4 Jul 2017

Penguins of the remote rainforest

Grab a kayak, hiking boots and become an expert at crawling through rocks if you want to discover New Zealand's hidden Fiordland Penguins, or "tawaki". But why are they going hungry?

Fiordland Penguin "Tawaki" © Richard Robinson
Fiordland Penguin "tawaki" (Vulnerable) © Richard Robinson
By Shaun Hurrell

There’s a saying that says biting insects exist to protect beautiful places from humans. In Fiordland, which forms the remote and rugged southwest of the South Island, this almost rings true, wherein hides mainland New Zealand’s hidden rainforest penguins. “Most New Zealanders wouldn’t recognise a tawaki as a native species”, says Thomas Mattern, researcher at Otago University, and penguin specialist part of The Tawaki Project.

Despite striking yellow feathers above their eyes, Fiordland Penguins Eudyptes pachyrhynchus are hard to see. Named after a Maori god that walked the earth, Tawaki, they are actually quite a timid species and live in small scattered colonies in the steep and water-weathered forests of New Zealand’s fiords, a place only accessible by water or multi-day treks through clouds of irritating biting sandflies. Whilst thousands of tourists brave bad weather for boat trips into these stunning landscapes, the plight of the tawaki is not well known. On Stewart Island too, they do not want to be found, shrouding themselves in very dense vegetation, rock crevices and even sea caves only accessible underwater. With a range that has retreated since the arrival of humans, you can see why they might be so timid.

“We are only beginning to understand the threats tawaki face”

Fiordland Penguin chicks sheltering under rocks in the rainforest © Robin Long

“To date, little is known about their ecology”, says Thomas. He, together with Robin Long – who works as a ranger for the West Coast Penguin Trust and grew up in this remote environment – are now experts at crawling between jagged rocks and kayaking through rain-splattered fiords to find these 55 cm tall penguins, as part of the Tawaki Project, to learn more of their breeding and foraging success by using camera traps on nests and fitting waterproof GPS tags. Last summer, El Niño hit the penguins hard: data loggers revealed some tawaki heading 100 km out to sea to search for food. “A lot of chicks died of starvation”, says Thomas. “We found some with just sticks and mud in their stomachs.”

“We found some with just sticks and mud in their stomachs”

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<i>Tawaki</i> emerging from ferns in Fiordland, New Zealand © Thomas Mattern

Hard to find: a tawaki incubating in the forest surrounding Harrison Cove, New Zealand  © Thomas Mattern

Unfortunately, most crested penguin populations have been declining during the last century, and tawaki do not seem to be an exception, listed by BirdLife as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The population is estimated to range between 5,500 and 7,000 birds, and at some sites their numbers are believed to have declined by as much as 30% in just ten years. Whilst sandflies help keep some humans away, human-introduced stoats trigger cameras as they prey on penguin eggs and chicks. Also, rising ocean temperatures probably disrupt prey availability, fisheries may compete for resources or result in accidental bycatch, and pollution from oil exploration could also become a major problem for these birds. Funding for more research is key: “We are only beginning to understand the threats tawaki face”, says Robin. “We need to know a lot more to come up with effective ways to protect the species.” 

Read more about the penguins of New Zealand


This article was originally featured in BirdLife The Magazine, March 2017, and is now shared as one of a series on New Zealand’s penguins and conservation.

Thanks to Forest & Bird, Tawaki Project, Timaru Penguins and the West Coast Penguin Trust

Please support penguin conservation at: www.birdlife.org/penguins and https://penguin.birdlife.org/nz

For more information visit:

www.forestandbird.org.nz/penguins

www.tawaki-project.org