the birds then clamber up to the rocks just below Butch’s and my cave.
That strange thing is that the penguins do not seem to notice me even though I am in clear view a mere meter away from them. If is because I am lying on my back or is it the notebook that hides an important feature for them to recognize me as a potential threat?
Rather than doing their usual alert head bobbing the birds just stand there and preen before heading off further uphill.
Now here is an interesting visitor. He – another male by the looks of his bill – has arrived on the scene. At first I thought I had a discoloration of his check feathers on the left side of his face. But upon closer inspection it turns out to be scar that runs in a slight arch and is about 5 cm long. I’m not sure if the missing feathers are an indication of a recent injury. But, hang on, he just turned a bit so that now I see his left flipper and there is a rather knotty scar at its base. The penguin straightens his body and shakes his head sending many little droplets flying around. He flaps his wings quite normally so no permanent damage to his flipper.
The bird looks positively rugged, like a veteran of a lost battle. There you have it, a second time today a name pops into my mind. Ahab.
I am usually not the type of guy who gives his study subjects names. To me this is something you to someone or something that is in a way yours, like your kids or a pet. I admire the penguins I work with and I may feel really close to individuals I am in contact with for weeks on end. But they are not “mine” (that’s also why I always try to avoid to call the birds I work with “my” penguins).
He relaxes, presses his flippers to his body and actually starts to doze off. And now I can see both the scar on his face and his flipper and it seems that both form opposing arches – bite marks most likely. What could it have been? A shark? No, they have razor sharp teeth that cut very clean and do not leave such knotty scars like the one on the flipper. No, my guess would be either a sea lion or a fur seal.
But this one is just Ahab. Although I doubt that this penguin holds a manic grudge against his attacker but is happy to be still alive without an urge for revenge. In fact, it looks like he’s having a snooze at the moment.
Thinking about it, Ahab must have had a run in with a fur seal. A sea lion would have finished him off with the first bite. But fur seals are generally not interested in penguins. Except when the birds are in their way.
On the Snares I once observed a fur seal that had particular rock in mind to have a nap. Problem was the rock was occupied by a Snares penguin that did not want to move but rather hissed at the fur seal. That, of course, was a bad idea as the seal simply grabbed the penguin by its head. But rather than gulping it down it just flung the penguin to the side and send him tumbling down the rocks. It looked like the animal version of dwarf-tossing. The penguin eventually got up and shook his head a couple of times and waddled off in a way that suggested he was mumbling curses and insults into his feathery beard as he left the scene humiliated.
Despite this, I still think Ahab is a good name for him.
Okay, I all alone now. And it is almost 7pm, so let’s head up and enjoy tonight’s play at the Apartment Block.
The play turned out to be extremely boring with nothing happening. I had assumed again my lookout in the tree above Hongo-san’s camera but all I watched tonight was mud oozing out of the cave in which the crèche of chicks was probably huddled together and fast asleep. A possum climbed down towards me getting one hell of a shock when it saw me. I guess human encounters in a tree are not every day business for a possum, least of all for one from Jackson Head West where human visitation is generally low.
To film something, Hongo-san turned his camera at the possum. And just to ruin his day a bit more all the possum could think of was to climb along the branches where the thick green and orange camera cables were tied up, looking like cyborg vines. “Hmm, not very natural” he said to me after the marsupial had disappeared into the night.
Because nothing else happened the wet and the cold started to creep into my bones. It seemed like ages until Ida-san finally called it a day and we packed up and headed back to town.
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 25, 2014 at 10:10 pm
My Japanese companions were busy sorting their gear at the hotel and would need another couple of hours or so. I had a camera run to complete, so I drove out to Jackson Head about two hours before high tide which today was around lunchtime.
The tide was already pretty high when I emerged from the Wharekai Te Kao track. I quickly clambered over the drift wood and headed North. Just around the first rock I froze. Two tawaki stood in front of me giving me the worried eye.
By that I mean they turned their heads as if trying to look at me from as many different angles as possible. Their crests were erect and looked like tiny yellow wings suitable for hang gliding. They extended their necks bobbed their heads and took an uneasy step this way and another one that way.
