Counting Yellow-Eyed Penguins on the Auckland Islands

Monday, November 24, 2014
A typical coast watcher's hut from the Second World War on the Auckland Island. Most are now in a state of disrepair.

Thursday 20 November marked the first official penguin counting day for the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Survey expedition team. The dedicated volunteers were up at 4am to be at their counting sites by 5am. Luckily being so far south, it’s light by the time they’re in position.

Museum educator Frazer is one of two teachers chosen to take part in the survey. The other is Christine Greenwood from Wanaka who arrived at her counting spot to discover two Yellow-Eyed Penguins already there. She sent back the following observations:

“They are really beautiful, the adults having the distinct yellow band around their heads which gives them their name. The penguin I was watching took a long time to make up its mind to head for the sea. It spread its wings and stretched its neck back a few times but it wasn't until it was joined by another bird that it hopped its way across the rocks and headed for the sea. Although solitary birds by nature, the penguins prefer to enter the water with others - safety in numbers I guess.

It was really peaceful to sit and admire the scenery (in between the showers and squalls) and keep looking out for the penguins heading down from their nesting sites and into the water. Yellow-Eyed Penguins don't burrow into the ground; they make their nests in between the tall tussock grasses. You can hear them calling to each other but they don't all head out at the same time. It's nesting season at the moment so the adults take it in turns to go out to sea to feed. The time they stay away varies from a few hours to a couple of days.

After four hours of watching I had seen nine birds including one juvenile, which are much paler and don’t develop the yellow band until they moult at around 18 months.”

If nine penguins doesn't seem like many, it’s because the species is so endangered. The expedition team’s key task is to monitor whether their numbers are increasing or declining. With a total count of 17 for day one, it was a disappointing result in comparison to last year’s 27. Fingers crossed the team spot more of the little penguins as the survey goes on.

Brushing up on some history
As well as counting penguins, the team is taking some time out to explore the history of islands and do some repairs. They visited Ranui Cove, the site of a World War Two coast watcher station set up to watch for enemy ships. The team put themselves to good use cleaning the windows of the hut and checking its condition and the walking tracks nearby.  Built over 70 years ago, it’s in a state of disrepair, but it still contains a guest book from a scientific expedition in the 1960s. Naturally the team added their own names, wondering who will return to see them in years to come.

Frazer and the team also hiked up to smaller hut at the top of a nearby hill, where they could enjoy majestic views of the Port Ross harbour and nearby approaches. During the war, vantage points like these would be manned by watchers every day between 4.30am to 6.30pm. “I believe they never saw any ships. Imagine how they must have craved to see something, anything at all,"reports Frazer.