Lifeline for threatened penguins

There is a sense of urgency among those trying to keep yellow-eyed penguins from disappearing from mainland New Zealand. Nevertheless, every breeding season brings hope. Hamish MacLean went to Moeraki to find out about  the latest efforts by Penguin Rescue volunteers.

As chicks start hatching at Moeraki, Penguin Rescue volunteers are taking steps to fight two significant threats to the yellow-eyed penguin. Avian diphtheria was a persistent threat and

mosquito-borne avian malaria was being taken very seriously, Penguin Rescue manager Rosalie Goldsworthy said.

And yet, volunteers hope for another successful breeding season of the world’s rarest penguin.

To date 25 chicks have hatched at the North Otago breeding grounds, and the early start to the breeding season this year was taken as an "absolutely positive" sign for a possibly successful season.

The breeding season begins early at Moeraki with about a quarter of the 41 yellow-eyed penguin...
The breeding season begins early at Moeraki with about a quarter of the 41 yellow-eyed penguin nests producing chicks before the start of the month. Photos: Hamish MacLean

"We want to fledge 50 chicks, as we did last year," Mrs Goldsworthy said.

Last year, the Otago Daily Times reported a University of Otago study showed yellow-eyed penguins "face almost certain extinction from the mainland unless urgent action is taken" as numbers of the world’s rarest penguin continued to decline.

At Moeraki, the birds produced 72 viable eggs this year; there were  41 nests, four fewer than last year;  the first two eggs were laid on the peninsula on September 11 and the first chick hatched on October 23.After 77 eggs were laid, four were found to be infertile, and one egg, the volunteers believe, was "stolen".

This year, Penguin Rescue has taken steps against avian malaria, a disease the conservationists were not aware of "until the birds started dropping dead" last year, Mrs Goldsworthy said. Last year, a wet winter and a warm spring and summer created the right conditions for the mosquitoes that carry the disease to have a serious effect on the birds.

Penguin Rescue volunteer Jan Carter, of Shag Point, checks nests for chicks. Before the breeding...
Penguin Rescue volunteer Jan Carter, of Shag Point, checks nests for chicks. Before the breeding season began the volunteers at Penguin Rescue took measures against avian malaria, and now they are monitoring for another potentially fatal disease, avian diphtheria.

Among the 14 birds lost to avian malaria at Moeraki last year, 10 were breeding females. While that loss was tempered by the good news six 2-year-old birds had begun to breed this year, Penguin Rescue remained concerned and with the support of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, which covered a third of the costs, volunteers created new mosquito-proof enclosures at Moeraki.

The seven-bay hospital was fitted out with mosquito netting, as was the new rehabilitation centre with four four-bird bays, as was the new soft-release box, where rehabilitated non-resident penguins stay until they are ready to return to the sea. The back of every nesting box at Moeraki was fitted with mosquito netting and  natural mosquito repellants placed out front.

And due to the threat posed by standing water in ponds, four dams were breached, and four ponds were treated with bacteria as a biological control.

A yellow-eyed penguin sits on pipping (hatching) eggs. Moeraki’s 41 nests produced 77 eggs this...
A yellow-eyed penguin sits on pipping (hatching) eggs. Moeraki’s 41 nests produced 77 eggs this season in what has been an early start to the breeding season for the world’s rarest penguin.

The first step this breeding season to detect the disease would be from a blood sample taken when the chicks were 70 days old.

Malaria was an unwelcome addition to avian diphtheria, which again threatened yellow-eyed penguin survival during last year’s breeding season. At Moeraki, 66% of chicks were treated with antibiotics last year and 80% of the treated chicks survived. Penguin Rescue volunteers will  monitor this year’s chicks — especially in the critical first three weeks of life — for signs of dehydration and bald spots in their fluff, signs they   have the disease that causes lesions in chicks’ mouths and makes eating and breathing difficult.

This year,  staff from Penguin Place on Otago Peninsula visited Moeraki as the two main rehabilitation centres in Otago began collaborating to "enhance each other’s success".

hamish.maclean@odt.co.nz

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