September 17, 2016 at 8:25 pm
We carried out nest searches and showed a camera team from NHNZ round Jackson Head. Nest numbers appear way down this year with lots of empty nests being guarded by one or two adults. It seems that many birds decided to give this season a miss and just hang out in the breeding area. Could also be that some birds died over the winter migration and left single mates that are now waiting for a partner that will never return. El Niño took a significant hit on the Jackson Head tawaki’s breeding success last year and probably also affected their foraging success during the winter. So it will be interesting to see what the breeders do this season while at sea.
July 2, 2016 at 8:24 pm
In the face of environmental change, the tawaki is at last receiving the scientific attention needed to protect one of the world’s rarest penguin species.
Many New Zealanders know the little blue penguins that live and breed along most of our mainland coastlines, and we hold the yellow-eyed penguin that adorns our $5 bill in our hands every day. But faced with a photo of a Fiordland crested penguin/tawaki, most of us likely wouldn’t recognise it as another native species. Tawaki belong to the group of crested penguins that boast striking yellow feathers above their eyes. Unfortunately, most crested penguin populations have been declining during the last century, and tawaki do not seem to be an exception. The population is estimated to range between 5,000 and 6,000 birds, and at some sites their numbers are believed to have declined by as much as 30 percent over just 10 years.
But there is considerable uncertainty about the numbers. Unlike other crested penguins, who breed in densely packed colonies, tawaki breed in scattered colonies, mostly in forests along the rugged coastlines of South Westland, Fiordland, Stewart Island/Rakiura and outlying islands. They are true forest penguins that epitomise the wrongness of the penguins-on-ice stereotype. It also means that it is no mean feat finding – and counting – these penguins in the remote and wild areas they inhabit.
Their nesting habitat ranges from sea level to 100m elevation, and they like to breed in impenetrable vegetation. Some pairs have even been found breeding in sea caves with access only through submerged entrances. This means it is next to impossible to get accurate estimates of tawaki populations throughout their entire range.
In 2014, Robin Long surveyed a 60km stretch of coastline between Haast and Milford Sound to identify and accurately census tawaki breeding colonies in the area. She found at least 870 pairs – a stark contrast to the 150 pairs reported in a 1994 survey. However, this likely represents an underestimate in the earlier census rather than an increase in actual penguin numbers. By repeating her 2014 survey during the next 10 years, Robin will record changes in penguin numbers, which will be used to extrapolate trends of the entire tawaki population.
Determining tawaki population size and trends is one thing. Coming up with conservation measures to ensure the survival of the species is another. It is equally important to determine which key threats affect the penguins and what options we have to mitigate these threats.
Tawaki breed on land but find their food at sea. On land, introduced predators – stoats, possums and dogs – may prey on the penguins and their offspring, while human activities can disturb breeding birds and cause them to abandon sites. At sea, rising ocean temperatures probably disrupt prey availability, fisheries may compete for resources or result in accidental bycatch, and pollution in the wake of proposed oil exploration could also become a major problem for the tawaki.
To date, very little is known about tawaki ecology. For decades, the inaccessibility of their breeding sites was a major barrier for scientific investigation. However, by using new technologies to observe and track the penguins, two research groups from the West Coast Penguin Trust and Otago University have joined forces to fill in significant gaps in our knowledge about the species.
Using motion-sensing cameras at nest sites, the trust is carrying out a study to determine the impact of introduced predators on tawaki. In the past two years, thousands of videos have been recorded. Although most video clips show penguins preening or gathering nest material, occasionally intruders – stoats, possums and rats – enter the scene. While it appears that possums and rats keep a respectful distance from the breeding birds, stoat attacks on chicks caused some monitored nests to fail.
The Tawaki Project is studying the penguins’ marine biology. Using miniaturised GPS dive loggers, Otago University researchers Thomas Mattern and Ursula Ellenberg study tawaki’s foraging ranges and diving behaviour. First results indicate that climate substantially influences the birds’ foraging success, but apparently this depends largely on the region in which the penguins breed. During the strong 2015 El Niño, tawaki from Jackson Head, Haast, had to travel hundreds of kilometres to find food for their chicks while others in Milford Sound could obtain ample food without leaving the fiord.
