November 13, 2014 at 11:23 pm
I am back inside an old friend, the stalker’s tent hide we used to recover the last two loggers. Surely, the camouflage tepee is a good omen, a talisman of luck. It is not quite as comfy as I don’t have the chair nor the room for one. I’m sitting on a flat stone looking out of the half opened flap of the tent downhill onto the forest path.
It is almost 3pm so I have spent the last 3 hours in here already. In all that time one Tawaki has come past my hide-out, a shy female inching her way down towards the coast past the tent without a logger on her back.
The sun is out today, but it is quite windy and the sides of the tent shake quite a bit.
And without anything happening outside I’m rather bored. I pour myself another cuppa from my thermos flask and raise the cup.
“Here’s to a successful logger recovery today!”
If I only I could believe that though. I’ve got the feeling that today will turn out to be very, very quiet day. Because when I came out just before lunchtime I hardly saw any penguins. All in all I counted four birds, three of which were youngsters hanging out under a rock together, when in the past weeks there were always 10 to 20 penguins at any time of the day.
When I met Sam at the base on top of the rocks, he told me that it has been super-quiet all day, including the early morning hours. Yesterday he spotted in his own words “soooo many pengins going out” (Sam always calls them “pengins”) but today “maybe two, three”.
It seems all the birds have left yesterday probably falling for the irresistible call of food wafting as a scent down with the wind from somewhere out at sea. Then again, the wind is blowing from the South whereas logger data so far suggest that the birds tend forage to the North.
But who knows, maybe the birds also have heard the weather forecast which predicts pretty rotten weather from tomorrow on so they might all return tonight. It’s certainly a thought that helps me keeping my faith that there is a chance to get the last logger back.
And there’s another ray of light on the horizon. While sitting here in the tent I finally had the time to go through the data of the camera we have operating at JH06. And just as Haruki-san said, on 27 October there she is, logger bird at the nest reunited with husband and child.
The chick returned to the nest almost every night since then if only for half an hour. And on five days there were adult penguins with the chick. The last family gathering occurred two days ago around the time when I was heading back to the car park. So I’ve missed her by a heartbeat! D’oh!
But, and here’s the aforementioned ray of light, she did not return to the nest last night while the male and the chick showed up even this morning. On top of that there is a hungry chick begging what looks like its father for food but he just shakes his head as if to say “Wait till you mother returns.” And I have a hunch that chick and father belong to the logger bird. So she will return soon.
Today, I hope.
Two hours and three penguins going uphill and one going downhill later I am still waiting for the logger lady. At the moment, a rather plump female has made herself comfortable about 5m below my tent hide. She takes short naps, preens or scratches herself behind her ear with her short legs or, from time to time, trumpets a lonely solo. Surely if she were a breeder she’d show more determination to go up the hill. So even though I haven’t seen her backside yet I am more than sure that this is not the bird I am looking for.
An hour ago, however, a female waddled by with the determination of a breeder. She was rather wary of the tent but she nevertheless carried on up the hill. The amazing thing about her was that a large chunk was missing from her left flipper. Right in the centre of the flipper an oval gape extended all the way to the bone. It is an old injury healed and all. I wonder how she sustained it, or to rephrase that, what creature had literally taken a bite out of her. In terms of size, shark et al seem out of the question. This brings back the old placeholder the Barracouta.
But what would a Barracouta do with a penguin? Firstly, I don’t see how a fish of the size of a Barracouta could kill a penguins – so why try? Of course, Barracouta could hunt in groups and it could be a team effort to dispatch a penguin. This, secondly, raises the question why penguins sport mostly single “Barracouta” injuries. Something doesn’t seem to fit with the Barracouta theory…
Well, it’s 8pm and the number of penguins that have gone past my hide out in six hours is meagre. 4 penguins have gone up since 2pm. That’s three more than yesterday, so I shouldn’t complain. Problem is that one of them is fast asleep just outside my tent hide – and I need to go to the loo. Granted, if I set foot outside the tent the poor fellow will get the fright of his life. So I’ll just stay where I am for the time being. Maybe if another penguin shows up he will move too.
