Penguin plight

Concern is held for the well -being of the endangered yellow-eyed penguin at Southland Forest and Bird's ( F&B) Te Rere Private Scientific Reserve in the Catlins, with this nesting year predicted to be a bad one for penguin productivity based on the nest search information. This follows a poor season last year and an indication that there have also been adult penguins dying, Southland Forest and Bird yellow- eyed penguin advisory group member, Brian Rance said.

A small group of committed F&B members undertook the annual count early in December as they have been doing for about 25 years there. The first team of four set off from Invercargill at 8.30am, arriving at the isolated site on the rocky east coast about 10.00am and were met by a large sea lion which was inquisitive about the interlopers to its territory.

They were based at  the two regular sites in order to  count the penguins making a return to their  nest in the undergrowth, bringing back food for the chicks which they had gathered at sea. The adult birds swap duties with the other one of the pair then take a turn to go out to sea for food. Males and females share the duties. They are very secretive birds so the native vegetation planted there over the past 25 years  provides excellent habitat.

"It was raining all day and cool, however conditions improved for the second group which picked up the count from 4pm to 10pm," Rance said.

The number of adult birds coming in during the count day are taken as the best estimate of the adult numbers at the site.

"From the results of our December count day this year we could estimate 49 adults present," he said. "This figure has varied from 46 to 66 over the last 6 years, down from the highs of over 70 adults which had shown recovery after the disastrous 1995 fire."

This does support the fears of a moderate decline in adult numbers at Te Rere. Only 12 nests had been found but the searchers believe there are possibly 14 in the reserve. There were  still many more birds present than indicated by the nests with several non-nesting birds found scattered through the reserve.

"The adult birds observed during the nest search generally appeared in good condition and the chicks appeared healthy, " he said. "One of the concerns was that there were no juvenile birds observed coming in from the sea meaning there may not be young birds joining the breeding population there although they could be elsewhere on the coast."

"The hopeful aspect was that about half of the nests seemed to have two healthy chicks, with no chick mortality to date, " Rance said. " We checked all the predator traps, finding a hedgehog and a young male stoat but no rats."

"The annual monitoring will continue, along with regular pest control and more planting, in the hope that conditions at sea will improve and the endangered yellow – eyed penguin numbers will rise to ensure the on- going life in this special breeding  colony, " Rance said. "Fortunately Te Rere is one of the breeding sites in Otago Southland area with an increase over last year's low with no sign of avian diphtheria which is encouraging."