of the world’s smallest penguins has nearly doubled the size of its
population in the past decade and much of the credit is due to the
farmer who owns the land where many of the penguins breed.
White-flippered penguins (Eudyptula albosignata), also known
as korora, are endemic to the Canterbury region of New Zealand, where
the birds have just two major breeding sites, remote Motunau Island and
the volcanic headlands of the Banks Peninsula. The latter is where
Francis Helps and his wife Shireen have converted much of their farmland
into a safe haven for the rare birds.
Helps tells New Zealand’s ONE News that he grew up surrounded by the small blue-white birds, which are known for their loud, football-like victory dances. “As a kid I can remember…all you could hear at night was penguins.”
But even then the penguins were on the decline. Invasive cats,
ferrets and stoats (a type of weasel) had overrun the country,
endangering many native birds. Like the flightless kiwi, the
30-centimeter korora became easy prey. The New Zealand Department of
Conservation (DOC) estimates that up to 80 percent of the penguins
throughout the Canterbury area (largest city Christchurch) were killed
over a period of 50 years. (Tiny, rocky Motunau Island is predator-free, so the small colony there has maintained its numbers.)
Twenty years ago Helps and the DOC teamed up to support the penguins,
installing traps to catch and kill the predators and nesting boxes to
protect the penguins’ nests. The Christchurch City Council and the
regional government agency Environment Canterbury have helped to a
lesser extent, although funds from all three organizations have been
extremely limited. The Helps also offer penguin tours and kayak trips to help fund conservation.
The efforts have all made a dramatic difference. A survey at the end
of last year found 1,304 breeding pairs at Flea Bay, along with hundreds
of juveniles and single adults. DOC says the population has grown by 25
percent since the last survey four years ago. In addition, a few other
bird species have returned to the region, including yellow-eyed penguins
(Megadyptes antipodes), which now have three nests in the bay. “It’s just a really little slice of penguin paradise,” DOC ranger Anita Spencer told The Press.
Until 2006 white-flippered penguins were considered a color morph
(basically an unusual specimen) or possibly a subspecies of the more
populous little penguin (E. minor). DNA tests published that year in Proceedings of the Royal Society B
revealed them to be a species in their own right, although some sources
still list them as a subspecies. The birds were listed as a threatened species
under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2010, which limits their
import into this country. New Zealand’s DOC is currently trying to
establish additional breeding colonies elsewhere in the country in hopes
of protecting the penguins against disease or other cataclysmic events,
but it may not be easy. Previous research has shown that
white-flippered penguins are extremely loyal to their nests and colonies
and almost never move to new sites of their own volition.
Francis Helps discusses his efforts to protect the penguins in this 2010 video from the DOC and TVNZ 6:
Photo: A tagged white-flippered penguin in Christchurch by Heather F, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license
The Penguin Camera is located on Torgersen Island (64°46’S, 64°04’W), off the coast of Anvers Island and less than a mile from Palmer Station. Torgersen Island is home to a colony of Adélie penguins numbering approximately 2,500. This camera is seasonal and operates primarily from October to February, the Adélie breeding season. The camera is solar-powered and may sometimes experience brief outages due to inclement weather. School classrooms and other educational demonstrations will often take control of the camera, moving it to gain better views of the colony.