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.
November 16, 2016 at 4:08 pm
This Sunday, we went out to Jackson Head once more to have a look whether the setting of several stoat traps in the last active breeding area Popi’s Plaza made a difference for the surivival of the last few remaining tawaki chicks.
When we left in mid-October there were three chicks large enough to be running around freely but small enough to be taken by stoats. At that stage, two stoats had been trapped in this particular breeding area. The traps remained active for a few weeks after we left under the care of DOC Haast.
The good news is that, yes, all three chicks in Popi’s Plaza are alive and well. They all hang out together under the watchful eye of two adult males. So it seems the trapping did the trick. The problem is, however, that trapping Jackson Head is a logistical nightmare and not really a viable solution for such inaccessible habitat. So we need alternatives…
October 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm
After an overnight stint in Harrison Cove the Milford Sound team we managed to deploy the last three loggers before the first light on females departing the breeding area; one of which was a transponder tagged bird that carried a GPS dive logger last year. So the day’s chores were completed before breakfast! As the day was young we decided that this was an opportune moment to check whether there are any tawaki breeding in Sinbad Gully, just across the fjord from Harrison Cove.
Dan and Sam from Southern Discoveries dropped us off at the mouth of Sinbad River sometime after 10am which left us about 1.5 hours to have a look for tawaki in an area that has thus far has not been recognized as a breeding location. However, one the GPS tagged birds last year had spent 3 days over here, so we felt it was worth a look. There were no signs of tawaki in the shore (i.e. poo) or any other indications that the birds may hike up the hill to breed. But since we were here, we scrambled upwards through the thick forest.
Tawaki nests are never easy to find. But lots of windfalls and fern leafs littering the forest floor made it virtually impossible to look for the usual cues for tawaki presence. However, seemingly out of nowhere we came across a rock that had scratch marks from tawaki claws. And then finally, the pipping of a tawaki chick gave away the first nest.
Overall we found 9 nests, two of which had failed recently. However, within the limited time we had, it is obvious that there must be quite a few more tawaki nests in Sinbad Gully. It would take a few days of proper searching to get a better idea how many nests the Sinbad colony comprises of. But it’s likely going to be a significant two-digit number.