Sunday, April 19, 2015

#Penguins part of farm life on the wild side

Cape Saunders sheep and beef farmer David McKay brings a mob of sheep into the yards on a calm, sunny autumn day on Otago Peninsula.
Rob Tipa/Fairfax NZ - Cape Saunders sheep and beef farmer David McKay brings a mob of sheep into the yards on a calm, sunny autumn day on Otago Peninsula. 
On the wild side of the Otago Peninsula, hardy macrocarpas grow parallel to the ground, twisted and tortured into submission by relentless gales howling in off the Southern Ocean.
With its sheer cliffs and exposure to Roaring Forties storms, Cape Saunders is no place for the faint-hearted. Here locals learn quickly to brace themselves against the wind or suffer the same fate as the trees.

Ironically, it is the wild weather, big ocean swells and isolation of the peninsula's remote cliff-bound beaches that offer safe refuge for rare and endangered yellow-eyed penguins, little blue penguins, breeding colonies of New Zealand fur seals and sea lions returning to mainland New Zealand from the sub-Antarctic islands.

A yellow-eyed penguin.
A yellow-eyed penguin.

David and Wilma McKay, who run romney ewes and hardy hereford and angus cattle on rolling to steep faces between Mt Charles and Cape Saunders, are as passionate about conservation of the wildlife on their farm as they are about looking after their livestock.

McKay's family have farmed on the peninsula for five generations and on this farm - an amalgamation of settlement blocks for returned servicemen -  for three generations. His father Rod went to Cape Saunders School, now long gone, and both were born and raised here.

The McKay farm offers ideal yellow-eyed and little blue penguin nesting habitat in pockets of remnant native bush and farmland behind one of few privately-owned beaches on the peninsula free of dogs and people. Sea lions haul out on the same beach and there is a breeding colony of fur seals nearby.

Yellow-eyed penguins are notoriously territorial ground-nesting penguins that require nest sites with good shelter, shade and enough privacy to raise chicks out of sight of their neighbours.

The McKays manage their farm carefully to protect wildlife from disruption by livestock and new farm dogs are trained to ignore the birds. They maintain existing nest sites, build new ones, plant shelter and pick up any sick or injured birds and take them into Dunedin to a Department of Conservation approved vet.

Occasionally they treat chicks with medication if they get sick and work closely with the nearest penguin rehabilitation unit at Penguin Place if any birds need more specialised care.

David McKay's first memory of working with penguins was with his father when he was still at high school. Later he started working with a marine biologist, collecting data and samples from penguins and sea lions that hauled out on the beach.

At the time penguin chicks were vulnerable to predation by pests and when the family asked a scientist what they could do to help, he suggested they start trapping ferrets in gin traps set in tunnels. The technique worked and made a difference to penguin numbers with better chick survival.

Over the years he has witnessed first-hand the yellow-eyed penguins' relentless battle for survival, challenged by everything from diptheria outbreaks, algal blooms and predation by mustelids (ferrets and stoats), wild cats and possums.

In 1989 a large percentage of penguins on the McKay farm were wiped out by avian malaria, which killed two thirds of the penguin population.

"The best we've had since then is 22 nests," David McKay says. "This year we had 13 nests and most birds breeding this season have only had one chick after a hard season last year."

He recalls one memorable incident when he and a marine science student rescued a yellow-eyed penguin egg from an abandoned nest. They took turns to keep the egg warm, cradled in their hands for an hour and a half as they transferred it to a surrogate nest at the other end of the farm.

By the time they got there, the chick started responding to the warmth of their hands, so they carefully pared away enough shell for it to break free. They placed the egg under an adult bird and left, knowing they had at least done their best to save it.

"The next day we went down to have a look at the nest," he says. "The other adult had arrived back from sea and was feeding the young chick. I was walking around six inches off the ground for a few days after that."

During the breeding season, he checks nest sites once a week and if he sees any sign of predation he is down on the beach every day setting and checking traps to control mustelids, wild cats and possums. The latter are known to eat eggs, probably young chicks and destroy the foliage the birds depend on for shade in hot summer weather.

Wild cats and rabbits are also a massive problem. When people from the city can't afford to keep cats, they often dump them on Otago Peninsula.

"Cats will have a go at little blue penguins in a burrow but only a very brave cat will have a go at a yellow-eyed penguin," he says. "Once the chicks are big enough to go out to sea to feed themselves , they are better able to defend themselves from cats."

The other major threat to penguin nesting sites is damage done by two-legged intruders ignorant of the impact they have on wildlife.

"In the good old days we didn't mind people going down there until we started seeing people up around the nest sites," he says. He saw one woman clearing branches around a nest so she could get a better photograph. She scared the adults away and the chicks were exposed to the elements.

"One day I saw a surfer beating a sea lion about the head with a surfboard and that clinched it," he says. It was surprising he hadn't been attacked or mauled.

These days the McKay farm is not open to the public, other than small groups lucky enough to get a personally guided tour of the wildlife by the owners.

The McKays have noticed a strong recovery of native bird life on their property since the Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Trust's major poisoning operation to control possums in the Cape Saunders sector a couple of years ago.

"We used to hear possums close to the house all the time, but we haven't heard them for about a year really," Wilma says. "We saw a pair of tui for the first time in a cabbage tree just off the deck. They only stayed about a week, but it's the first time we've seen them up here."

"It's been very successful, brilliant," her husband adds. "It's good for the bush, good for the wildlife and good for the birds."


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