I have spent the last couple of hour reading Lloyd Davis’s “Professor Penguin”. The book is kind of the scientific memoirs of my former supervisor. It’s a great read for anyone interested in penguins. Lloyd has gone to great lengths to cover the many interesting aspects of penguin biology and weave in his field work experiences. He has met, worked with and was influenced by a great many researchers, ranging from the Elvises to Justin Biebers of penguin science. He features biographies of the researchers he considers most influential for him and just reading these short bios of people I have met and know personally is quite enlighening. Just goes to show that even if you think you know a person you have merely scratched the surface.
But the weirdest thing is to read about all those researchers and their work – catching a glimpse of penguin science as an outsider, so to speak – and then I look up realizing that I am sitting in a tent hide waiting for a penguin with a GPS logger to return while outside four Tawaki carefully tiptoe uphill.
What a privilege.
I left the forest a few minutes short of 10pm. All in all 16 penguins made their way up to the Hilltop area today. None of them bore a GPS logger. But despite having sat in the bloody tent hide for more than 10 hours today, I felt good.
November 12, 2014 at 10:58 pm
At 2.30am I heard the Japanese crew leave the hotel. I happily turned over and continued to dream of sleeping penguins.
When I reached the base below the apartment block around 10 hours later I found Sam sitting hunched and apparently fast asleep on a camping chair in the sun. He jumped up when I said “Hello!” looking around bewildered as if he didn’t quite know where he was. Yup, it was a short night and a very long morning for the guys. And a miserable morning too because not only was it bucketing down when they had to negotiate the rocks in the middle of the night, but it was also high tide so that they had to climb most of the way. As Hongo-san put it when I spoke to him “We were like Super Mario. I lost three lives. At least.” Yes, I can picture that.
And no chick had fledged but loads of juveniles crowded the now sun flooded shoreline.
Haruki-san was up on the track below the Hilltop, this time filming penguins leaving their colonies. The logger bird he did not see.
While I spoke to Haruki-san – or rather communicated using a strange form of sign language – I heard quite a racket form up near JH06. Had the logger bird returned?
As fast and quiet as I could I climbed up the hill. But, alas, it wasn’t the bird I was looking for. Nevertheless I had quite a show in front of me. A pair of Tawaki were performing an extended trumpet concerto which eventually lured their big chick out of hiding. What followed was a feeding chase with the chick running after mum who obviously did not feel like regurgitating food just yet and started running away from her hungry offspring. In fact, the two of them kept on circling a lump of grass. After each successful loop, mum would stop and regurgitate food for the chick before continuing the wild goose chase for another round. And dad supplied the soundtrack to the show, trumpeting his heart out.
“Hang on”, I thought “What was that?” While singing the male stretched his body with his bill raised high and his flippers outstretched. While mum and kid came running by he turned to follow their progress and revealed his left flipper to me. He was banded.
A band on a Tawaki? Have they ever banded Tawaki? I thought DOC had used transponders to mark the population during their monitoring programme in the 1990s…? But this one was clearly banded. What was the number?
Frantically I searched for my binoculars. But yesterday I had already realised that I had forgotten them in Dunedin. Blast it! So the camera it had to be.
I don’t know how many pics I snapped – a lot – but eventually I got one that revealed the band number – 1179. If this band came from the same series that was being used on Yellow-eyed penguins this must be a really old bird. But YEP bands are far too large for Tawaki, so I suppose there must have been a Fiordland penguin specific series of bands issued.
I will certainly try to find out who this guy is.
(It turned out that the bird was banded in 2000 as an adult on Munro Beach some 50km North of Jackson Head. So the penguin is at least 16 years old).
