September 25, 2014 at 10:31 pm
Given that we have only one device left, there was no time to waste. We wrapped the i-gotU up in cellophane, stuck in a couple of condoms and sealed it up with Tesa-tape. By now the procedure is more of a routine than it is the weirdest thing I’ve done for science so far. Sure, that getting a device for deployment involves getting your hands smothered in lubricant while you try to tie a knot into an “extra strong” condom is still pretty strange. But, hey, for data we scientist would do everything.
We headed out to the heads in late afternoon. Since we had last worked with a penguin from the eastern end of our study site, it was time again to choose one of the few candidates we have from Popi’s Plaza.
The weather today was pretty grey with occasional showers making sure that we would get soaked to the bones. But that wasn’t really what was worrying me. The problem in this kind of weather is that the tape won’t stick if it gets wet. So going to Popi’s Plaza for a deployment had the added value of attaching a logger under cover of the forest.
I hiked up to the Plaza around 6pm. All three burrow nests were single dads with their chicks; no female had returned just yet.
We tried it again just before 8pm. There certainly was going on a lot more now with penguin cries echoing from the bush. While finding our way through the kiekie we stirred up some birds loitering around in the undergrowth. We carefully went past JH09, where our previous logger bird had yet to return. Just above me, I saw a penguin scramble up the hill, presumably not so happy about our presence. When we made it to the Plaza we found one of our potential candidate nests occupied by two adult penguins!
Just as we started the get our gear out of our backpacks, it started to rain. Even here in the forest we could not avoid getting wet. But the logger had to go out today; I was not prepared to unwrap the device from it condom-casing tonight to reprogram it for a deployment tomorrow.
The deployment itself went reasonably smoothly. Hotte held the bird tight on his lap, and the penguin did not struggle or wriggle as much as yesterday’s. The tape did not stick that well, but that was much less a problem of the rain than it was the tape being cold. However, once the logger was firmly wrapped into tape and sealed nicely with rubber glue, it actually looked quite good to me. We waited 5 more minutes until the rubber glue hat set then I took the penguin, carried it up to its nest and released into the burrow. What then happened caught me by surprise.
The female with the logger tried to slip into the burrow, but the male guarding the chick started to attack her violently! What was wrong with this guy? Next thing I knew was that the female scrambled past me down the hill in a frantic escape from its vicious mate!
Or was it the mate? In all my years in penguin science I have never seen such a reaction between mates. I suddenly had a very bad feeling about this. What if the bird we had just attached a logger to was in fact a different bird that had just tried to hide in the burrow in response to our arrival? And what if the bright lights of our head torches had distracted the male attending the chick long enough to let a stranger enter the burrow?
Well, I guess we will find out. If it was the female belonging to this nest, she will return the next days. Before we left the Plaza I readjusted the trust camera monitoring the area for predators. We will come back tomorrow and check the footage.
September 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm
In truly appalling weather Popi and I managed to recover our first GPS logger carrying tawaki this afternoon. And despite all my concerns about difficulties of recovering penguins in the rugged terrain of Jackson Head it went extremely smoothly (well, smoothly as it can go while it is bucketing down cattle and sheep).
It went down like this. After taking a very slow start to the day – the sound of rain pounding on the roof of the house is not really stimulating to go out – we geared up in the afternoon and made our way to the Head. Just to warm up we checked some of the cameras we have installed at nests, changed SD cards and, if necessary, batteries. As the afternoon slowly but surely turned towards evening, we made our way down to the rocky shore. We had checked the loggers bird’s nest and found its partner on duty. Which meant that we would have to wait until the penguin emerged from the sea and try to get her on the rocks.
If you’ve got things to do, being out in the rain is half as bad, really. But if all you have to do is sit and wait for a penguin to show up, you inevitably will get wet (or in our case ‘wetter’), cold and eventually miserable. Under such circumstances it’s best to try to get out of the weather as much as possible. So Popi and I squeezed ourselves under a large rock where it was easier for us to pretend that we indeed were out of the weather (which we weren’t, really).
But mind you, we only had time for one quick selfie…
…when our bird appeared on the rocks just above the waterline!
“What? Can you belive that?”, Popi exclaimed while I carefully climbed out from underneath our rock and started to sneak up towards the unsuspecting tawaki.