Both projects will significantly expand our knowledge of tawaki and provide much needed information for fact-based management of New Zealand’s unique and enigmatic forest penguin. To find out more, see www.tawaki-project.org and www.bluepenguin.org.nz.
June 11, 2016 at 4:44 pm
The moderate earthquake that hit Fiordland last week is reminder that tawaki have chosen a particularly precarious stretch of coast to breed. The species’ entire breeding distribution follows one of New Zealand major geological boundaries, the Alpine Fault.
Here the Pacific Plate meets the Indo-Australian Plate, two of the earth’s major tectonic plates. Or more specifically, the Pacific Plate moves over its counterpart, pushing it downwards while lifting itself up – forming the Southern Alps in the process. It’s a pretty lively zone where earthquakes are a common occurrence. So tawaki live in a pretty shaky region.
That wouldn’t be half so bad, if they would breed in earthquake proof burrows. But a lot of them don’t. Many tawaki establish their nests under rocks or boulders, sometimes along the course of old landslips which in itself is a reminder of the violent forces of earthquakes. As researcher, it is a pain to find your way through this jumble of rocks because not every stone you step on is as stable as it seems. Even larger boulders may give way and start to roll when you try to climb over them. Obviously, that is the last thing you want as there might be tawaki breeding under that very same rock.
What does this mean for tawaki when there is an earthquake?
Well, first of all, as stated before earthquakes are a common occurrence along the Alpine Fault. So we can probably assume that a lot of the rocks the penguins have decided to breed under have been shaken into place already and are unlikely to be moved by another wee quake.
However… there is a very big earthquake waiting to happen. The Alpine Fault has ruptured four times in the past 9 centuries, which is about one big earthquake every 225 years. And the last rupture dates back to 1717 – almost 300 years ago. So the next big one is overdue. In fact, geologist estimate the next rupture of the Alpine Fault to occur in the next 50 years. And it will create a massive earthquake of magnitude 8 or more, at least as violent as the 2015 Nepal earthquake. If not more so. To put that into perspective, the devastating earthquake that hit Christchurch in February 2011 was of magnitude 6.3.
The predicted epicenter is about half way between Jackson Head and Harrison Cove. Actually the isoseismals (blue lines in the graph above) forecasting the spatial distribution of seismic activity, neatly cover the core breeding areas of West Coast and Fiordland tawaki. So penguins occupying this stretch of coast will be in for a wild ride indeed. And it is safe to assume that the rocks under which tawaki are breeding will move once more when that happens.
If the quake hits during the breeding season tawaki might indeed be in trouble. In this case, a lot of penguins attending their nests may be crushed by shifting rocks or buried under the rubble of landslides. With such a big earthquake, tsunamis are probably to be expected as well so that birds not breeding under rocks may get washed away. So it could be quite bad. But tawaki would have to very unlucky for that to happen.
How likely is it that tawaki will be at home during quake?
Tawaki spend most of their lives at sea. So the timing of the quake would have to be spot on and coincide with the penguins’ breeding season (August to November) or moulting (February), the only periods of the year the birds spend substantial time on land. This means that the penguins are only in the region for four months every year. That’s only a 1:3 chance of tawaki witnessing the quake first-hand. It’s more likely that they come back from their migration to find their breeding site layout altered substantially.
If it happens during the breeding season, will it be enough to wipe them out completely?
Highly unlikely, as there will be a lot of non-breeders and juveniles as well as foraging parents at sea and therefore likely spared from quake-related misfortune. And at sea, those birds can handle all kinds of turmoil…
May 6, 2016 at 2:07 pm
One thing that bugged me for quite some time was the question who was first to lay eyes on tawaki. Obviously, the Maori were likely the first ones to have done so. In fact, they laid more than just their eyes on the penguin. Tawaki bones in Maori middens of New Zealand’s North Island indicate that the penguins were a commodity for Maori and it’s highly doubtful that they kept them as pets. (In fact, there is an alternative name for tawaki in Maori, ‘Pokotiwha’, which is also used as an insulting swear word. Tawaki must have given Maoris that handled them a hard time.)