Interestingly, while I was busy trying to snap pics of the band, momma penguin had disappeared into a nearby burrow leaving kiddo and daddy behind. Kiddo, ever so hungry as a chick getting close to fledging should be, started begging dad for food. He stopped trumpeting and indeed regurgitated a good number of meals for the chick.
In other words, both mum and dad arrived together. And both fed their offspring. Another indication that in the later stages of breeding pairs might go out foraging in tandem.
Before assuming lookout along the forest track up to Hilltop, I once more went down to have a chat to Ida-san. The crew was about to go back and call it a day. It was past 4pm and they have been up since 14 hours – and they looked the part. Ida-san squinted at me through small, red eyes looking like he was about to keel over. His plan is to come back again next night and hope that one of the chicks from the apartment block would fledge in the morning.
And fledging is indeed imminent. There are quite a good number of chicks around that are wearing their new penguin outfit of shiny blue-black feathers with a hint of a pale yellow line running over their dark eyes. Their bills are still black and will only over the course of the next one or two years to turn to the reddish-orange colour of an adult tawaki’s bill.
I spent the next four hours sitting on a tree waiting for penguins to come up the forest track below hilltop. But except for one bird that actually climbed up the steep slope, only a handful of Tawaki that were making their way down the hill presumably out to sea. There was just not a lot happening tonight.
November 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 8, 2014 at 7:31 am
We’re leaving the island and will head back to Dunedin today. All the gear has been packed away again in seven storage bins that are being stowed on the Foveaux Express. Once we hit the mainland Hotte and I will part way with the Japanese film crew. They will drive up to Haast today to continue filming at Jackson Head for another week, while I will spend a few days with my family and attend a meeting concerning penguins in New Zealand on Monday.
I will head back up to Haast on Tuesday.
November 7, 2014 at 9:49 pm
About 20 years ago, Ian MacLean devised a cunning plan to count Tawaki along their entire breeding range. He employed tourists to take part in an adventurous survey of the Fiordland penguin in some of the remotest areas of New Zealand. Places no other tourist had seen. A pretty good selling point, quite literally.
The “volunteers” paid for the privilege of being part of this survey and spend several weeks on a ship slowly cruising along the shores of Westland, Fiordland and Stewart Island searching the coastline of sign of Tawaki like scat marks, scratches on the rocks or, of course, the penguins themselves. Occasionally they would land to do a quick search of the bush to count number of nests. These numbers eventually were used to estimate the total number Tawaki.
2,500-3,000 breeding pairs. This number is what the IUCN red list uses as the baseline for the Tawaki population today.
Strangely, though, the survey of Stewart Island was limited to the Western Coastline as well as Port Pegasus in the far South; almost the entire east coast was simply ignored. Which, as it turns out, was quite a faux-pas.
In all McLean and his co-authors found a total of 32 penguins around the sourther tip of Stewart Island and concluded that the “limited observations of Fiordland Crested penguins […] suggest that there are relatively few birds there”.
This, of course, is wrong as I know from my own observations while working with Yellow-eyed penguins a few years ago. Hotte and I had seen lots of Tawaki while sea kayaking between our study sites at Golden and Rollers Beach, i.e. exactly the area that was left out in the survey. Particularly Gull Rock stood out because we would regularly see feeding flocks of terns and tawaki in considerable numbers. In fact, whenever we kayaked past Gull Rock we would always see foraging tawaki.
Which is why we are on Stewart Island right now in the first place. And today was the last day of filming.
We went out very early this morning just before 6am. The idea was to be out at Gull Rock for two turns of the tide. The film crew had decided they wanted to be at the rock during slack water in the morning and the afternoon in an effort to get more underwater footage.
Hotte had come to the island a couple of days ago for a bit of a holiday. But I convinced him that holidays are for retirees and got him to join us on the boat for a day. I decided that we’d do something useful for a change and let us get dropped off at Golden Beach (the site where Hotte and I had worked with Yellow-eyed penguins) which is just a few hundred metres from Gull Rock. I was keen to check out the sea caves in the rocks on either side of the beach and look for Tawaki.