The penguin stood on a rock preening and did not take notice of me. I had one last rock to negotiate. I took my eyes off the penguin. When I looke dup again it was gone! What? How? Where? For a moment I panicked. Did it spot me and hightailed it? I arrived at the rock the bird had been sitting on just a minute ago looked around… and there it was just below me, still busy with rearranging its feathers. Apparently it just did as Popi and I had done a short while ago and got out of the weather.
Next thing the bird knew was that a cloth bag slipped over its head. By the time I started to peel off the tape that attached the logger to its feathers, the bird had settled down on Popi’s lap. It clearly was quite alright with the fact that it would get rid of the backpack it had been lugging around for the past 48 hours.
Now, as I said earlier if you’ve got things to do, it is okay to be out in the rain. Well, this was very different. Not only were Popi and I focussed on getting the device off, weighing the penguin and getting head and foot measurements to determine its sex. We were truly stoked! From the forst look it seemed as if the i-gotU was good, no signs of leakage despite our rather unorthodox method of water proofing. Now if the NZ$100 device had actually data on board we could expect to see the first ever recorded foraging track of a Fiordland penguin tonight.
Popi released the bird not far from its nest site and observed how she headed back to where she belonged falling into an ecstatic trumpet concerto with her partner apparently no worse for wear!
That was a really good start! Despite all the doubts whether it was possible to work with tawaki that are often said to be extremely timid, we not only managed to recover a data logger from a penguin. Our intervention did not result in behaviour that could disrupt breeding or even cause nest abandonment. What a huge relief!
Popi and I were literally dancing back towards the car, totally on cloud 9. Rain? Who cares? We got the logger back and the penguin is happy!
Back in Neil’s Beach I cut the logger form its double-condom casing. I hooked it ono the computer and waited for the “Ding-Dong” indicating that the device was recognized.
I held my breath. Nothing. I held my breath a bit longer. More of nothing. “And? Did it record something?”, asked Popi.
I was just about to tell him that the computer would not recognize the device when suddenly – “Ding-Dong”.
I gazed at the screen. A window popped open to ask me wether I wanted to download the GPS data from the device. Ok?
“Downloading 2097 data points” read the message on the screen. What? 3000 GPS fixes? It worked? It really worked?
Yes, it did. Sort of. Most of the GPS fixes were recorded when the bird was sitting on its nest during the nighttime hours. However, it had performed two foraging trips. The first one yesterday, but GPS fixes stopped some 5 km northwest of Jackson Head about four hours after the bird had left its nest site around 6am in the morning. The next GPS fixes were stored just after 5pm about 4km north of the bird’s nest.
But the next day way like a birthday and christmas wrapped into one. We got a full foraging track! The first ever recorded in tawaki. And it was a surprise. For an offshore forager the bird stayed bloody close to land never putting more than 9km between itself and the coast. The penguin actuall entered the water in the middle of the night at around 2.30am then doodled around at the surface until daybreak slowly making its way to a point about 9km almost due west of the Head before it started to forage northeastwards for the next 8 hours. Just after 2pm it then turned back south landing where we eventually recovered it around 6pm. All in all it foraged for a total 16.6 hours covering around 55km in the process.
The stats read more like those of inshore foraging Yellow-eyed penguins!
We can’t wait to get more information in the next few days.
September 12, 2014 at 7:44 pm
After another comfy night and a solid breakfast at the Heartland Hotel in Haast, we climbed into our field gear. The weather looked rather dull and grey. Today was definitely an oil skin day.
The drive from Haast to Jackson Head seems to get longer every time. 48 Kilometres of one of the straightest but also bumpiest roads in New Zealand can be a real drag. Especially when you want to get back home after a long, wet day in the field. I look forward to the 15th when the Japanese film crew will have wrapped their filming and we move to Neil’s Beach.
It was drizzling when we made our way across he rocky shore towards the base and the rope ascent to the Apartment Block. The last three weeks have been phenomenal in terms of weather, with not a drop of rain. Everything was bone dry. Not today. The climb up the rope was slippery business. Today, Ida-san and Hongo-san both shared filming duties, with the director being curled up in the tent looking after the remote controlled cameras, while the camera man spent the entire day in a tiny canvas hunters hide of dimensions of no more than 80x80x160 cm. From in there he manually operated a large 4K camera as they had found that the remote camera was to slow and sluggish to pan around chasing the penguins as they moved around the apartment block. The penguins did no mind the hide at all, so I was happy with this activity.
