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 26, 2014 at 12:06 pm
Well, this day is quickly summarised. Ida-san (the director), Ida-san (the camera man) and Sam headed North to meet up with Gary Sweeney, owner of the Tawaki Lodge who took them to a secret place where Tawaki swim up a creek to get to their nest sites. I, Hongo-san and Kamai were supposed to go to Jackson Head and film at the Apartment Block.
But Hongo-san decided to get sick and just felt too miserable to go to work. So we stay at the Hotel where I will spend the rest of the day in front of the tiny desk in my room and do some computer work.
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.
October 24, 2014 at 7:59 pm
A week with the family in Dunedin and here I am again, back in Haast. Today the Japanese film crew around Ida-san returns for the second stint of Tawaki filming at Jackson Head.
Well, that was the plan anyhow. I got a late start in Dunedin so no time for a lunch break as I had to make it across the Haast Pass and the Diana Falls before 6pm. And while I made it, my Japanese companions did not.
Not long after I checked in at the Heritage Hotel, my phone rang. The receptionist told me that the rest of the crew will be spending their night in Makarora until the road has opened again.
Oh well, no Tawaki briefing tonight then.
October 15, 2014 at 4:46 pm
Just a quick note jotted down before we head across the Alps and back to Dunedin.
This morning we finished the second half of the camera run. Now the devices have to operate for a bit more than a week without our care. I will return for a second stint of filming with the Japanese film crew in the last week of October. But I am sure that the batteries will last until then.
While it was rather gray when we finished our camera maintance, it has turned into a glorious blue-sky-and-sunshine day. Perfect house cleaning weather. Now, I will spare you the details of what we all cleaned. Suffice to say that it took us all day and now we have to rush back to Haast to make it past the Diana Falls slip before they close the road on us!
October 14, 2014 at 10:51 pm
My alarm clock went off at a humane 7am this morning. But it did not take me long to convince myself that it was quite alright to have another wee snooze before getting up. Outside it was bucketing down.
And it kept on doing for most of the morning. So rather than assuming a lookout in the hide tent, Hotte and I busied ourselves with getting the house cleaned up, for today was the last full day of this year’s field work for the Tawaki Project.
After lunch the rain had turned into occasional drizzle showers so we had no further excuses but geared up and headed out to the Heads.
The plan for today was simple. Hotte would keep an eye on the coast while I did the first half of the camera run. Since we had to replace batteries in most of the cameras, this would keep me busy for quite a while.
The forest was dripping wet and particularly getting up to the Hilltop area was treacherous to say the least. I struggled with batteries that would not come out of the trail cams and cursed the flimsy straps with which I had to tie the cameras to rocks, trees or any other, less suitable form of vegetation. It all took longer than I thought.
Back at the apartment block I carefully approached the camera just in case our logger female was at home. But she wasn’t. That was okay. I was expecting her to return from a foraging trip today anyhow and Hotte kept a close eye on who arrived and whether they were carrying any additional freight. He would have called me over the radio if anything happened.
After a couple of hours I finally ran out of batteries and SD cards; today’s camera run was done.The penguins checking out the guy fiddling with the cameras were certainly glad when I decided to call it a day up here in the nesting area.
I headed down the rope to the rocky shore. However, rather than going back to the hide, I decided to crawl into a cave-like overhang – it was drizzling again – and get the small laptop from my pack and have a look at the beach camera as well as the logger nest camera data.
No trace of the logger bird on any of last night’s trail camera images sitting at the Creek beach access. As predicted. I started to flick through the nest camera data.
The radio crackled inside my bum bag.
“Umm. I…err… I think the logger bird has just returned.”
Hotte did not seem too certain about that. I fiddled with the bum back to get the radio out when a more assertive Hotte proclaimed “It’s our bird! It’s our bird!”
“I’ll be with you shortly!” I replied. “Just don’t let it go anywhere!”
I crammed the laptop back into the backpack and crawled out of the cave in record time and started to boulder hop round the point towards the penguin landing.
“It’s on the move!” Hotte shouted into the radio.
“I’m coming! If I don’t make you go after it!” I wheezed while negotiating the rocks. When I reached the penguin landing area I started to hunch and move carefully from rock to rock. I did not want to send any of the penguins off in a flight.