In 2006 when I last set foot on the beach, I had checked out one cave to the South an saw some Tawaki in there. But back then I didn’t really make an effort to find out if the birds were actually breeding in there. Today I was more determined to get to the bottom of this.
When we approached the beach Morgan who was driving the dinghy spotted a penguin on the rocks north of Golden beach. After jumping onto the soft sand I decided to have a look there first. While Hotte started counting the tracks of Yellow-eyed penguins along the beach (10 birds) I clambered across the rocks to where I saw the tawaki five minutes ago.
Of course, I couldn’t get there even though it was low tide. A carpet of slippery bull kelp lined the rocks and there was a trench where the water still stood a couple of meters deep preventing me from getting to where I thought the penguin had been. While I was considering my options I heard muffled Tawaki cries. In fact, they were so faint that it took me a while to register them as such. At first I looked up but the idea of Tawaki scaling a three-metre cliff to breed in the bush seemed rather silly.
Then I noticed a gap rocks coevered in bull kelp. A narrow cave. Perhaps a penguin roosting in there?
I got out my head torch and climbed from the rocks down onto the sand which effectively is the seafloor for the 20 hours outside of low tide. I ducked into the crevasse and noticed green sea weed lining its ceiling. Obviously this cave gets flooded at high tide. I was about to turn back when a Tawaki bark echoed through the darkness – and it clearly originated from the far end of the cave. I climbed up a short slope high enough to clear of water even at high tide.
I looked behind me and saw the narrow cave entrance. I turned my head slowly until I saw them in front of me – little cave men with white bellies wearing what looked like rugged, brown, furry coats. It took me a while to recognise two Tawaki chicks almost ready to fledge in front of me. They were quickly joined by two adult penguins that eyed me curiously. The cave itself continued around a corner.
With two chicks there must be at least two nests in this cave.
I remembered one sentence from the MacLean survey publication…
“Unfortunately, our sightings of penguins […] suggest little relationship between the number of birds on a beach or in the water and the number nesting.”
Of course you don’t expect them to breed in bloody submerged sea caves! If you look for conventional breeding sites – like I would have too until today – you will end up with a considerable discrepancy between birds in the open and nests found.
But Tawaki take the term “cryptic breeder” to a new level. The cave I was in, was quite suitable to hide a veritable pirate’s treasure. I would have never, ever looked down here if it wasn’t for the calls I heard.
I was – and still am – truly awestruck by these penguins. How they manage to find caves suitable for breeding even below the waterline is pretty amazing. Not to mention that they manage to raise chicks in complete darkness. They must have amazing eye sight. Surely light too faint to be registered by the human eye must penetrate the cave.
Seeing two chicks was enough for me to assume that at least two nests were in this cave. I did not want to cause too much of a stir and retreated rather than pushing ahead to have a look round the corner. I left the cave. I wanted to check the rocks on the other side of Golden Beach.
In the next couple of hours, Hotte and I found and checked five more caves occupied by tawaki on a stretch of no more than 200m of coastline… ranging from large amphitheatres to the narrowest tunnels that even a child could not crawl into. In three of the caves I saw chicks, the other two were impossible to check without a burrowscope or some such. With the two chicks in the submarine cave I saw a total of 6 chicks, although I am certain that there were more in the farther reaches of some of the cave systems.
Now, it’s a moot point to try use our mini-survey to estimate the number of breeding tawaki along Stewart Island’s Northeast coast. But considering the many caves between Halfmoon Bay and Gull Rock I would not be surprised if we had some 50 breeding pairs on that stretch of the coast alone. And that is probably an underestimate.
The MacLean survey recorded 32 tawaki for Stewart Island. If anything this must be an underestimate by at least an order of a magnitude. If not more.