Popi and I did the camera run around the Apartment Block and the Hill Top with the scenic nest. I was pretty dismayed by the fact that again, two cameras had not recorded anything. Another camera had been knocked over by some pesky penguins and had recorded nothing but close up shots of the surrounding vegetation.
My Argentinian colleague was impressed by the fact that the penguins choose to breed that high up the hill. Of course the scenic nest added to the experience. It is a lovely spot indeed.
Saying that, we both agreed that the number of nests suitable for logger deployments was not so flash. What we need are closed nests without a back entrance. The nests need to be approachable and ideally a bit secluded from other nests so as to minimize disturbance. Not to mention that a lot of nests were in impenetrable or simply nasty (ongaonga nettles!) vegetation. So far I had identified about six potential candidates. Hardly enough for the proposed 20 logger deployments.
After the camera run we headed west along the shore to a spot where I knew one of the West Coast Penguin Trust cameras is located. Apart from the fact that this camera needed its batteries replaced anyhow, I wanted to have a bit of a look around to see whether there might be any more suitable logger nests.
The camera nest certainly is not. You have to be a contortionist to get to it, weaving your body through an impossible tangle of kiekie. It does not help at all if you are tall. Like me.
However, a bit further up the hill I spotted what looked like tree daisy. Perhaps we had more luck there?
We had! We had to dive through a wall of wet kiekie to find ourselves at the base of an open but steep and muddy slope with a large rock face to our right. Right at the bottom of the rock we looked at a single cave nest. Exactly what we were looking for. We kept going up and found a bit of a clearing. Well, actually it was a bit of forest with closed canopy above but little undergrowth. It seemed really open to us and in honour of my companion I was quick to name it “Plaza del Popi”. I had to name it, because right here we found two more nests that were perfect for logger deployments!
We continued to search the area but found only open nests that were tucked away in dense kiekie. However, three more nests was not bad for a quick look around.
We headed back to the car and hopped on the car for the long drive back to Haast where we spent the rest of day beginning the analysis of the Bushnell time lapse data.
September 11, 2014 at 10:32 pm
This was a long day today. I got up just after 6am, jumped into my truck and headed across into the Alps. I had to get to Queenstown airport by 11am to pick up Popi Garcia-Borboroglu who flew in today from Argentina.
When I reached the airport I found and email from Popi, telling me that he had missed his connecting flight in Auckland an would arrive about two hours later – at 11am. Well, since I was sure he told me he would arrive at 11am in the first place this was not as bad as it sounded. Just enough time for quick visit to the loo.
Where I unceremoniously met Popi.
He looked quite fresh despite his 13 hours flight from Santiago de Chile. We picked up his gear and headed out of the airport to do some shopping before heading back across the mountains again. Popi geared up on field equipment – working pants and gaiters were a top priority. At the supermarket we want berserk and left an hour later with more than NZ$500 worth of groceries. (Which sounds more than it actually is because grocery prices in New Zealand are obscenely high! I know because I spent the last year in Germany.)
We used the long drive back to catch up on all kinds on penguin gossip and discuss the problems we have with the supplier of our GPS dive loggers. Because up until now there is no news from earth&Ocean as to when they think they will dispatch the five GPS dive loggers we’ve order more than 5 months ago. Devices that are entirely funded by the Global Penguin Society. Popi is the society’s president and the one who raised these funds. So doubly embarrassing that we not only haven’t received the main devices for the project, but also have no idea when they might arrive.
Well, fortunately it wasn’t planned to use earth&Ocean devices from the start. At around NZ$3,600 a pop these things are far too expensive to randomly slap them on a penguin and hope for the best. We’ll conduct dummy experiments first, where we use cheap i-gotU travel GPS loggers and see how the penguins behave, if we can get them back without a problem and if the devices affect their breeding behaviour. And maybe we even get some data. I-gotUs have been used successfully on other seabirds like gannets – but to my knowledge not on diving species that spent most of their time under water like penguins.
But first… let’s give Popi a bit of time to get over his jetlag. And the best way to do this was to get him out into the field shortly after we arrived in Haast in late afternoon. We stopped at the Heartland Hotel, geared up and were away to Jackson Head West.
I cannot imagine in what kind of trance Popi must have been when he climbed up our rope route to the main filming site where Hongo-san was still curled up in the tent remote controlling the cameras up at the Apartment Block.
