27 November 2014

The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Survey team visit historic Carnley Harbour

The Yellow-Eyed Penguin Expedition crew spent the first part of this week in Carnley Harbour, a body of water between Adams Island to the south and the larger Auckland Island. And for seasick Frazer, the calm tranquillity of the water is very welcome!

“I have fallen in love with this harbour. It reminds me of the lochs of Scotland - calm narrow stretches of water surrounded by very high steep hills. At the far end of Carnley Harbour is the Victoria Passage, a narrow exit to the western side of the island where the sea is rough. And nearby we is Boatshed Bay, where a boatshed once housed the Adams Island depot boat that was left for shipwreck survivors in the 1800s. The boat is now on display at my place of work the Maritime Museum in Auckland and it is a thrill to see a connection with an historical artefact I see daily back home.”

Carnley Harbour, photographed by the Department of Conservation
Carnley Harbour is a very historical place and the team take the opportunity to view a site where a German ship, the Erlangen, escaped detection in the early days of World War Two. The German crew used Rata trees to fuel their journey to South America, and the clearing of trees is now called the Erlangen Clearing.

The expedition team also went ashore at the site where the survivors of the Grafton shipwreck lived for 20 months in the mid-1860s. 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the wreck, and even today a part of the ship can still be seen on the water’s edge. It’s a remarkable survival story that has been the subject of many books and was recently a major story on TVNZ series Intrepid NZ. For Frazer, it has topped off an unforgettable two weeks.

“This has been an amazing trip for me. The wildlife encounters, the history, the stunning scenery, the remoteness and the pristine environment have made this an unforgettable experience. Sitting for four hours each morning in the quiet still dawn waiting to see penguins gives you plenty of time to think. I think of my family. These two weeks will be the longest time my wife and I have spent apart since we first met 15 years ago. I think of my two dogs and a cat. I think of my mum and grandparents who would be so proud I got this opportunity. Most of all I think about how I can make the most of this experience. I have big plans to teach others about the Auckland Islands. To share what I have experienced and what I have learnt. I think about inspiring others to love this place and help keep it the way it is. I think about making a difference.”

26 November 2014

A Penguin Record! Counting up a storm on the Auckland Islands

Friday 21 November was the team’s second day of counting Yellow-Eyed Penguins – this time at the northern tip of Rose Island with views over to Enderby Island. After a 4am breakfast and a dinghy ride to shore, the team were in position by 5.30am. With the weather easing up, it was a good day for counting penguins, and Museum educator Frazer spotted a record number of 16. He got lucky with two of them though….

“My inflatable cushion deflated and as I stood up to fix it I startled a pair of penguins right next to me. I'm not sure who was more surprised! Yesterday in the same spot I saw six penguins, and both days they used the same landing spot to dive into the ocean waves. Some people haven’t seen any at all so I feel lucky.”

The team are following a survey method that uses one location for two counts over two consecutive days. This allows them to compare the daily variances, as well as comparing against the 2012 and 2013 surveys in the same area. (They use GPS markers to make sure their location is accurate.)

All of this data will help DoC and the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust to gain an accurate population estimate and build a baseline from which they can analyse and evaluate population trend.

Navigating the Auckland Islands
After spending two nights anchored in Erebus Cove in Port Ross on the north eastern side of the Auckland Islands and completing two penguin counts, it was time for the team to head south. They sailed around Ocean Island before heading through a tricky passage between Ewing and French Island.

Although the passage looks straightforward on the sailing charts, it contains unchartered reefs and the recorded depths are not always reliable. In fact, inconsistencies in sea charts are often blamed for the nine ships that have been lost or presumed lost since the mid-1800s. On some 19th Century charts, the Auckland Islands are plotted 35 miles south of their true position! When you add bad weather and fierce currents into the picture, it’s not surprising so many ships were lost. Even with today's modern navigational technology, skippers have to take great care.

Sailing down the East coast, gave the team a good understanding of the geography of the Islands. Auckland Island is the eastern side of a volcano that formed around 16 million years ago. The 300 meter high vertical cliffs of the western side of the Island are constantly pounded by wind, while the eastern side contains deep fiords, carved out by Pleistocene age glaciers.

“The hanging valleys and impressive cirques were visible from the boat and were a Geographer's dream! I would love to get the chance to get ashore along this coast and walk up to one of the moraine dammed lakes on the glacial valley floors - finger's crossed!,” reported Geography teacher Christine.