“She’s almost up at in the creek!”
I peeked around the infamous rock where I had managed to get the logger off the other Tawaki yesterday. No penguins in sight. I climbed further uphill turned left – and there she was. Standing on a rock looking at me as if she wanted to say “Oh great, that guy again.” She certainly expressed her thoughts on me when I picked her up and she started pecking my hands and arm.
Less than five minutes later I released her up at the creek – with another successful GPS logger recovery accomplished! We packed up and headed out shortly after the penguin had made her way up into the Kiekie.
It was a rather weird feeling to get into the car and drive back home to Neil’s Beach in daylight. The past 3 weeks we had always returned long after dark.
But best of all… the i-gotU had recorded more than 2000 GPS fixes in the past four days, representing two and a half foraging tracks. The penguin had performed quite some journeys in search for food, swimming up nearly 40 km away from Jackson Head and covering more than 100km of distance in a bit over 38 hours. This is certainly one of the wider foraging ranges I have observed in chick rearing penguins.
Interesting to see how the foraging ranges apparently change from very short in the two to three weeks after the chicks have hatched (i.e. the chick-guard stage) to rather long when the chicks are old enough to be left alone (post-guard stage). More interestingly still with the tracking data we have now is the observation I made on the rocky shore and in the nesting areas in the past few days.
One of the things I have been doing the past weeks – and never have delved into on this blog – is collecting penguin scat samples for DNA analysis to determine their prey composition. In other words – I have seen lots of shit. And during the chick-guard stage, the penguin poo looked quite different from what it does now. Back then, the stuff was mostly grey, almost silvery and had quite a strong smell to it which I knew from other penguin species. I am fairly certain that oily fish like sprat or anchovy were the penguins’ main diet. In the last week or so, penguin poo has turned to all kinds of shades of green. While my initial reaction was that the poo was from male penguins heading out after a prolonged period of starving while caring for the nest), I have observed female penguins returning form a foraging trip and offloading the green cargo as well. So the green colour is more likely coming from whatever prey they are eating at the moment rather than a result of bile going through an empty system.
So despite all the set-backs in the first weeks – be it from a lack of devices to start with, drowning of i-gotUs or our general inexperience to successfully recover devices on penguins that are able to disappear between rocks without a trace – despite all that we go home with exciting new information on Tawaki!
October 13, 2014 at 11:45 pm
I headed out at 9am and made my way up to the tent below the apartment building. I knew that Hongo-san had used a deer stalkers tent to film penguin up close. And I knew that it had worked perfectly. I could not imagine that Hongo-san would carry out the tent if he knew that he would use it again when they return to continue filming in late October. So it must have been packed away in the director’s tent.
And it was. I grabbed it and a couple battery driven of insect repellent vaporisers as well as a can of spray on insect repellent and headed down to the beach.
A deer stalkers hide tent is nothing more than a small teepee shaped tent, just big enough to put a chair in. It has viewing stripes on the sides and two entrances at front and back that can be opened just wide enough for a rifle barrel to stick out – or binoculars. I pitched the tent close to the overhang where the bird had spotted me yesterday. A folding chair and the installation of the vaporisers completed my mission.
I made myself comfortable in the chair, zipped up the front door and started scanning the ocean for penguins while occasionally going through our trail camera data on my wee notebook.
Today was a hazy but surprisingly warm day. A constant trickle of penguin returned to Jackson Head all through the morning and past lunch time. Several hundred meters our at sea I saw that the sooty shearwaters had returned, probably heading South for their breeding grounds on the Snares. I spotted a whale fluke and a blow, probably a Southern right whale. Then the sun came out and a large pod of Dusky dolphins started playing out there, jumping high out of the water and splashing and frolicking about.
They could not distract me from my quest, though.
The sea was exceptionally calm. Hardly a ripple on the ocean. I could see penguins long before they landed. They would hang around at the surface about 100-200m offshore just where they crayfishermen had set their pots. Some of the birds were having a bath, swimming on their backs, preening their bellies.
None of them had a logger though.
The notebook on my lap I reviewed the time lapse footage from the Creek beach access. The camera placement combined with the motion sensor activated seems perfect. And, at 1.30am in the morning… there she was, standing right in front of the camera.
