Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hard work protects yellow-eyed penguins

Southland Times photo 
Roy Johnstone resets a possum trap in the Catlins in a bid to protect the yellow-eyed penguin from deadly pests.
She spent more than six hours in a howling easterly wind checking traps for small, dead animals, but it only took one scene to convince Rachel Askew it was more than worth it. 
Three rabbits, one stoat and a hedgehog - we ended the day with what was probably a record low catch.

I began the day wearing a high-vis vest and trying not to break two dozen eggs while clambering up hills and scrabbling along cliffs. I was in the Catlins with volunteers Roy Johnstone and Jim Young, who every month spend the day checking and resetting more than 100 pest traps on behalf of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust.

Their main targets were possums, feral cats, stoats and ferrets which posed the biggest risk, although rats and hedgehogs were also on the hit list. Apparently rabbits don't really count - they're trapped because they attract the cats. Johnstone said stoats were the nastiest of the lot, known to attack both chicks and adults birds.

The eggs are for baiting the traps and are replaced every second month in a bid to attract pests. It took about six hours to check the traps at Long Point and Cosgrove Creek which are found in paddocks, under bushes, on rocks and hillsides.

While impressed by the stellar views and the dedication of Johnstone and Young, I was mostly keen to spot some yellow-eyed penguins, the birds these men were working to protect. I got an early glimpse of an adult bird from a distance, which, since I'd forgotten my glasses, really could have been anything, but after a few hours checking empty trap after empty trap, we were in.

Creeping down a cliffside gripping onto to flax bushes in an increasingly strong wind, I spied a pair of the birds only a few metres away. It was the first of six yellow-eyeds we'd see that day. My gaze wandered past the penguins, as I realised fur seals were pups chasing each other on the rocks below, while adult seals duck dived in and out of the raging Pacific Ocean.

In the cloudy skies above Bullers albatross soared through the air flocked by, what Johnstone called "flotillas", of muttonbirds or titi. As I sat trying not to be blown off the hill, inside I was blown away. It was a privilege to see.

The day continued with more trap checking, penguin spotting and a lunch stop. I learnt about the different types of traps (Fenn, DOC 200s, Timms and Conibear) and penguin signs (white poo and flat grass).

Johnstone and Young's checks in December and January yielded a record number of catches over a four-week time frame, netting around eight to 10 predators.

So this month's count was one of the lowest ever, the pair reckoned. Asked whether it was better to catch lots of pests so you knew your traps were working or barely any, perhaps a signal that the area was pest-free, Young said it was the latter.

For the record, I should say the final count was actually three rabbits, one stoat, a hedgehog and one egg - yes, I only broke one of them.


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