21 Jun 2017

Protecting Tawaki, the rainforest penguin

© Patrick Phelps
© Patrick Phelps
By Emma Cronin, Forest & Bird

Fiordland Penguins Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, also known as Tawaki, are about to arrive on New Zealand’s West Coast beaches.

Upon arrival they locate their nests, woo their mates and prepare to breed. Weird, but they lay two eggs, one big and one small, however usually only the second larger egg and chick will succeed.

The breeding season extends from July to December with the males left to incubate the egg, and once hatched both parents feed the rapidly growing chick, which approaches adult size within just two months.

© Patrick Phelps

Getting to this stage is far from easy, the chicks needs to avoid predation and the parents must manage to forage enough fish to feed the chick and themselves, without being disturbed by tourists or attacked by dogs during the process.

In previous seasons invasive species such as stoats, and also dogs, have devastated breeding Tawaki colonies. Last summer stoats wiped out an entire colony of 150 breeding pairs at Jackson Head, a nesting site on New Zealand’s West Coast.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

These penguins are particularly elusive owing to their propensity for nesting in lush Southern westcoast rainforests; in caves, under overhangs, at the base of trees or in dense vegetation.

Careful management of tourists is necessary to prevent interference by enthusiastic tourists with the timid Tawaki, who must travel across beaches daily to forage for food and return to their nest. 

Invasive species management is also needed to protect the vulnerable colonies from being destroyed.

© Patrick Phelps

Interestingly, Tawaki was listed as Nationally Endangered in New Zealand, but recent review of the Threatened Species Strategy saw it downgraded to Nationally Vulnerable, owing to their being no indication of ongoing significant decline.

The population is estimated at 2500 to 3000 breeding pairs and has been declining since the 1950s.

Since Tawaki spend most of their time at sea they are vulnerable to the multitude of sea-based threats like ocean warming, marine pollution and possible interactions with fisheries, in addition to land based threats when they come ashore.

Volunteers are helping to protect Tawaki by informing tourists about these birds and maintaining tourists at a safe distance.

By donating to BirdLife’s Protect a Penguin campaign, you can help us to protect penguins from invasive predators, and improve advocacy for Tawaki to help keep them as one of New Zealand’s mainland island species.