We did half of the camera run and managed to get down to the rocky shore just before it got really dark. Together with the Japanese film crew we boulder hopped back to the Jackson Head track. The lights of our head torches limited our peripheral vision to just a few metres which actually made boulder hoping somewhat easier – and, in fact, quite meditational. Back in the car, Popi told me that he had to fight dozing off while walking. That was just moment before his head fell backwards and he started snoring.
September 2, 2014 at 7:37 pm
August 27, 2014 at 8:33 pm
Another cracker of a day on the West Coast. Have I ever experienced cloudless skies on the West Coast? Probably, but somehow I mainly remember the rain. Seems like this about to change as the forecasters on tele (an impressive TV set adorns one of the walls in my hotel room) only stick suns onto the West Coast portion of their maps. I do not complain. Not a bit.
First thing this morning, the whole crew – Sam, director Ida-san, camera man Hongo-san, the camera technician ‘Kay’ and I – headed down to Jackson Head. To have a look at the access to their designated film site. As it happens it is also the site where we will start our research in a bit more than two weeks.
The original idea was for the crew to film on a beach about half an hour to the North of Haast, which is a lot more scenic and easier to access than Jackson Head. But DOC changed their minds in the eleventh hour and condemned the poor guys to film on the steepest slopes only accessible via the treacherous rocky shoreline of Jackson Head.
And, as could be expected, I noticed a few furrowed brows when my companions laid eyes on the sharp and pointy rocks that we had to climb over for half an hour before reaching the site. But it wasn’t half as bad is it first appeared. Hongo-san and Kay dropped of some gear in water proof bags. And of course, all of them got to meet their first Tawaki. Some birds were boulder hopping just like us. Seeing the penguins really upped their spirits. As penguin usually do.
We headed back to town around lunch time before continuing on North, past Knights Point to Moeraki River. Ida-san was armed with the book by a Japanese photographer who indeed had taken photos of a Fiordland penguin swimming up what looked like a creek. I had my doubts that this could be Moeraki River, which is reasonably wide and deep and a whitebaiter paradise. Sam brought a map which had some ball point pen markings that seemed to indicate a footpath to the river mouth from the Monro Beach track. That turned out to be a dud – the area is an impenetrable swamp dominated by Kiekie. So we carried on all the way to the beach where we were greeted by a battalion of sandflies running a full attack on our exposed body parts. And the revelation that there is no access to the river mouth around the steep headlands to the West of the beach.
But it was a nice walk regardless.
Almost back where we left our car, we followed another track leading towards the river. After a short tramp through swampy forest we found an old whitebaiter’s hut with access to the river. And here wet met the hut owner himself as we was just about to tie his dinghi to a ramshackle jetty. He said his name was Syd and, no, in all his 40 years on Moeraki river he had never seen penguins swimming upstream. But he offered us a ride to the river mouth so that we could have a look ourselves.
So far I have only ever seen the bit of Moeraki river that is visible from the Highway, with Lake Moeraki to the east and the river disappearing in the forested hills to the west. In my imagination, Moeraki river was this crystal clear water way that gently solled through the West coast rain forest. Of course it did. But what I never pictured was the massive array of whitebait stands that lined both sides of the river. Every 50 metres there were the jetty like structures all pulled up out of the water by steel wires – the whitebaiting season only starts on 1 September.
One thing that blew me away was a majestic Kotuku, the New Zealand white heron, that took flight as we chugged downstream. I thought these rare birds could only be seen at the Okarito lagoon.
“No” Syd said. “That fella’s been here a few years now all by himself. But you guys want to see penguins. How about some shags?”
Well, yes, but no.
August 26, 2014 at 7:10 pm
So… here we are. On the West Coast.
After a solid 5 hours drive I pulled over at the Haast Visitor centre to have a quick chat to Jac Amey from DOC. It turned out to be a nice and relaxed one-and-a-half hour cuppa and catch-up that was quite welcome. One bit of important news was that the Tawaki double counts at Jackson Head had to be postponed by a couple of days and were only going to happen tomorrow and the day after. And that she was one searcher short for the second day. Of course I volunteered. Will give me an excellent chance to have a look at our study site, the types of nests we will be working with and the state of the breeding season.
