A Te Papa research team visited Taumaka, 4 km off the South Westland coast last month as part of a project investigating why some New Zealand seabirds breed in winter. Our focus while on Taumaka was tawaki / Fiordland crested penguin and korora / little penguin, and was undertaken with the permission of Taumaka me Popotai Trust and the Department of Conservation.
Tawaki on Taumaka mainly nest in caves and overhangs, or under dense tangles of kiekie vines. A few nest in small cavities, and for these and the burrow-nesting little penguins we used a burrow-scope to investigate nest contents.
A burrowscope works on the same principle as an endoscope, with a camera and a light source at the end of a flexible tube, providing a black-and-white image on a small video screen. New Zealand has many species of burrow-nesting seabirds, and burrowscopes are widely used by wildlife researchers and managers both here and overseas (see previous blogs in this series).
In addition to the penguins, two species of burrow-nesting petrels breed on Taumaka. The sooty shearwaters (tītī / muttonbirds) had not yet returned from their northern migration, but fairy prions (tītī wainui) were nesting in some of the same caves as the tawaki. Perhaps the larger and more aggressive penguins afforded some protection from prowling weka.
Penguins and petrels were not the only animals that we found in burrows and crevices on Taumaka. The island is a major breeding site for New Zealand fur seals / kekeno, and some of the pups get into tight spots. It was a first for me to see the whiskers and large eyes of a seal pup peering back down the camera lens.
The winter-breeding seabird project is a collaboration between Te Papa, Deakin University (Melbourne), and CNRS, Chize, France, and is led by PhD candidate Tim Poupart.