Clearly the birds were not happy to see me here. But then, if they decide to land just next to the beach at the end of a well maintained track they are bound for encounters with humans.
Rather than gawking back at them, I quickly went past them and was on my way to our study sites.
The rocky shore was quite busy with penguins. Some busy preening, others on their way up in the bush, but quite a few were just hanging out. Who would have blamed them, it was sunny, calm and almost balmy.
One of the penguins I encountered looked odd from the distance. The face seemed almost completely white. Instead of white stripes in an otherwise black cheek, this fellow had white cheeks. The crest was short, very short. Clearly I had a juvenile in front of me.
One thing all juvenile penguins regardless of species have in common is that they always seem to be a bit confused and unsure about what to do next. This fellow – for his for a juvenile already massive bill clearly identified him as a male – was no different. He started to preen, stopped and shook his head, walked a bit to the left, scratched his head with his short feet, preened again, stopped, yawned heartily and walked a bit to the right. And that’s what he did for the next ten minutes or hours for all that I’m concerned, as I walked on and past him. He barely seemed to notice (another common feat in juvenile penguins that they are also not sure whether to run and hide or check out this weird creature also walking upright on two legs).
I counted a total of four juvenile penguins on the 100 meter stretch I had to cover before I climbed up the ropes into the breeding colony.
Now, seeing juvenile penguins always is a good sign. It means there is recruitment into the penguin population, fresh blood coming in. That’s why it’s so concerning that juvenile penguins are a rare sight in Yellow-eyed penguins form Stewart Island, and lately Codfish Island as well. There we might have an aging penguin population that just slowly but surely might cease to exist.
I somehow have the feeling that the penguins from Jackson Head might be doing okay. Which is excellent considering their endangered rating.
I headed up to the apartment block to change the first set of batteries. Not a lot happening outside. A non-breeding male penguin sat on a vacant nest site and didn’t even batter an eye lid when I crawled up to the cameras. Once done with the job, I had a quick peek into the cave where I found six big and magnificently dirty chicks were huddled together. The only crèche that deserved this title I know at Jackson Head. All other crèches are two maybe three chicks strong – hardly enough to call that a ‘penguin kindergarten’.
I completed the camera maintenance of all the cameras below the apartment block before I settled on my favourite rock overlooking all of Jackson Head West. While waiting for the film crew to arrive I watched the steady trickle of penguins arriving home from their foraging trips. The sun was out, the sandflies too lazy to seriously have a go at me. In other words life was good.
Around 5pm the guys arrived, lugging heavy packs of camera equipment over the rocks to meet me at the base, which was located just underneath my perch. For the rest of the night, they set up their gear. All the cables up at the apartment block were reconnected to obscenely expensive electronics (mostly Sony gear, who would have guessed) and filming hides. The extra cameraman, who also goes by the name Ida-san which makes addressing the director Ida-san a bit more tricky,… where was I, ah yes, anyhow, Ida-san the camera man had a crack at filming at the beach which probably was quite nice given that the sun started to set spectacularly illuminating the tawaki that shook water droplets out of their feathers and preened extensively on the rocks.
Next thing I know, my stomach starts to protest. Right, haven’t eaten since breakfast. A last check that everything was as it should be with the filming, and then I headed out to get back to town for a well-deserved dinner.
September 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm
In truly appalling weather Popi and I managed to recover our first GPS logger carrying tawaki this afternoon. And despite all my concerns about difficulties of recovering penguins in the rugged terrain of Jackson Head it went extremely smoothly (well, smoothly as it can go while it is bucketing down cattle and sheep).
It went down like this. After taking a very slow start to the day – the sound of rain pounding on the roof of the house is not really stimulating to go out – we geared up in the afternoon and made our way to the Head. Just to warm up we checked some of the cameras we have installed at nests, changed SD cards and, if necessary, batteries. As the afternoon slowly but surely turned towards evening, we made our way down to the rocky shore. We had checked the loggers bird’s nest and found its partner on duty. Which meant that we would have to wait until the penguin emerged from the sea and try to get her on the rocks.