November 3, 2014 at 10:06 pm
I am relieved. We found tawaki in the water. And lots of them. And exactly where I said we would find them. So my job is basically done. After the relative penguin-scarcity we had experienced on our random walk tour yesterday, we managed to get out to Gull Rock today. It was still quite bouncy but Ida-san managed to sleep through another potential bout of sea sickness.
It was a cold day though. And the wind blew pretty hard, first still from the North but then from the West. And it rained. A lot. All in all not a pleasant mix to be standing on the deck of the Stingray to look out for penguins.
But we did not really have to.
When we approached Bungaree Bay we could see a considerable feeding flock of white-fronted terns feeding off Gull Rock.
“That’s where we need to go”, I said to Morgan. But considering that it was too choppy to go out in the dinghy let alone dive, we decided to head into calmer waters of the bay to prepare the equipment and get Hongo and Haruki-san ready for diving.
At around lunchtime we headed back out. Getting closer to high tide, the waves had settled quite a bit and it looked a lot calmer generally. As soon as Gull Rock came into view, we spotted once again a large group of terns dive bombing into the water.
“There’ll be penguins” I proclaimed and Morgan replied “Then that’s where we go.”
Well, not only did it turn out that I was right, but that I was super-right because there easily 30-40 tawaki foraging around Gull Rock amidst a true dive bombing staccato of white-fronted terns and Sooty shearwaters.
Some smaller groups of tawaki were rather close to the boat, others a bit further away. Some groups were obviously foraging where birds spent little time at the surface before they disappeared again, while others were resting and just sitting on the surface like ducks in a pond.
A huge weight was taken off my shoulders. I have gotten the guys their diving tawaki. I had kept my promise and done my job. Now they had to do theirs.
And this is where it started to get really, really complicated.
It wasn’t that it took Luke, Hongo and Haruki-san long to get the gear and themselves into the rubber dinghy. It wasn’t even that they did not manage to get closer to some of the groups of penguins. No, the problem was that as soon as one or two of the Japanese camera men had entered the water that the penguins disappeared.
Hongo and Haruki-san would clamber back into the dinghy and Luke drove them off to the next group of dive-bombing terns for that was where the penguin now were. For the next hour or so the dinghy just zoomed from here to there only to find the penguins gone once camera men and gear were in the water.
While the dinghy was doing its thing the tawaki would show up next to the Stingray looking up at us (or as I had the feeling, particularly at Ida-san) as if laughing to our faces. It was a slick performance by the birds, as cool and composed as Leonardo Di Caprio in “Catch Me If You Can” while Ida-san got more and more frustrated trying to direct the dinghy form here to there by waving his arms frantically. I reckon he outdid Tom Hanks by at least a mile in his desperate demeanour.
After the tide had turned fewer and fewer penguins seemed to be around. However, more and more fairy prions showed up and by 2 o’clock some 300 of the tiny petrels were hovering directly above the sea surface around our boat, ducking their heads into the water to check for prey and then disappearing below for a quick feeding dive.
I would say that must have looked pretty spectacular from below the surface. But Ida-san is here to get Di Caprio aka the penguins and the beauty of great numbers of fairy prions diving in tightly packed groups eluded him completely.
As the tide got stronger the waves started to make finding Tawaki difficult for the guys on the dinghy. The frequent downpours did their thing to complicate things even further. Ida-san weathered any changing condition at the stern of the Stingray trying to direct the dinghy from here to there. But the guys out there probably did not even see him. They just kept on zooming hither, thither and wither. Very infrequently one of them would go in the water only to be picked up by Luke a minute later after an obviously unsuccessful splash.
At around 6pm they gave finally up. Not a single second of underwater footage was recorded. Hongo and Haruki-san had hardly used any of the air in their tanks. When I asked Hongo about the deepest depth he reached his reply was “30 centimetres”.
And when I asked him if he had seen any of the penguins underwater he said “Yes, one. For 0.5 seconds.”
We steamed back to town. The weather is supposed to improve somewhat tomorrow, especially the swell should be a lot better with little wave action if any.