Actually it looks as if she is holding the device into the lens while cheekily looking over her shoulder as if to say “You want this? Huh? You want this?”
Next I looked through the images of the nest camera (I had grabbed the SD card from the camera while I was up getting the hide tent). She arrived just after 2am at her nest, where her chick had assumed its post only half an hour before. Until 5.30am she fed and preened the chick and headed off again, presumably back out at sea. Unfortunately, our beach camera ran out of juice around 5.45am so that we probably missed her when she left the Heads.
Since she had spent around three days out at sea, I doubted we’d see her today. But we still had another penguins to wait for, the male.
Hotte relieved me around 1pm assumed his new post inside the stalker’s tent hide.
I headed back to Neil’s Beach where I started to clean up things in the house. Plan is to leave the day after tomorrow.
I went back to the beach just before 6pm. It had turned into a misty day. Hotte headed back to the car and I watched for penguins with loggers on their backs.
I did not sit for long, when a logger bird jumped out of the water onto the rocks!
I called Hotte on the radio but he was already at the track entrance. Probably too far away to help me get that bird. And get this bird I would!
It was not the female. One look at the impressive honker and I knew I had the male Tawaki in front of me. Just like the female yesterday seemed a bit wearier than the penguins around him. He kept on looking in every possible direction, but the stalker tent seemed to be doing the trick.
In a group of three birds, the penguin started to march uphill and disappeared behind a large rock. A minute later two birds re-emerged on the other side of the rock. None of them had a logger.
“So, you like to play games, huh? Well, I can wait.”
Under no circumstances would I leave the tent until the logger bird was way up the rocks so that retreat into the water would not be an option any longer. At least that was the plan.
The two other penguins started preening themselves. Extensively. A seemingly endless process of readjusting every single feather in their plumage bending their necks in the most impossible ways in the process.
Where was the logger bird? Was it still behind that rock! If only I could see…
Then finally the two preening queens started moving and disappeared up in the creek. Our logger bird still made no move.
“Okay. If you want it this way, you can have it!” I mumbled and climbed out of the stalker’s tent. I carefully climbed over the rocks down to where I thought the logger bird must be, spring balance and weighing bag in hand. Oh so slowly I peeked around the rock behind which the bird had disappeared 20 minutes ago and found… nothing.
The bird wasn’t there! How on earth could he have disappeared! Not again!
I searched every crevasse, every nook and cranny in the rocks. Nothing. He must have gone back to sea.
Angry that I had let him win another round I retreated into the tent. I was fuming! How on earth are we supposed to recapture logger birds in this terrain? We can only capture then if we see them. But if we see them it seems the penguins see us as well. And after the handling procedure to attach the loggers, they are apparently not very keen to go through with this a second time.
While I was still cursing and swearing, a penguin with a logger attached to its back just hopped out of the water together with another loggerless penguins.
I waited. Exactly the same game as before, two penguins disappear behind a rock, but only one bird shows up at the other end.
I waited. The other penguin preened.
I waited. The other penguin headed up the hill and disappeared in the creek.
I waited. I kept a close eye on the water this time. I was absolutely sure that the penguin had not gone back into the water. More penguins arrived, headed halfway up the beach, preened and disappeared.
“Okay, okay! You win!” Once again I grabbed spring balance and weighing bag and climbed down to the rock where the logger bird had disappeared. Only this time, he was still there when I arrived!
The penguin hunched underneath a rock and when approached, he scurried further down a gap between the rocks. By the time I was on my knees he had disappeared again.
I circled the rocks under which the penguin must have been hiding. And then I spotted a foot and a flipper poking out of a 10 cm wide crack. I crawled towards it and was greeted by a hiss and a peck when I tried to feel my way towards the penguin. Could I pull it out of there? No, not really, the gap was too narrow even for a small bird like a Tawaki. The penguin would fight during any extraction attempt, not to mention what he would do to my fingers while I tried to so. No, no chance I would get him out.
1:0 for the penguin.