Onto the next count site
The weekend’s weather forecast was calm – perfect for heading into Carnley Harbour and getting onto Adams Island for the next two penguin counts. The DoC team went ashore to scope out counting sites on this highly protected Island that is completely predator free, before the team turned in ready for another early start in the morning.

24 November 2014

Counting Yellow-Eyed Penguins on the Auckland Islands

Thursday 20 November marked the first official penguin counting day for the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Survey expedition team. The dedicated volunteers were up at 4am to be at their counting sites by 5am. Luckily being so far south, it’s light by the time they’re in position.

Museum educator Frazer is one of two teachers chosen to take part in the survey. The other is Christine Greenwood from Wanaka who arrived at her counting spot to discover two Yellow-Eyed Penguins already there. She sent back the following observations:

“They are really beautiful, the adults having the distinct yellow band around their heads which gives them their name. The penguin I was watching took a long time to make up its mind to head for the sea. It spread its wings and stretched its neck back a few times but it wasn't until it was joined by another bird that it hopped its way across the rocks and headed for the sea. Although solitary birds by nature, the penguins prefer to enter the water with others - safety in numbers I guess.

It was really peaceful to sit and admire the scenery (in between the showers and squalls) and keep looking out for the penguins heading down from their nesting sites and into the water. Yellow-Eyed Penguins don't burrow into the ground; they make their nests in between the tall tussock grasses. You can hear them calling to each other but they don't all head out at the same time. It's nesting season at the moment so the adults take it in turns to go out to sea to feed. The time they stay away varies from a few hours to a couple of days.

After four hours of watching I had seen nine birds including one juvenile, which are much paler and don’t develop the yellow band until they moult at around 18 months.”

If nine penguins doesn't seem like many, it’s because the species is so endangered. The expedition team’s key task is to monitor whether their numbers are increasing or declining. With a total count of 17 for day one, it was a disappointing result in comparison to last year’s 27. Fingers crossed the team spot more of the little penguins as the survey goes on.

Brushing up on some history
As well as counting penguins, the team is taking some time out to explore the history of islands and do some repairs. They visited Ranui Cove, the site of a World War Two coast watcher station set up to watch for enemy ships. The team put themselves to good use cleaning the windows of the hut and checking its condition and the walking tracks nearby.  Built over 70 years ago, it’s in a state of disrepair, but it still contains a guest book from a scientific expedition in the 1960s. Naturally the team added their own names, wondering who will return to see them in years to come.

Frazer and the team also hiked up to smaller hut at the top of a nearby hill, where they could enjoy majestic views of the Port Ross harbour and nearby approaches. During the war, vantage points like these would be manned by watchers every day between 4.30am to 6.30pm. “I believe they never saw any ships. Imagine how they must have craved to see something, anything at all," reports Frazer.

A typical coast watcher's hut from the Second World War on the Auckland Island. Most are now in a state of disrepair.

23 November 2014

Squaring up to sea lions on the Auckland Islands

Now that the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Survey expedition team have made it safely to the Auckland Island, they’re taking some time to get to know the locals. With no permanent human inhabitants, the Islands are a haven for wildlife including southern skuas, giant petrels, yellow-eyed penguins and – as they soon found out – rather territorial sea lions.

Sufficiently recovered from his debilitating seasickness, here’s what our favourite Museum educator Frazer made of day one:

“We go ashore at Sandy Bay, Enderby Island, where we’ll drop off two researchers and their supplies at a DoC hut. We’re also here to get our first experience of the mighty sea lions. These majestic creatures can reach 500 kg. The New Zealand Sea Lion would once have been prolific in the Southern Ocean, but today they’re rarest and most endangered of the five species of sea lion in the world.

Today we see about 30. It is hard to keep count as they play in the surf, dive amongst the kelp, wander off into the scrub bush, or just lie down in the most unusual places. They don't seem to mind us being here on their beach. Many are too lazy to move, just keeping a watchful eye on us.

Some younger males challenge us, barking and growling and charging like a dog would. It takes a lot of nerve to stand your ground. If you were to run they would think it's a game and give chase. All of these sea lions are males. The males arrive here in November, the females a month after, and during the December/ January mating season the beach and surrounding areas are teeming with them

We saw one Yellow-Eyed Penguin on the beach at Sandy Bay. It bravely waddled along the beach zig zagging between sleeping sea lions. It is truly special to see these subantarctic animals in their natural environment.”
A New Zealand Sea Lion on the Auckland Islands, where DoC reports that numbers are increasing slowly.