November 2, 2014 at 10:39 pm
This morning I found myself with the rest of the film crew on the wharf at around 8am. The Stingray was ready to go. But Luke looked at Ida-san with a bit of urgency and said “Well, the conditions out there are pretty rough. I wouldn’t go out fishing in this.”
He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder roughly in the direction of the Foveaux Strait. Granted, it did not look rough from where we were. But looks can be deceiving a Halfmoon Bay is pretty sheltered in most conditions.
“It’s blowing straight westerly so we will have the waves hitting us broad side if we go out to Gull Rock today” he said and added “Believe me. It will not be pleasant.”
Now, I for one would have thought that if a Stewart Island fisherman says it is too rough that was reason enough to come up with an alternative plan for the day. Especially since the conditions are forecasted to improve from tomorrow on.
But for some reason Ida-san decided to do another recce to Gull Rock regardless. What he hoped to find there in three metre swells will remain his secret, because currently he is in no condition to speak. He is pale as a sheet and sits hunched in the corner of the Stingray’s galley.
As soon as the Stingray had steamed out of Halfmoon Bay and Morgan at the helm had turned the boat to the north towards Bungaree Bay and Gull Rock, the swell hit us broad side. Exactly as promised. The boat started to bounce and sway violently. Morgan and Luke kept on chatting while the boat rolled and sent gear flying through the wheel house. The two Ida-sans – sorry, Ida-san and Haruki-san -, Sam and Hongo had squeezed themselves in behind the galley bench and tried to hold on to what ever they could find. Which mainly was the guy sitting next to them. I stood behind Luke trying to balance the violent boat movements as best as I could.
We just got around Horseshoe Point when two extreme broadsides hit us. The engine whined and the boat rolled far enough so that I could almost stand upright on the wall. Ida-san slipped off the bench and found himself sitting in front of the Diesel stove.
What really astounded me though was that he started to crawl out onto the aft-deck. The waves kept washing over the deck no doubt soaking Ida-san to the bone. Ida-san grabbed the railing and started to feed the fish in a rather violent, explosive manner. When ever the boat rolled over to the side he was standing he came precariously close to being completely submerged in the water washing onto deck.
Luke immediately ordered Morgan to turn around. I don’t think that at this stage Ida-san had any objections.
We decides to steam into smoother waters of the sheltered Patterson Inlet to see if we would spot Little penguins or even Yellow-eyed penguins. It was a relief to be able to stand upright again.
The Stingray chugged along, entering the islands in the south eastern reaches of the inlet known as the Bravo Group. It is where a good number of Yellow-eyed penguins breed. But, alas, the birds were out on a mission and nowhere to be seen. Same applied to Little penguins.
I mentioned that a friend had told me he had once seen tawaki somewhere around The Neck, a narrow stretch of sand dunes that connect a small peninsula at the southern entrance of Patterson Inlet to the mainland. Luke called a few locals on his cellphone and asked for permission to land there. His idea was to walk over to the other side of the neck to look for penguins form land. It would give Ida-san some time off the boat and hopefully get some colour back in his face.
Morgan dropped us off with the dinghy and then headed off to pick us up with the Stingray on the other side of The Neck an hour later.
The Rakiura Maori have established a walkway that provides some breath-taking views of the Patterson Inlet, the Titi islands out in Foveaux Strait and the South-eastern coastline of Stewart Island. I have never been out here, so it was a really nice side trip for me.
We even saw a few Little penguins from up here.
An hour later we were back on the boat and steamed to a small rocky outcrop in one of the bays where we had spotted a feeding flock of sooty shearwaters. The black seabirds landed on the water and ducked under the surface staying down for quite some time before re-emerging and gracefully taking flight again. I peered through my binoculars but could not see any penguins in amongst the action.
Since we had nothing better to do we decided to anchor and wait a while to see if penguin would show up at that rock.
