May 8, 2017 at 4:45 pm
There are many questions about penguins. How old can they get? How deep do they dive? Can they tap-dance? (No!)
One question that is also often brought up is: why are penguins black and white?
It seems as if despite the apparent trickyness of this question, a lot of people seem to have an idea. Of course, as a penguin scientist we also have our theories about the topic. And here we want to find out to which extent our theories line up with public ideas as to why penguins have black backs but flash bright white bellies.
Thanks heaps to Kiyomi Ogawa for the Japanese translation of our poll questions!
We will write a blog post about the results and current scientific theories about this simple yet complicated question in a week or two.
March 21, 2017 at 4:05 pm
What do catastrophic floods in Peru have to do with tawaki from Jackson Head?
Torrential rainfall in the Andes has wreaked havoc in Peru, killing 72 people and rendering thousands homeless. While many media outlets were quick to pin this catastrophe to the weather phenomenon El Niño, it’s actually not quite that. No yet, anyhow.
We witnessed the devastating effects El Niño had on tawaki from Jackson Head a mere two years ago. Many chicks died of starvation while their mothers desperately tried to find enough food on long, far-ranging foraging trips. In the end the breeding season turned out to be a pretty bad one with only a quarter of the chicks surviving until fledging. Then, last season, a stoat invasion befell the tawaki population pushing the breeding success down to close to zero.
If we are indeed on the verge of another El Nino, the penguins could be facing a third bad season in a row. So, when confronted with the terrible news from Peru, a visit to NOAA the world’s authority with regards to El Niño was in order. The first sentence of the current El Niño report is a bit of a relief “El Niño neutral conditions continued during February”. But…
…the Peruvian catastrophe shows all the hallmarks of an El Niño with much higher ocean temperatures than normal. What keeps it from qualifying as El Niño is that these warmer temperatures are offset by cooler waters further west along the equator. Some scientists have therefore dubbed the situation a ‘coastal El Niño’. And not only that. Further down the NOAA report it reads that after the March-May period “there are increasing odds for El Niño toward the second half of 2017 (50-55% chance)”.
If the severity of the ‘coastal El Niño’ at play in Peru now is an indication for what might happen towards the end of this year, the Jackson Head tawaki have to brace themselves for another tough season.
February 27, 2017 at 3:13 pm
The tawaki moult is in full swing. All of the penguins we fitted with satellite tags have returned to the mainland to grow a brand new coat of feathers. The question we had was whether they would do this in the comfort of their own home (aka ‘nest’). After we found Jackson Head almost devoid of any penguins in February last year, we started to doubt that the birds return to their colonies to moult as it is commonly believed.
So last weekend, we headed over to Milford Sound to catch up with our friends at Southern Discoveries, hitched a ride to Harrison Cove and, together with Andrea Faris, dived into the bush to have a look for penguins. It did not take long to find ample signs of moult – feather trails leading to piles of the fluffy stuff. All clear indications that Harrison Cove is indeed a popular hang out for a change of feathers.
Overall we encountered 20 penguins, some holed up with (presumably) their mates in their nesting caves looking rather bedraggled, others in the final stages of shedding the old feathers, but many apparently through the moult entirely and more or less ready to go on yet another long migration.
For us this means that we can plan to come back this time next year to deploy trackers on these birds to examine where they travel to get in shape for another tough breeding season.
January 31, 2017 at 10:47 am
The summer holidays are over. Whether we can call the post-breeding and pre-moult migration of tawaki a holiday is another question. Judging from the distances that the birds cover in the two to three months after their chicks have hatched, there is a fair amount of effort involved in their journey.
Back in mid-November we deployed satellite tags on 20 tawaki from Gorge River. Since then more than 3,000 locations were transmitted through the Argos system satellites. While some of the tags stopped submitting halfway through the birds’ journeys – most likely because the penguins managed to preen them off their backs – we still have a number of birds that are actively transmitting.
And one of them, a female tawaki, is close to home. Another 250km and she is back where she started 82 days ago. She travelled 3,830 km and distanced herself 1,370 km from her nest site in Gorge River. So the last few kilometres are peanuts. The amazing thing, however, is that this journey was just the prelude to the winter migration which the bird will go on after the moult in February. That, however, we will not be able to track as the tracker will fall off once the bird starts shedding its feathers. Good thing the Tawaki Project has another two years to go.
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.)
December 24, 2016 at 11:18 am
Doing research is one thing, sharing the knowledge you’ve gained another. Far too often, scientific results are published in scientific journals that nobody reads or has access to. As much as we try to spread the word about the fantastic creatures that tawaki – and other NZ penguin species are – a lot of our time is used up with data analysis, writing reports and trying to secure funding for upcoming field seasons. But this time we were incredibly lucky to share our experiences with two professional story tellers. Richard Robinson‘s incredible photographs capture the beauty of our flippered friends and Bill Morris‘ fantastic account about penguins in New Zealand will no doubt help to raise much needed awareness for a seabird that in our country is taken for granted and, as a result, often underappreciated.
Go and support their work! Buy the latest issue of New Zealand Geographic!
December 22, 2016 at 3:53 pm
The Tawaki Project’s Fiordland season wrapped up in the current issue of the Advocate South (also known as Fiordland Advocate).
December 3, 2016 at 4:08 pm
So much for ‘once chicks fledge they will not touch try land again for almost a year’. This tawaki chick from Rollers Beach, Stewart Island, obviously had different plans. After its first splash in the big blue, it found itself a nice little rock not far from the cave it hatched in. It then spent the better half of a day perched there preening extensively and enjoying the life in fresh air (as opposed to the ammonia contaminated, dank gas not really qualified to be called ‘air’ inside said cave).
Ultimately, however, high tide forced the young one to get wet again… and start the adventure of its first year at sea.
December 1, 2016 at 4:22 pm
The 2016 tawaki breeding season is coming to a close. Along the north-east coast of Stewart Island, where tawaki tend to occupy every nook and cranny, few birds are still patrolling along the coastlines. Soon all of them will head off to fatten up for the annual moult in February. Where they go is still a mystery… but not for much longer. We’re on it.
November 19, 2016 at 4:27 pm
The Tawaki Project field season 2016 is under wraps. At least the part where we crawl through the bush trying to find tawaki nests and recover data loggers from penguin volunteers. That doesn’t mean that there is no fresh data incoming. Because the satellite tags we deployed on tawaki to examine their at-sea movements before the moult will keep on transmitting data until the birds shed their feathers in February.
Around Gorge River we have probably the highest concentration of tawaki in New Zealand. The birds really seem to like the long stretches of bouldery beaches and the gently sloping forest beyond them. The tangle of bushlawyer, supplejack and kiekie makes for good breeding habitat. Robin Long has conducted several searches in the region over the last few years and has found nest numbers in the order of several hundreds.
And we encountered juvenile tawaki! With short crests, and grey beards they tend to sit around on the beaches or along the penguin highways up into the forest, looking quite unsure as to what they are supposed to do. This is a very good sign for the species, because after the disastrous breeding outcome at Jackson Head due to El Niño last year, one could have expected that none of last year’s chicks made it through the winter migration.
Over the course of the next weeks we will track the progress of the birds we fitted with satellite tags. It’s nice not to have to wait until we recover the devices to get to the data. Hopefully all of them will return to Gorge River to moult so that we can get the tags back. Otherwise the devices will fall off wherever the penguins decide to gwor some new feathers.