The postponement also means, that I have to find something to do for the Japanese film crew I will be supervising during their Tawaki documentary project over the next few weeks. They actually wanted to get into it from tomorrow onwards. But if we don’t know the location of Tawaki nests, there is no point carrying tons of camera equipment around the Heads.
I actually met the team for the first time when I headed over to the Heartland Hotel which will be our base (courtesy of NHK) the next three weeks. Ida-san the director approached me as I entered the restaurant to greet me, the production assistant and interpreter Sam in tow. The whole team of four are a really nice bunch and we had a fruitful discussion about what to do the next few days, now that starting at Jackson Head the next day was out of the question.
So… tomorrow we will head up North to Moeraki River where they hope to film penguins swimming up the water way to their nests. I had long email conversations about this topic in the preceeding weeks. I had never heard of penguins swimming up that river, but Ida-san had photographic proof. Although I gotta say, that the river on the photos seems more like a creek to me. But, well, we’ll see what Moeraki River looks like.
August 20, 2014 at 9:33 am
Just returned from a two day trip out to Haast and Jackson Head where I had a look at how things are progressing with the Fiordland penguins. The breeding population has yet to be surveyed by DOC which will happen sometime next week. As of yet we have no clear idea where the nests are located or how many breeding pairs there are.
However, even though it appeared rather quiet there surely were penguins in the area. Occasional honks were heard from the bush on top of the cliffs – although most of them seemed to be coming from dense Kiekie patches. Now, I am really appreciative of the New Zealand vegetation in general and native plants in particular. But penguins breeding in Kiekie means trouble. The stuff is literally impenetrable, penguins are hard to spot, and it is all in all no fun to work in this kind of habitat. Well, here’s to hoping that there will be nests with cool birds in a more accessible setting.
I had with me Sam, a production assistant working for the Japanese NHK which will film a documentary on Fiordland penguins. I will be acting as their scientific consultant and supervisor. They had a rough time finding their way through DOC’s all new albeit by no means easier to comprehend permitting process, but eventually we managed to suss it all out for them. Through the consultation work we manage to offset some of the public funding for the project that never really came to fruition.
As Sam and I were scrambling along the shore looking for good vantage points to place 4K cameras, we came across some Tawaki returning home from a foraging trip. And I also realised that it will be tremendously difficult to catch penguins we will fit with GPS loggers down here on the beach.
I am always astonished when I witness the agility of penguins in what we humans perceive as “difficult terrain”. Surely, penguins – crested penguins in particular – are the animal equivalent of Parkour traceurs. They just jump over what I would call razorsharp volcanic rocks without hesitation, land safely on the next boulder over, hop a couple of times to the crest of the stone only to disappear with another daring dash somewhere in what certainly must be a stony maze to them. Only to reemerge at the top of the cliff less than a minute later. I am so looking forward to see the footage the Japanese film crew will get of this spectacle.
We will be back at Jackson Bay next week when filming starts. It’s another three weeks until the Tawaki Project gets under way in earnest.
August 15, 2014 at 10:04 am
As of 31 July 2014, the Tawaki Proect has received its official stamp of approval by the New Zealand Department of Conservation – the research permits have been issued. This means that we will be able to start our work in the first (or second) week of September.
The pilot study will concentrate on the Fiordland penguins breeding at Jackson Head. Our research focus is on the deployment of GPS dive loggers to track the birds’ movements at sea and monitor their diving behaviour. We will also trial surveillance cameras at selected nest sites that will record time lapse videos that hopefully enable us to determine exact hatching dates, nest attendance patterns and, hence, foraging trip lenghts of adult penguins, and allow the monitoring of potential predator nest intrusions.
So much for the good news. Unfortunately, our problem finding accomodation around Jacksons Bay or at Haast still persists. This isn’t helped by the fact that our funding seems to get whittled down a bit more every day. Support funds that were calculated in have disappeared, donations have shrunk to fractions of what was initially announced. And our last hope of getting a couple of bunks at the DOC facilities in Haast has imploded as well. We will have to keep looking in the next few weeks.
But, heck, we made it this far… this will work out as well in the end.
June 11, 2014 at 1:20 pm
It feels like the calm before the storm. For more than a week nothing substantial happened with regard to the Tawaki Project. The research permit application is still being processed. We are still waiting for the final green light to order the last batch of GPS dive loggers. And the core of the team, currently with teaching duties in Germany, is also slowly simmering away in the thunderstorm ridden heat of an unusually hot June. But the clock is ticking…