Little penguins – the Motuara Island edition

This blog was written by Caroline Bost, Te Papa Intern on the  little penguin project, with help from volunteers Blandine Jurie and Yukiko Shimada for text and images:

Here is a bit of news about our first fieldwork week on Motuara Island. Motuara Island is an island located in the Queen Charlotte Sound (New Zealand), at the top of the South Island; in front of the Ship Cove. It’s a nature reserve, with a high diversity of native birds, both naturally occurring and trans-located. A lot of scientists come in this island to study several species of birds. Lots of native birds are breeding on Motuara: robins, saddlebacks, fluttering shearwater and little blue penguins. . And sometimes, if you are lucky, you can see kiwis! (at this point we can’t see them but are quiet sure to hear at least one around our tent !!).

Saddleback having a bath at Motuara Island. Photo: Yukiko Shimada, Copyright Yukiko Shimada.

Saddleback having a bath at Motuara Island. Photo: Yukiko Shimada, Copyright Yukiko Shimada.

To get there we took a small boat from Picton, on the way to Motuara it’s possible to see a large part of Marlborough Sounds wildlife: dolphins, Australasian gannets, new Zealand fur seals, king shag, white fronted terns, little shag and little penguin swimming around the boat …

After packing all our food and all the equipment necessary to this study –with the help of the Picton DOC- we took a tourist boat to reach the island. We arrived on Tuesday 28th of October. Here the team for the first couple of days: (Blandine Jurie, Caroline Bost and Patrick Chevalier).

Motuara penguin crew for the first week of the Marlborough study, Blandine Jurie, Caroline Bost and Patrick Chevalier, on board the Dolphin Watch vessel before disembarking at the island. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

Motuara penguin crew for the first week of the Marlborough study, Blandine Jurie, Caroline Bost and Patrick Chevalier, on board the Dolphin Watch vessel before disembarking at the island. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

 

 

The objective of our expedition, led by Caroline Bost (Te Papa intern) and Dr Susan Waugh (Te Papa’s Senior Curator, Sciences) is to compare the behaviour of the blue penguins of the Wellington Harbour and the ones of Motuara Island. Most of the monitored penguins are breeding in nest boxes. Part of our work is to monitor the nest boxes every day to observe the activity of adult penguins, to see when they leave the island to go to sea, and how often they feed their chicks.

Monitoring nest boxes for the return of little penguin adults which have been foraging at sea. Photo Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost

Monitoring nest boxes for the return of little penguin adults which have been foraging at sea. Photo Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost

 

The first afternoon we tried to find all the blue penguins’ nest boxes. Caroline recorded about 10 nests for the study. So the first night we went to all the boxes and worked on 3 penguins. They were very easy to work with. The scientific data we recorded were the same for each penguin: weight, bill size, blood sample. Caroline also fixes a logger on the selected penguins. The loggers will help her to know where the penguins go to find some food for themselves and for their chicks.

The second day –Wednesday 29th – we explored the island trying to find more nest suitable for the study. And the night we worked with 3 other penguins – among them, the partner of one logged the night before.

The third night –Thursday 30th – we didn’t manage to catch other partners but we found the way that the penguins use up from the beach reached the nest.

 

Little penguin track recorded by ARGOS satellite logger at Motuara Island, Marlborough Sounds. This bird went a maximum of 75 km from its nest, and returned within a few days the island. The raw data are shown here and may contain some error on individual locations. Image Google Earth, Copyright Te Papa.

Little penguin track recorded by ARGOS satellite logger at Motuara Island, Marlborough Sounds. This bird went a maximum of 80 km from its nest, and returned within a few days the island.  Kapiti Island is visible on the right hand side of the image, to give an idea of how far north this bird was foraging. The raw data are shown here and may contain some error on individual locations. Image Google Earth, Copyright Te Papa.

At the moment we know that one of the penguin, with two small chicks went about 80 km north of Motuara Island (see image above). When it came back to feed the chick it had put on 150g of weight.For the 5 others that are being tracked, Caroline needs to get back the logger to see what they did.