They didn’t. Instead the weather packed in and it started to rain so that everyone and their dogs crammed themselves into the Stingray’s wheel house. Too crowded for me so I retreated down into bow section made myself comfortable on one of the two bunks.
And now, I am going to take a nap.
Well, not much else to report. After nearly three hours of waiting with nothing but a single Yellow-eyed penguin that surfaced exactly once to see, we headed back into town.
I have the feeling that apart from still suffering from the effects of his seasickness, Ida-san is a bit concerned about the outcome of today. What if the weather is that bad the entire time we’re here? Unlikely but it’s springtime and it can always turn bad in no time. But I think what he is really worried about, is that we hardly saw any penguins.
Or is it me who is worried? I mean we’re here because I said that if there’s one place where they could film tawaki under water it would be Stewart Island.
Ah, she’ll be right.
November 1, 2014 at 8:37 pm
After a night in an obscenely large unit of a motel in Invercargill – I had a two floor unit with four beds for myself (the requirement for each member of the film crew to have his own unit is something that never ceases to amaze me) – our troupe drove down to Bluff where we got on board the 9.30am ferry to Stewart Island.
We arrived in Oban, the main settlement on the island, a mere hour later. We were just in time for the rain to set in which made transferring the equipment which had been shipped over in seven large bins (in other words: loads and loads of gear) a real joy.
Luke Simeon, a bearded guy with a dark complexion and green eyes, waited for us with a flat bed truck and helped shuttling the massive amount of gear to the hotel. Luke is a commercial Paua diver and crayfisherman. His fishing boat Stingray will be our floating base and has ample room to store all the diving equipment and filming gear. His fishing buddy Morgan will be acting skipper on Luke’s boat given that Luke potentially will spent considerable amount of time in the water with the two camera men.
In theory that would sum up the day adequately, if it wasn’t for what came out during the dinner I had with the crew at the hotel restaurant.
Now, one thing that I feel was a bit of an issue these last days, was that I spent hardly any time with the guys outside after our daily work in the field. Since the return of the film crew, I had hardly spent time with them outside the field. The days were too long and we always left early in the morning and returned late at night. So we had pretty little time to a chat over breakfast or dinner about what was going on and how we would continue the work.
So in a sense here on Stewart Island we had the first evening the team spent together since the crew returned from Japan. Finally some time to catch up on the things that happened in the past week and which are planned for the next few days.
Just to avoid confusion from here on: we have finally found a solution for our double Ida-san problem (i.e. the director vs the cameraman). We call Ida-san (the cameraman) by his first name, which makes him Haruki-san.
Anyhow, there we were having the first proper dinner together and Haruki-san asked me how deep Tawaki would dive (Sam translated.)
‘We don’t really know yet, but we will find out next year, when we will have dive loggers’, I replied.
Haruki-san raised his eyebrows. “But you have devices on the birds. I saw it.”
“Yes”, I replied. “But this year we have only GPS loggera available that do not record dive depths. We got the last logger back a couple of weeks… hang on… you saw what?!?”
“When I was filming in the forest. A bird with a logger on the back came walking up the path. I filmed it so we can show you.”
My jaw hit the table in astonishment. He had seen the final missing logger bird! He had even filmed it for me!! And I only find out about it by accident days later when we are on Stewart Island??? I turned to Sam.
“Oh, sorry, I forgot to tell Haruki-san about the logger. So he didn’t know what to do”, Sam apologised who I had instructed to brief all the team members about our final logger bird up on Hilltop. They were to give me a call the moment they saw the bird.
Guess my instructions got lost in translation. Doh!
Well, opportunity lost. At least I know what to do when we get back to Haast – sit in the forest to catch our last missing logger bird.
October 31, 2014 at 11:26 am
Off we go down South. Our team will travel down to Invercargill today to catch the first ferry to Stewart Island tomorrow.
Next item on the list – underwater filming off tawaki off the Anglem coast.
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.