The first European to come close to tawaki country was of course Captain James Cook. On his first voyage (1768-71) Cook circumnavigated New Zealand and that way became the first European to visit Fiordland. Cook had a rather prolific naturalist on board, Joseph Banks, a very educated and observant scientists who no doubt would have made a note of tawaki if he’d ever encountered them.
But, alas, two things stood against Banks describing tawaki. One was timing. The other were apparent animosities between him and Captain Cook.
Although Cook visited New Zealand on all his three journeys, he reached Fiordland only on his first. After sailing down the South Island’s east coast in February 1770 and circling around Stewart Island’s South Cape at the beginning of March, Cook first spotted Fiordland on 11 March 1770.
March. The month after tawaki have finished their moult and are all out on their winter migration. So Cook was too late and it seems highly unlikely that Joseph Banks would have been able to observe tawaki. If they would have landed, that is.
Because Cook never made land fall in Fiordland, much to the dismay of Banks. In fact, it seems as if the two of them weren’t getting on too well because of this.
On 14 March, Cook’s ship Endeavour had reached Doubtful Sound. But due to the wind situation Cook doubted (hence the name!) that if he entered the fiord, he would be able to get back out again. Cook wrote in his log:
The land on each side the Entrance of this Harbour riseth almost perpendicular from the Sea to a very considerable Height; and this was the reason why I did not attempt to go in with the Ship, because I saw clearly that no winds could blow there but what was right in or right out, that is, Westerly or Easterly; and it certainly would have been highly imprudent in me to have put into a place where we could not have got out but with a wind that we have lately found to blow but one day in a Month. I mention this because there was some on board that wanted me to harbour at any rate, without in the least Considering either the present or future Consequences.
“Some on board” was quite obviously the naturalists faction led by Joseph Banks. On the same day Banks wrote into his journal:
Stood along shore with a fair breeze and passed 3 or 4 places that had much the appearance of harbours, much to my regret who wishd to examine the mineral appearances from which I had formd great hopes.
Banks journal entries in the following days are rather short and emit an aura of frustrated anger. When writing his account of New Zealand while the Endeavour sailed to Australia at the end of the month, Banks couldn’t help but reiterate his frustration about not being able to land in Fiordland:
The South part, which is much more hilly and barren than the North, I firmly believe to Abound with minerals in a very high degree. This however is only conjecture; I had not, to my great regret, an opportunity of landing in any place where the signs of them were promising except the last; nor indeed in any one, where from the ship the Countrey appeard likely to produce them, which it did to the Southward in a very high degree, as I have mentiond in my Daily Journal.
Although Banks came in contact with penguins on his journey to New Zealand, he did almost certainly miss out on tawaki.
Which is probably for the better too. Banks as a ‘collector of fine specimen’ shot most of the animals he found interesting.
April 24, 2016 at 5:57 pm
The analysis of the tawaki dive data we collected at Jackson Head and Milford Sound is largely in dry towels. And the results are pretty interesting.
The GPS data penguins brought home with them already highlighted tremendous differences in the foraging behaviour at both sites. The foraging ranges (that is, the distance the birds travelled during single foraging trips) differed by almost an order of a magnitude, with Jackson Head birds swimming up to 100 km away from their breeding colonies.
In comparison to other crested penguins this is not necessarily record breaking, but still was a lot further than any of the tawaki had travelled in the previous season. At the same time, the ranges of tawaki from Harrison Cove were unbelievably short. The average distance the birds put between themselves and their nest sites was a little above 3 km. Yes, not a typo – three kilometres. These are officially the shortest foraging ranges I have ever heard of in any penguin species!
So, how does that reflect in their diving behaviour and what does it mean?
