What an incredible few days we have had! Over the past few days Giverny and I have been getting some awesome hands on experience and have met some of New Zealand’s special taonga! This week we have been spending time with Department of Conservation staff helping out with some Yellow Eyed Penguin (hoiho) and NZ Sealion (rāpoka) monitoring!
We have been getting our hands dirty crawling through bushes, hiking up hills and clambering over boulders looking for hoiho nests and rāpoka pups. Once found, we have been recording the health of both the parents and the babies to make sure they are nice and healthy. Any sick, injured or underweight critters are then taken to the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital or the Penguin Place for specialist care!
Our first day at the Department of Conservation office began with a short introduction into DOC’s work, some of the critters we will be meeting and some health and safety work. After this house-keeping work we headed out with DoC Ranger Jim for our first day in the field!
Our first half of the day was spent checking up on the local sealion pups, including the infamous Harewa! Harewa reached international audiences when the Dunedin City Council temporarily closed off a section of John Wilson Ocean Drive at St. Kilda beach to allow the mama sea lion and her pup to reach the ocean safely. This sea lion has made herself at home at the nearby golf course and was spotted crossing the road to get to the beach and forage for food daily. Pups rely on their mothers for milk and protection for the first year of their lives and are particularly vulnerable to disturbance during foraging periods.
Our next sea-lion that we met was called Gem! Like many sea-lions do, she was hiding her pup among coastal bushes and shrublands. While it looks like no-mans-land to many people, it’s a critical habitat for these threatened species. Sealions can be found in hills, forests and fields up to 400-600m above sealion, providing lots of range for DoC rangers to search through!
Our next task of the day was hoiho (yellow eyed penguin) monitoring! We were very lucky to spot 7 hoiho in one day! Hoiho, like the NZ Sealion, nest in dense coastal forests where the penguins live and nest. These birds are primarily terrestrial and only enter the water to forage for food such as fish, squid and crustaceans. We found two parents with their chicks at two different nesting sites. Since the parents were with their chicks we did not do any indepth health checks (i.e. measuring and weighing) to avoid stressing the parent penguins. A visual check suggested both chicks and parents were healthy so we continued on our trip, searching for other hoiho nests. The third hoiho we came across, however, needed a bit more care. It’s flipper band, a metal ring with an imprinted code, was partially open so we captured it and closed the band to ensure it wouldn’t get snagged on any branches or kelp.
Unfortunately, this penguin was also a little underweight for it’s stage of moult! When penguins enter moult they need to be a sufficient weight to ensure they have enough kai (food) in their bellies to last 3-4 weeks. During moult, their plumage is not waterproof and their body not well insulated – so they cannot go to sea to feed and often lose 3-4kg body weight. Because the penguin was underweight there was a heightened risk of starvation and dehydration.
We took this underweight penguin to the rehabilitation center “Penguin Place”. Here, the penguin will be given plenty of fish while it moults and then it will be released back into the wild.