5 Jul 2017

Yellow eyes a warning

Look directly into the eyes of an Endangered species. Work by Forest & Bird on land is helping the Yellow-eyed Penguin, but threats at sea are very worrying

New Zealand's Endangered penguin species: Yellow-eyed © Richard Robinson
New Zealand's Endangered penguin species: Yellow-eyed © Richard Robinson
By Shaun Hurrell

With a piercing stare and slick head band, Yellow-eyed Penguins Megadyptes antipodes trundle through thick, original rātā forest into burrows, using their beaks to steady themselves. Enderby Island, part of the Auckland Island group southwest of South Island and listed by BirdLife as an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, is one place to see what it would have been like before human arrival. Researchers visiting the island have to crouch down to a penguin-height of 65 cm in order to tunnel through the spiky, tangled vegetation by following perfect muddy pathways pattered down by small, webbed feet.

He heards a trumpet-like territorial call and watches one pop out from underneath tough elongated leaves

Yellow-eyed Penguin and chick at Te Rere Reserve, New Zealand © Kimball Chen / Forest & Bird

Where penguins come ashore at Te Rere, showing native flax vegetation © Kimball Chen / Forest & Bird

On the mainland it is quite different. In southeast South Island, Fergus Sutherland is looking for the Yellow-eyed. He hears a trumpet-like territorial call and watches one pop out from underneath tough elongated leaves of native flax. Appropriately named hoiho, meaning “noise shouter” in Maori, this penguin is claiming the little shelter she can find so not to suffer from heat stress. Forested areas are becoming difficult to find on New Zealand’s agricultural east and south coasts, and the small pockets of native bush that exist in isolated areas act as sanctuaries: one such place is Te Rere, a coastal reserve bought by Forest & Bird 30 years ago from farmers. Since then, extensive planting and invasive predator control has been underway to protect the birds there, but it is one small battle in a war. Access is only granted to those helping with conservation, and despite providing the best example of mainland forested habitat these penguins need, things aren’t going well for hoiho

“Last summer, we only had about twelve nests when normally we have around twenty”, says Fergus. “These numbers mirror what’s been going on across much of the southern coast.” Only 216 nests were counted in the entire South Island in 2015, a 33% decline from the previous year. Classified as Endangered, the science behind the Yellow-eyed’s decline is difficult and complex, with threats at sea playing a major part.

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Penguins coming ashore starved or injured reflect the ongoing destruction of the whole marine environment

Fergus Sutherland at Te Rere Reserve, South Island © Lucy Dickie

What will the future hold for this Endangered Yellow-eyed Penguin? © Kimball Chen / Forest & Bird

When penguins come ashore severely injured or facing starvation, it reflects wider changes in food distribution and the whole marine environment, and is our warning signal to protect them. “Hoiho forage on the seabed at depths of up to 160 m, where delicate structures provide habitat for fish and squid prey”, explains Fergus. “These structures are often damaged by trawling and dredging.”

Fergus is checking the footage from his camera traps and sees a Yellow-eyed walking in an awkward way, and lacking the yellow headband of adults. “I have been aching to see any sign of a juvenile here in the last two years”, he says with a grin. This young penguin would have hatched last summer and has made it through its first year at sea – one of the lucky ones, but hopefully a sign of things to come.

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.

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

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

We are extremely grateful to the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, and the many individuals, for their support for our global Protect a Penguin campaign.