One could for example assume that penguins that travel a lot show a lower average dive depth compared to birds that hop in the water and start feeding straight away. Why? Well, when trying to cover distances it makes sense to move primarily horizontally which means many shallow dives.
And that’s what we found in the far travelling tawaki from Jackson Head. Almost half of the ca. 13,000 dives recorded in eight penguins were not deeper than 15 metres. The other 6,500 dives went down to depths of up to 90 m, although the majority ranged between 20 and 60m. So that is probably where the penguin were on the lookout for food.
So without having to travel at all… did the Harrison Cove tawaki dive deeper? No, quite the contrary! We recorded about 9,500 dives performed by six birds. And on almost 80% of these the birds stayed in the upper 15 m of the water column. What gives?
Well, underwater visibility in a fiord is quite limited. The fiord is usually covered by a freshwater layer created by heavy rainfalls that also wash a lot of detritus from the surrounding land into the water. As a result you don’t have to go down deep if you want to experience a night dive in broad daylight. This is also why in Milford Sound you can observe deep water species just a few meter below the surface.
For penguins as visually hunters that means that the darker it gets the less likely they are to spot their prey. So it seems to make sense for tawaki to stay up there… until you start to wonder why their prey does not bugger off into the darkness?
Well, perhaps it can’t because the prey the penguins were after was itself looking for food in the sunlit ranges of the fiord. Or the penguin food is brought passively to the surface by water movements. That applies for example to krill – which we found in considerable quantities washed up on the shore and which is a staple food for the tawaki’s closest living relative, the Snares penguin.
Occasionally penguin prey may be found at greater, darker depths. That may be the reason why almost all of the penguins occasionally dove down to 50 m or more. The record for the greatest depth stands at 80.6 m. After we lowered a GoPro into Harrison Cove, we can be sure that at such depths there is not a lot to see anymore.
So what have we learnt?
We have learnt that the Harrison Cove penguins were a lot better off when compared to their Jackson Head counterparts. Not only did they not have to travel to some far away foraging grounds to find food. They also did not have to dive very deep to get to it. In short, foraging at Harrison Cove was pretty damn peachy.
Whereas at Jackson Head, life served the penguins lemons. And admire them for at least trying to make lemonade. The birds did everything they could to raise their chicks. And while it was unsuccessful for many of them, I am sure, next season will see the odds evened out between Jackson Head and Harrison Cove.
March 17, 2016 at 1:44 pm
Last night word reached us that Inger Perkins from the West Coast Penguin Trust made a disturbing discovery while analysing footage from a trail camera deployed last season at Jackson Head.
Using motion triggered trail cameras the trust investigates the impact of terrestrial predators on tawaki at Jackson Head and Gorge River. We are closely collaborating with the trust and maintain the cameras while we’re in the field.
At Gorge River, trust cameras have already recorded how penguin chicks fall prey to stoats, which in New Zealand have wreaked havoc with all kinds of birdlife in the past century. At Jackson Head, however, it is mainly possums that tend to visit penguin nests apparently without causing them any grief.
And as such, analysing the video data has been an enjoyable affair that provided some neat insights into the family life of tawaki. That is, until Inger stumbled across said disturbing footage which raised the question whether Bigfoot or the Yeti might be roaming New Zealand’s West Coast:
(Actually, it’s just a very cheerful Klemens Pütz triggering one of the cameras after checking on one of our GPS logger birds.)
February 3, 2016 at 4:51 pm
Although this season’s field work is long over – and, in fact, tawaki are currently going through their annual moult after a grueling and fantastic season (depending if you’re a penguin from Jackson Head or Harrison Cove, respectively) – we only now managed to compile or field report for the season. It can be found as PDF on our Download page and is easily reconginzed by the awesome and overwhelmingly green cover shot.
We have a good excuse for the late publication though. We have been busy with other penguin work on the Otago Peninsula where we trialled novel camera loggers on Yellow-eyed penguins. And despite a few organisational set-backs the trials went well and provided us with truly fantastic underwater footage of a penguin searching for and catching prey. Not strictly tawaki but too awesome not to share it here:
September 23, 2015 at 10:48 pm
We managed to deploy two more GPS dive loggers on chick-rearing female tawaki. The females are the sole providers of food for their chick while the male guards them. Last year, the females left early in the morning and returned in the afternoon or evening of the same day. In fact, they were very predictable that way.