However, I did not give up that easily. I took off my right leather glove and offered it to the penguin with my left. He took a bite and tried to pull it into the crevasse but of course I did not let got. While he was busy with our little tug-o-war I gently grabbed his tail and pulled his lower back closer towards the through the gap. There was the logger!
With one hand I started to peel off the tape which was harder than I thought. It was almost impossible. Then an astonishing thing happened.
The penguin stopped pulling the glove. In fact, it was as if he knew what I was trying to do because he turned slightly so that the device on his back was now poking through the gap! I could actually use both my hands to remove the logger. I could not believe it when I held the device in my hands.
“There you go, wasn’t that bad, was it?” I muttered when I retreated from the rock.
It was a solid draw. The penguin managed to avoid being handled and weighed a second time, but I still got the logger back. I retreated to the tent and needed the next half hour to cam my nerves. I hadn’t even noticed how pumped up I got during the logger recovery. And I am sure that our logger bird would have needed just as long to recover from this as I did.
When I left the tent just after 9pm, I checked the rock with the night vision scope. The penguin was gone. He once again disappeared without me noticing it. However, I did not blame him for this and wished him best of luck for the rest of the breeding season.
“There you go, wasn’t that bad, was it?” I muttered when I retreated from the rock.
It was a solid draw. The penguin managed to avoid being handled and weighed a second time, but I still got the logger back. I retreated to the tent and needed the next half hour to calm my nerves. I hadn’t even noticed how pumped up I got during the logger recovery. And I am sure that our logger bird would have needed just as long to recover from this as I did.
When I left the tent just after 9pm, I checked the rock with the night vision scope. The penguin was gone. He once again had disappeared without me noticing it. However, I did not blame him for this and wished him best of luck for the rest of the breeding season.
October 12, 2014 at 11:48 pm
Let me spell it out. This was the most frustrating day of all!
A logger bird returned, unfortunately in too many ways. Because first it returned to Jackson Head, but then it spotted me – or rather my head poking out from behind a rock – and then it decided to return to the ocean.
And it did this twice!
Around 6pm I spotted a bird with an obvious lump its back in the white water close to the rocks just below the Creek beach access. I followed its movement with my binoculars. The bird landed fashioning a data loggers on its lower back. It moved very carefully and observant. While other penguins that had landed seemed to go about their daily business as per usual, the logger bird appeared weary. As if it knew we were waiting.
It twisted its head very way and then it made eye contact with me, turned around and jumped back into the water.
The sinking feeling of defeat! How on earth could the penguin have spotted me? I mean, I tried to stay hidden as much as possible, but of course if I want to see something, I have to stick my head out. At least a bit.
I calmed my nerves by retreating further up the rocks and crouched under an overhanging rock. With the binoculars I scanned the water surface. Yes, there it was! The logger bird was still out there and it would make another attempt to come ashore. All was not lost. In the distance more and more penguins appeared on the rocky shore. Yes, she would come back.
I remained squeezed underneath the overhang, tried not to move despite ferocious attacks by sandflies and peered through the binoculars. 15 minutes passed, 30 minutes. And I lost sight of the logger bird.
All of a sudden she was below us (I was fairly confident it was the female) out on the rocks with another Tawaki. Again, she looked in every possible direction while her companion (no logger) comfortably settled on a rock and started to preen itself extensively.
I did not move. I did not lower my binoculars. Heck, I don’t think I even breathed.
And what did she do? Make eye contact and – zoom! – off she went back into the ocean. And this time she did not re-emerge. She was gone for good and would not return tonight.
I was flabbergasted. How on earth did she know I was there? For all I knew I was just another rock wedged under another overhanging rock. I had paid for my patience with about 500 new sandfly bites which would remind me about this defeat for the next week or so.
By now darkness had set in. And just to make matters worse, it started to rain. In the rain, the night vision scope turned out to be utterly useless in these conditions as the rain drops would reflect the infrared light to create a blinding spectacle of sparks in the view finder. Spotting a penguin let alone one with a tiny data logger attached to its back was impossible. And actually, same applied for our head torches.
No point hanging out here any longer. We had to accept defeat. The penguin won this round. Well played, well played.
However, we now know that we are waiting at just the right spot for our penguins. No doubt about that. And we still have another joker up our sleeves.
I will play it first thing tomorrow morning!