Little penguins do big swims

Our little penguin research continues this year as the team returned to Motuara Island in Marlborough (see the 2014 Te Papa penguin blogs for more about last year’s research). The penguins nesting at this site benefit from a predator free nesting habitat, shared with a number of land- and sea-birds. As one of the sites open to tourists, it’s visited each year by thousands of sightseers, who make the trek to the top of the island to see the views that Captain James Cook’s crew took in, as well as to see the local birdlife.

From Motuara to Taranaki – penguins swim up to 170km

During the incubation period in September and October 2015, Te Papa seabird researcher Tim Poupart deployed miniature GPS loggers on the nesting penguins. Their trips were a great surprise, with most birds travelling north of the Marborough area to the waters offshore from Taranaki. Taking between 5 and 15 days away from the nest during the incubation period, adult penguins alternate their shifts so that one birds stays to keep the eggs safe and warm, while the other is at sea feeding.

Many of the birds tracked went to similar locations to the one shown on the map below, while a few stayed near to Motuara Island during their trips at sea.

motuara penguin trip for blog O2

Foraging trip completed by a little penguin from Motuara Island (shown with the camera symbol on the map) in Marlborough during incubation. This bird spent 10 days at sea, with different legs of the trip shown in different colours. Astonishingly, the bird went to Taranaki and returned a distance of approximately 170km, spurning nearby waters of Cook Strait and Marlborough Sounds for feeding. Image: Google Earth, Copyright Te Papa.

As the smallest of all penguins, little penguins need to protect themselves from predators, and are nocturnal in their habits. Most of the penguins arrive at the island between dusk and midnight. However, this strategy doesn’t always work, as we found out to our surprise! Two penguins were killed and eaten by a falcon during our study in October.

The New Zealand falcon is thought to have killed the little penguin at the Motuara Island study site. Photo: Tim Poupart, Copyright: Te Papa

The New Zealand falcon is thought to have killed this little penguin at the Motuara Island study site. We were surprised that such a large bird as a little penguin, weighing over 1 kg could be captured by a falcon, which only weighs up to 750g. Photo: Tim Poupart, Copyright: Te Papa.

Shearwaters in residence

Aside from penguins at the site, there are other seabirds that we’ve encountered in our prospecting for penguins in their burrows. We use a burrowscope to reduce disturbance of birds in their nests, which allows us a quick visual inspection and to identify the species and their activities. This trip we found sooty shearwaters and fluttering shearwaters in residence. The sooty shearwater was seen in its nest on 5-6 October, along with its mate and a freshly laid egg.

Sooty shearwater in its burrow at Motuara Island, seen through the burrow-scope monitor. Photo: Tim Poupart, Copyright: Te Papa.

Sooty shearwater in its burrow at Motuara Island, seen through the burrow-scope monitor. Photo: Tim Poupart, Copyright: Te Papa.


This fluttering shearwater was seen with the burrowscope in a nest, possibly prospecting for a nesting spot. Its pale chin/lower neck, and long skinny bill are characteristic for this species. Photo: Tim Poupart; Copyright: Te Papa.

Little penguin in a natural nests at Motuara Island. Photo: Tim Poupart, Copyright: Te Papa.

Little penguin in a natural nests at Motuara Island. Photo: Tim Poupart, Copyright: Te Papa.

El Nino effect

Our work is continuing until mid November 2015, when we hope to have tracked a sample of birds during the chick rearing phase. As this year has a strong El Nino weather pattern, we are expecting the penguins to have to work hard for their food, and they will probably travel further than the birds we tracked in 2014, when weather conditions were more favourable.

We’re very grateful to the wonderful community in Picton who help us out in lots of ways, including the hosts at Tombstone Backpackers, The Cougar Line, and Eko-Tours. The folks at DOC, both those working on Motuara Island and those at the Picton field centre, are a great help and source of information for our teams. Thank you all!

7 Responses

  1. Nathan Hills

    Land based research about 5 years ago shows some north taranaki beaches have more penguins. The largest population being at waihi beach. Although due to stoney beaches in south taranaki cannot calvulate numbers like is posdiblr on sandy beaches.

  2. Tash Luxton

    Wow Susan! Interesting all round…amazing to see the Falcon/Penguin discovery and how far the little guys are traveling! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. Monty

    Nice stuff. Interesting to see the falcon with the little penguins. My question is in regards to the comments about El Nino in the story – my basic understanding (if correct) was that El Nino’s can bring cooler than average sea temperatures aroudn New Zealand as is the current case according to SST maps on weatherzone. co . If so how does the El Nino conditions less favorable for the penguins. Wouldn’t cooler sea temps increase nutrients and fish etc when compared to warmer SST?

  4. Jacqueline Hemmingson

    Great work, very valuable. Jacqueline Hemmingson

  5. vera

    Very impressed by how strong the falcon can be!

  6. Sharyn Attrill

    Great to read about the “little penquins” and their epic journeys for food and how job share happens re guarding nest and feeding. Recall in early 1970s staying at Urenui in North Taranaki and learning that penguins at that time sheltered under the baches in rough weather. Not sure what species of penguin though. Thanks for sharing info about these interesting wee creatures!

    • Barbara Hammonds

      Hi Sharon
      They would have been little blues, and they still nest (not just shelter) under some of the baches at Urenui. They used to also nest under baches at Ngamotu Beach until there were removed around the late 1990’s. Forest & Bird built some concrete artificial nest boxes at the time, which are still in use around the Port area, and are monitored by the Nga Motu Marine Reserve Society. They also used to be common under baches at Oakura Beach to the south but unfortunately these have now been almost completely replaced by houses that are lived in year round and have no access for penguins to live underneath. They appear to now have abandoned this area as a roosting and nesting place. Check out our website for more information:

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