This year, however, the birds seem to return at any time of the day. Data from the first logger deployments also suggest that the birds travel a lot further away from Jackson Head than last year.
The graph above shows the movement path and dive profile of a 3.5 days foraging trip undertaken by a female tawaki. The bird covered at least 232 km in 85 hours 55 minutes. In order to cover such a great distance, the penguin could not perform a lot of deep dives.
The three dimensional representation of the female’s 3.5 day foraging track underlines the distances the penguins cover while searching for food. The red line indicates the corresponding section in the dive profile. Only when looking at the graph very closely, small wiggles are visible in the line. Those are the individual dives. Hard to see at this scale. But with all this travelling it is safe to say that the penguins are working incredibly hard this year.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be enough. We’ve received word that the situation is similar at other breeding sites on the West Coast. So we’re all a bit concerned what we will find next week when we relocate to Milford Sound.
September 22, 2015 at 11:17 pm
We are enjoying gorgeous weather here on the West Coast while the rest of the country experiences pretty wet conditions. The weather certainly helped us getting three more data loggers on chick-rearing females last night.
Putting the devices on proved to be a rather quick job thanks to the fact that we are four people at the moment. In teams of two we could work simultaneously at two sites to start with. And having Klemens Pütz on board also turned out to be a bit of a game changer.
Klemens introduced us to a new technique to get penguins off their nests, which is as effective as it is simple. Klemens produced some catching hooks out of 3 mm fence wire he had found in Neils Beach. The contraptions look like primitive shepherd’s crooks – a length 2.5 m length of wire with the end twisted backwards to form a narrow hook. With the hook it is now possible to get penguins out of otherwise inaccessible burrows by gently pulling the birds out on one of their legs. It speeds up the whole process too so that logger deployments can be completed in under 10 minutes. That means a lot less stress for birds as well as researchers.
All three logger birds came from nests that seem to do rather well with healthy looking, reasonably fed chicks. Others were not so lucky. Another of our monitored nests failed yesterday where we found a freshly dead chick. When we later examined the stomach content of the small carcass we found a solid block of squid beaks occupying almost two thirds of the organ. Penguins cannot digest squid beaks easily and either need to break them down by swallowing small stones or just wait until they slowly dissolve. By the looks of it, being fed mainly squid is very bad for the chicks as the beaks quickly accumulate and cause severe constipation that eventually kills the chick.
Some of the chicks look quite skinny while others are doing better. On one of the three nests where we deployed loggers last night, the chick weighed 1.3Kg. The similar sized carcass we collected today was only 300g.
Although it is rather sad to see so many nests fail, it is fortunate that we are here to study the penguins’ foraging behaviour. The data will be so valuable to see how El Niño affects these birds. Next year will surely be a lot better again – and so will be the foraging performance by the tawaki of Jackson Head.
September 20, 2015 at 10:25 pm
We managed to get both data loggers back today.
The first bird did what we expected it do during the early chick-rearing phase, and stayed within a 8-km radius of Jackson Head. Unfortunately, she returned to a chick with dead nests as the male had abandonned his post in her absence. We did not know it at the time, but it was already an indication for what is happening here at the moment.
The second female performed two 2-day trips that took here 50km away from Jackson Head. Now, considering that she is caring for a very small chick that needs to be fed frequently, long-term trips are a bad idea.
Then again, we are observing a very bad breeding season for tawaki. While last season we counted two failed nests over the entire breeding season, we have already lost in the 8 nests in the week we are here. And it doesn’t seem to stop there. Chicks all over the place look rather small and do not seem to gain much weight.
It appears that the feeding situation out there is severely disrupted by El Niño. But it is really admirable how some dads hold the fort while mum is out trying her best to find food for their little ones.