Sunday, October 31, 2010

Blue Penguins

I can’t remember which bird I voted for as New Zealand’s favourite in the recent poll. I think it was the kea but the Blue penguin is pretty near the top of the list. My first experience of penguins was on Kapiti Island when I was a kid. We lived in Palmerston North and visited the island a few times as my father was doing a botanical survey there. Penguins nested under the boatshed, near the whare and reportedly, even under the trig on top of the island. They were noisy and anyone presuming to have a restful night in a hut accessible to penguins was going to be disappointed. I did frequent beach walks along the Himitangi and Foxton coast recording dead birds, and we found penguins frequently.

Sometimes there was a major wreck with hundreds of corpses – these mass die-off are fairly frequent, particularly in the far north. I carefully cleaned up a skeleton and mounted it. You can see that although it has the same bones as all other birds, some of them are extremely modified. The tarsus and humerus in particular are very distinctive and these are key bones for identification when you have an assortment of fossil bones in marine sediment.

There are a few places to see them around the Southland coast. I’ve seen one off the Bluff wharf several times and they are common in Bluff Harbour, Foveaux Strait and around Halfmoon Bay.

Once you know what to look for you see the dark head and a little of the body showing. They aren’t as buoyant as a duck and float low in the water; this near neutral buoyancy helps when diving, as a dive can last several minutes and take the birds down to 20m or more. The most famous Blue penguin colony is at Oamaru where you can have a grandstand view of the birds coming ashore in the evening. The world’s best-known penguin arrival is on Phillip Island in Bass Strait near Melbourne. 3.5 million visitors each year admire the throng of staunch penguins emerging from the sea at dusk and making their way inland. This is the Fairy penguin, almost identical to the New Zealand form. The most distinctive of several New Zealand varieties is the White-flippered penguin. I’ve found two in Southland. They have a prominent white margin on the leading and back edge of the flipper, a pale blue-grey plumage and a white tail. Most of these are in colonies around Banks Peninsula so Southland’s examples might just be vagrants or perhaps white-flipperedness is a mutation that shows up occasionally in the local population.

two stuffed penguins together - a White-flippered and a Blue
to show the difference in flipper colour.

I’ve helped band penguins – feisty is the best word. They hang on with their beaks to the skin on the back of your hand, scratch and batter you with their flippers. The band is put on the wing as it tends to snag seaweed if it goes on the foot.

If you don’t want to venture near the sea you can always visit the penguins at the Antarctic Centre. I haven’t quite worked out what it’s all about. You start off in the Antarctica – and its very nicely done – then you are directed into another part of the building where there is a pond full of penguins with bits missing – flippers, beaks and feet – and you have to watch them being fed. Then you find that there is still two thirds of the Antarctic Centre to visit in your remaining ten minutes – weird. Not a good advertisement for penguinkind and a crass attempt to cash in on the penguins which aren’t associated with Antarctica at all. The misconception is widespread however. I heard of one woman who found a Blue penguin on a beach in Northland. “Poor little thing,” she thought, “it’s come all the way from Antarctica. It must be feeling hot,” so she put it in the freezer, not the fridge, the freezer.