If you’ve got things to do, being out in the rain is half as bad, really. But if all you have to do is sit and wait for a penguin to show up, you inevitably will get wet (or in our case ‘wetter’), cold and eventually miserable. Under such circumstances it’s best to try to get out of the weather as much as possible. So Popi and I squeezed ourselves under a large rock where it was easier for us to pretend that we indeed were out of the weather (which we weren’t, really).
But mind you, we only had time for one quick selfie…
…when our bird appeared on the rocks just above the waterline!
“What? Can you belive that?”, Popi exclaimed while I carefully climbed out from underneath our rock and started to sneak up towards the unsuspecting tawaki.
The penguin stood on a rock preening and did not take notice of me. I had one last rock to negotiate. I took my eyes off the penguin. When I looke dup again it was gone! What? How? Where? For a moment I panicked. Did it spot me and hightailed it? I arrived at the rock the bird had been sitting on just a minute ago looked around… and there it was just below me, still busy with rearranging its feathers. Apparently it just did as Popi and I had done a short while ago and got out of the weather.
Next thing the bird knew was that a cloth bag slipped over its head. By the time I started to peel off the tape that attached the logger to its feathers, the bird had settled down on Popi’s lap. It clearly was quite alright with the fact that it would get rid of the backpack it had been lugging around for the past 48 hours.
Now, as I said earlier if you’ve got things to do, it is okay to be out in the rain. Well, this was very different. Not only were Popi and I focussed on getting the device off, weighing the penguin and getting head and foot measurements to determine its sex. We were truly stoked! From the forst look it seemed as if the i-gotU was good, no signs of leakage despite our rather unorthodox method of water proofing. Now if the NZ$100 device had actually data on board we could expect to see the first ever recorded foraging track of a Fiordland penguin tonight.
Popi released the bird not far from its nest site and observed how she headed back to where she belonged falling into an ecstatic trumpet concerto with her partner apparently no worse for wear!
That was a really good start! Despite all the doubts whether it was possible to work with tawaki that are often said to be extremely timid, we not only managed to recover a data logger from a penguin. Our intervention did not result in behaviour that could disrupt breeding or even cause nest abandonment. What a huge relief!
Popi and I were literally dancing back towards the car, totally on cloud 9. Rain? Who cares? We got the logger back and the penguin is happy!
Back in Neil’s Beach I cut the logger form its double-condom casing. I hooked it ono the computer and waited for the “Ding-Dong” indicating that the device was recognized.
I held my breath. Nothing. I held my breath a bit longer. More of nothing. “And? Did it record something?”, asked Popi.
I was just about to tell him that the computer would not recognize the device when suddenly – “Ding-Dong”.
I gazed at the screen. A window popped open to ask me wether I wanted to download the GPS data from the device. Ok?
“Downloading 2097 data points” read the message on the screen. What? 3000 GPS fixes? It worked? It really worked?
Yes, it did. Sort of. Most of the GPS fixes were recorded when the bird was sitting on its nest during the nighttime hours. However, it had performed two foraging trips. The first one yesterday, but GPS fixes stopped some 5 km northwest of Jackson Head about four hours after the bird had left its nest site around 6am in the morning. The next GPS fixes were stored just after 5pm about 4km north of the bird’s nest.
But the next day way like a birthday and christmas wrapped into one. We got a full foraging track! The first ever recorded in tawaki. And it was a surprise. For an offshore forager the bird stayed bloody close to land never putting more than 9km between itself and the coast. The penguin actuall entered the water in the middle of the night at around 2.30am then doodled around at the surface until daybreak slowly making its way to a point about 9km almost due west of the Head before it started to forage northeastwards for the next 8 hours. Just after 2pm it then turned back south landing where we eventually recovered it around 6pm. All in all it foraged for a total 16.6 hours covering around 55km in the process.
The stats read more like those of inshore foraging Yellow-eyed penguins!
We can’t wait to get more information in the next few days.