Monday, December 6, 2010

5,000 tiny penguins on a 3ha island

The white flippered penguin is New Zealand's smallest

The white flippered penguin is New Zealand's smallest

Sun, 05 Dec 2010 7:40p.m.
By Samantha Hayes
Over the years 3 News has done plenty of stories about Oamaru's Little Blue penguins and the high-profile Yellow-eyed penguins but have you heard of the White Flippered penguin?
It's found only in Canterbury; it's the smallest of its species; it's more threatened than the yellow-eyed penguin and like the Little Blue it comes ashore every night like clockwork.
Motunau Island is a protected DOC reserve, 65km north of Christchurch, and it is tiny – only three hectares, but is home to more than 5,000 endangered White Flippered penguins.
A rare visit to the predator free island reveals wall-to-wall penguin burrows.
“I've seen populations go up and down,” says penguin trustee Graham Baldwin. “Right now the population is increasing and here on Motunau Island this is the prime breeding location.”
At this time of year they are sitting on eggs but a few early birds have already hatched.
Chris Challies has studied the White Flippered penguin for decades and knows their nightly parade well.
“A good proportion of the population will return ashore starting at last light and continuing through until about midnight.”
They are nocturnal because they are scared of aerial predators; while the threat has disappeared, the behaviour hasn't and they still gather in groups for protection.
Much like sheep, they wear paths up the steep hills to make getting around on those awkward feet a little easier.
At the changing of the guard, one parent comes up out of the sea and up the main highway to find its mate or chick if it has hatched; once reunited, the other parent comes back down the main highway and back out to sea because it’s its turn to go fishing.
But space is becoming a premium; 30,000 fairy prions also nest there and trustee Graham Baldwin is concerned for the largest colony.
“All we need is some sort of disease or some sort of catastrophe to sweep across the island and it's going to destroy that population of the white flippered penguin which is really the only breeding spot here,” he says.
So the trust aims to establish another breeding colony at Boulder Bay on Banks Peninsula.
Past chick relocations have been successful and it's hoped that like in Oamaru and Phillip Island near Melbourne, a penguin parade tourist attraction can be set up to help fund conservation efforts for the country's smallest penguin.
3 News


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