At the moment we deploy loggers on penguins incubating (staying on the egg for 5 to 7 days) or feeding small chicks. Little penguin are not synchronised breeders (i.e. they lay their eggs over an extended period, so that within one population not all chicks hatch at the same time) so that at the moment we have some penguin still incubating, some on small chicks and also some on big chicks. We also observed the first at sea departure of a just-fledged juvenile. Chicks normally stay in the nest with at least one adult for 2 weeks. After this “guard period” the chicks are left alone during the day. Both adult are needed to catch enough fish to feed the chicks. At least one adult comes back to the nest every night to feed the chicks and spend the night ashore.

At the top of the island you get a point of view on all the queen charlotte sounds when nice weather.

View from the top of Motuara Island. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

View from the top of Motuara Island. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

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View from the top of Motuara Island. Image: Yukiko Shimada. Copyright Yukiko Shimada

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View from the top of Motuara Island. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

 

So that’s how our days and night look: Because penguin are mostly active during the night we also try to become nocturnal and spend most of the evening on the way between the beach and nest-boxes. We try to catch penguin with logger on the way back between sea and nest to avoid disturbance of the nest/partner/chicks and also to get the information about the gain of weight during the at-sea trip.  During the day we sleep, prepare the loggers and also check the boxes for possible departure/arrival during early morning for example. We also enjoy the nice weather with swimming in the water off the beach.

We are really happy, because we found some very funny flatmates: two robins. They are really curious and tried to eat all our toasts as you can see on the photo:

 

Robin at Motuara Island is very tame. Here is is trying to eat Caroline's jam toast. Banded green and white. Photo Caroline Boast, Copyright Caroline Bost

Robin at Motuara Island is very tame. Here is is trying to eat Caroline’s jam toast. Banded green and white. Photo Caroline Boast, Copyright Caroline Bost

"Volunteer Exchange" as helpers on the programme change over at the island. Left to Right: Patrick Chevalier, Blandine Jury, Caroline Boast, Clare Harden and Yukiko Shimada. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

“Volunteer Exchange” as helpers on the programme change over at the island. Left to Right: Patrick Chevalier, Blandine Jury, Caroline Boast, Clare Harden and Yukiko Shimada. Image Caroline Bost, Copyright Caroline Bost.

 

After a quick pause in Picton to recharge loggers and buy fresh food we are heading back to Motuara for at least 12 days. Our goal for the coming days is to retrieve all the previously deployed loggers and try to deploy some others on adults feeding small and medium-sized chicks.

 

9 Responses

  1. Graham Randle

    This is a wonderful Island considering it was totally striped of vegetation in the early days and was a good place for the rare animals to be placed once the rats were removed. I have been their several times, the birds are very tame making them good subjects to photograph and it is also one of the only place where you can see a South Island Saddle-back without to much trouble.

    Reply
  2. Phillip

    Very interesting article thanks!

    Is Motuara Island predator free? e.g. rats etc

    Reply
    • Susan Waugh

      Thanks for th ecomment. Motuara Island is a predator free site, managed by DOC. It formerly had rats on it, but they were removed some years ago. Its quite easy to visit as there is a daily tourist boat that takes people out there.

  3. Vera Padilha

    Cool information here: the interesting routine of researchers and penguins!

    Makes me think I have to share this with my kid’s school because it talks about working with science and observing nature. Baby penguins add a great cuteness factor too!

    Reply
    • Susan Waugh

      Hi, thanks for the question Vera. It would be great to hear some questions from the kids, and we’ll try to get back to them fast so they can explore their interest in this topic.

  4. Patricia Hendy

    This is a fantastic report and that’s what I like about NZ they care about the wild-life population. Great reports from wild-life caregivers and reporters. I fell in love with New Zealand from the first day I placed my feet on North Island, back in Barbados I yearn to return but for now I am a wee bit satisfy to read all the available reports from the Long White Cloud. Oh! how I love the rich culture and so much more. The place where I left my heart. Once more, thank you guys for sharing your logs. Take care.

    Reply
    • Susan Waugh

      Thanks Patricia, we’re pretty in love with our wildlife too, and its nice to share what we’re doing with a broader audience.

  5. Olwen Mason

    Thank you, this was very interesting.

    Reply
    • Susan Waugh

      Thanks Olwen, Im about to post a new blog too, so have a look in an hour or two for the update.

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