By Kate Crowley
Who doesn’t love penguins? They defy our definition or image of a bird, since their wings are not used for flight, but as flippers in their watery world. And they walk upright with an endearing wobble, using flippers and tails for balance. We grow up with images of penguins sitting on ice floes next to polar bears and Santa Claus, but in fact they are not even a northern hemisphere bird, with the one exception of the Galapagos Penguins. The reason they are found on the Galapagos Islands is because currents flow up that way from the cold Southern oceans. All penguins need a cold water environment. This is where the richest fishing stocks are found. To survive in those frigid waters they are helped by a layer of insulating air that is trapped in their feathers, which also gives them buoyancy.
I have been entertained and captivated by all the recent penguin films from the animated Happy Feet and Surf’s Up, to the TV show, The Penguins of Madagascar (my favorite), and the amazing documentary March of the Penguins. I have dreamed of one day seeing them in the wild, and this past week my dream came true when I saw not just one, but two species of penguins – in one day! Both live in New Zealand and I have to admit I had not heard of either before coming here.
The Yellow-eyed penguins are only found in New Zealand’s southern waters. They are about 2.5 feet tall and as their name suggests, have yellow eyes rimmed with red. A stripe of yellow feathers also encircles their head. Like almost all other penguins, they have black backs and white bellies – an adaptation that helps protect them from predators. Looking from below they disappear into the light of the surface, and from above their dark backs blend into the dark water. On land however, they are defenseless and as I wrote in the previous column, introduced predators (weasels, stoats, cats, and dogs) have wreaked havoc on penguin populations too.
On the day we saw these penguins there was a storm roaring up from the Antarctic 3000 miles south of New Zealand. Gale force winds were battering the coast and we were standing on a walkway looking over a railing (when we could actually turn our face into the wind) at a yellow-eyed penguin who had just come out of the sea and scaled a grassy, brushy cliff where it would make a burrow for a nest. Far below on the beach we could see others waddling slowly across the sand towards the hill. Their sharp clawed feet are all that get them up the slope. It was hard to believe when we were standing in the teeth of a gale, (with our own teeth chattering), that these birds of the sea make such an arduous journey to find a good nesting spot. There are around 2500 breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins and they are considered threatened in the wild. Being able to see one standing 10 feet away, facing us, with its back to the wind was an unexpected, but delightful gift.
We were on a tour from the town of Oamaru that took us from this viewing spot to a special penguin colony that has been set aside for the little blue penguin, known in Australia as the fairy penguin because it is the world’s smallest, measuring just 16 inches tall and weighing 2.2 lbs.
These little birds only come out of the water at dusk, returning to their nest burrows after spending the day at sea feeding on fish, squid and crustaceans (the same as the yellow-eyed). While the little blue penguins are found along the shorelines of both the North and South Islands, there are certain places where they come ashore close to human habitations. The town of Oamaru is one such place and in 1992 the town council seeking a new tourist attraction realized that the penguins they found annoying and ‘filthy’ were in fact a huge draw to a lot of other people. Hence the colony was established and a visitor center was built, along with some viewing stands. Here people can watch the penguins arrive each evening and scurry to the man made wooden nest boxes that hold their 2 eggs or chicks.
The storm was still buffeting the coast, but now we had a semi-sheltered place to watch and wait for the penguins to arrive. We were told to look out at the sea for a dark mass floating on the surface. This would be a ‘raft’ approaching. A cluster of penguins come ashore all together (safety in numbers) and begin the process of hopping and climbing up the rocky slope. It was dark outside by this time and rain continued to drip off the roof of the viewing stand. We were cold, but protected from the wind.
Gradually, the little birds with the slate blue backs (the only penguins without a black back), moved closer, stopping to preen their feathers and ascertain whether it was safe to proceed. Lights from the stands helped us see them when they finally made a mad dash, in single file, for the wooden fence with its special entry funnels. Everyone was smiling as the birds disappeared on one side of the barrier and then popped out the other and scattered to their little shelters.
This scene repeated itself a number of times and we never grew tired of watching. However, we were growing too cold to enjoy it and finally returned to the visitor center. On the way, we walked on a boardwalk through the colony to a cacophony of growls, squeaks, and brays - sounds you’d never expect from such a diminutive bird. Inside the building we could watch a TV with a webcam inside a nest box and view the dark, fluffy chicks begging food from their parents.
After hatching, chicks are guarded for 2-3 weeks by one parent, while the other goes out to find food. After that, both parents go and find food for their growing chicks that reach adult weight at 5 weeks, and are independent/fledge at 8 weeks. They are on their own from then on.
For the little blue penguins of Oamaru and other coastal towns, danger not only comes from predators, but from cars. These birds will cross roadways to get to their preferred nesting areas and some still nest under buildings close to the water.
Life for both these species of penguins is a challenge whether in the sea or on land. Because this colony of blue penguins is protected from predators their population has been growing by 10% each year. We hope this will continue far into the future, so that while I can enjoy the cartoon versions, I will know the real thing is living wild and free.