Jewel in the crown: New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin

New Zealand yellow-eyed penguin feeding its chick

Huddled behind the hide at the far end of Sandfly Bay, we shelter from winds whipping sand across the dunes. The sun is yet to break as we wait for yellow-eyed penguins to make their way from the headland to the rocks below. It’s a perilous journey from forest nests to ocean feeding grounds, and I wonder why a penguin makes this long trek across farmland each day. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Millions of years ago, these solitary penguins enjoyed the cool sanctuary of a forest canopy that stretched the length of the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. To survive in icy seas, yellow-eyed penguins are insulated by fat, but on land they need protection from the summer heat. Ancient hardwood forests once provided weatherproof nest sites and protected chicks against seabird attack. With no predators stealing their eggs and chicks, these native penguins flourished in a forested paradise.

I held a tiny hope we might be watching penguins alone. I hoped the half-hearted would be put off by the early start and the hike across farmland and down steep dunes to a game of British bulldog on the beach as we dodged Hooker’s sea lions, magnificent but wild. It’s mid-summer, but the wind is bracing.

Inside the small hide, people are sitting on benches and standing behind. Sheltered it may be, but it isn’t for me! I like to be free to shout out with excitement. Outside, the rising sun strokes the sky with pinks and peaches as I look through my binoculars, sharp-eyed and hopeful.

I wonder if we’ll be lucky enough to see one of the rarest penguins in the world. I think about the adult penguins vulnerable to dog attacks and heat stress as they cross open pasture. Early settlers burned coastal forest for farmland, forcing these native penguins inland. Adults, eggs and chicks became easy prey for the dogs, cats and stoats the settlers brought with them.

There! A penguin! At least I think it is. The Department of Conservation hide is a safe distance from the penguins’ path because tourists can easily disturb these shy birds caring for their young. Look! I can see more penguins!

In the ethereal light, I watch penguins resplendent in yellow crowns start their steep descent. Leaning forwards over their pink feet and jumping down the craggy slope, I can’t take my eyes off them. I’m willing them to stay safe. At six weeks old, fast-growing chicks are left alone in twiggy nests while both parents go to sea. If they don’t come back, their chicks will starve. We watch this feat of endurance for almost an hour, knowing these birds will have an even tougher climb when they return.

Penguins gather on the rocks below waiting for the morning light. Waves break over the rocks, licking, foaming and teasing. I can hear the penguins calling out, heads thrown back. Their Maori name is hoiho or ‘noise shouter’. I could listen to their trilling forever.

One by one, these two-foot tall penguins dive from the rocky shelf. They travel up to 25 km and dive to depths of 150 m in search of small fish and squid, sometimes diving 200 times a day. But this endangered Red List species lives on the brink, battling fisheries, pollution, climate change, predators, and selfie-seeking tourists.

The last of the penguins gone, I take in the glinting ocean frothing up surf on golden sand that stretches to dunes dancing with marram grass. On this remote beach on the Otago Peninsula, I feel nature’s wildness and resilience. I’m in awe of the yellow-eyed penguin. I think about the chicks waiting. I want these birds to survive. Just because.

Yellow-eyed penguin returning through the dunes at dusk

In the lazy heat of the afternoon, we hurry through camouflaged trenches connecting hides as we follow a solitary penguin from shore to dunes. At Penguin Place now, we watch unseen as the penguin greets its hungry chick. I’m spellbound and silent. They’re so close I don’t need binoculars. I don’t want to forget this moment. I don’t want to forget this penguin with pale yellow eyes, white chest, and slate-blue back and tail.

The brown downy chick with pot belly rushes forwards, its beak wide open to receive the fishy soup. Hoiho are devoted parents. At three to four months old chicks moult into their waterproof plumage. With fewer than 20 per cent surviving to juvenile maturity, this remarkable penguin could be lost from the mainland. Private conservation reserves like this are crucial.

The single trail of penguin footprints across the sand is poignant. Each day, a yellow-eyed penguin may not come back. I think about how incredible nature is and how finely balanced. I’m inspired to understand more about our impact on wildlife and how we can live responsibly with nature in mind.

Image credits: David Brighten.

Originally published on Terra Incognita. Finalist in the Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018 award. Published in their book, Wildlife Blogger of the Year 2018, a collection of 70 wildlife encounter stories from around the world edited by Kristi Foster and Nick Askew.

“Tracy’s blog provides both a personal perspective of seeing yellow-eyed penguins and the bigger picture of why this species is so vulnerable. It is an animal we rarely hear about  (despite its fellow species in Antarctica and South Africa being featured much more on TV and in magazines). Tracy narrates a good mix of reality, natural history and personal feelings which by the end makes it an interesting and thought-provoking piece.”
– Ed Drewitt of ‘The jewel in the crown: New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin’ by Tracy Brighten.

If you’re interested to know more about New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin, you might like to read World’s rarest penguin suffers disease, starvation, and selfies.

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