Kororā, Little blue penguins from Gould's Birds of Australia, 1840–48.
The sea was black and silky like a giant cat purring softly as it lapped against the rocks. From out of the blackness an eerie braying sound came rolling into shore with the waves. A wave washed over the rocks and, as it receded, a small piece separated from the rest and remained standing on the shore, looking surprised to find itself there. Dressed like the sea from which it had been borne forth, it had a shirt the colour of the white surf that laced the land, and a top hat and tails to match the ocean.
The next wave brought another and another, until there were half a dozen or more. Suddenly two began to move forward, waddling like little Charlie Chaplins, with arms held straight back. They appeared to be looking for something and chatted away softly to one another, peering into nooks and crannies they passed, as though discussing the potential of each, like first home buyers. Pausing beside my shoes, one proceeded to tug at the laces, intent upon pulling them undone. Laughter burbling in my throat at the comical display, producing a sound not dissimilar to the little sea sprite’s chatter.
Distracted from obtaining my shoelaces to line his nest, he looked up at me, fixing me first with one eye and then another, turning his head from side to side. Then with a look that said, “You are the funniest looking penguin I’ve ever seen!” he turned and waddled off to join his mate in search of a place to raise a family.
Thus began my first close encounter with a little blue penguin, the start of an 18 month intimate acquaintance with these fascinating birds, studying their decline throughout the country. Unfortunately, while the human population in the Bay of Plenty continues to grow at an amazing rate, the little blue penguin population is becoming increasingly restricted to predator free offshore islands such as Moutohora (Whale Island) and Motuotau (Rabbit Island), although a small mainland colony still exists around the base of Mauao (Mount Maunganui), not far from the busy port.
Although the little blue penguin may not be as endangered as the other two penguins which breed on the New Zealand mainland — the fiordland crested penguin (tawaki) and the yellow–eyed penguin (hoiho) — many colonies have drastically declined or even disappeared and the Mauao colony may be no exception.
This decline is largely thought to be due to predation by introduced animals but also as a result of human disturbances. Dogs seem to wreak havoc in a short time, however mustelids such as ferrets and stoats are held responsible for the decline or even disappearance of many colonies along the New Zealand coast. Humans cause the death of little blue penguins through polluting the sea with plastic and chemicals. Penguins die in fishing nets, are run over and may even have been harvested illegally as bait for crayfish pots.
My study concentrated on the suggestion that little blue penguins may also be declining as a result of aversion to the lights and sounds associated with humans. The research suggested that little blues can adjust over time to our intrusions. When the same light is in the same place every night, penguins come to accept it as part of the habitat. However, even among habituated penguins, the intrusion of heavy-footed humans walking around shining torches can be distressing.
Although in areas with minimal human disturbance, korora may come ashore during daylight hours, they generally emerge after sunset. As they are small and defenceless, this after-dark habit probably arose as a means of survival. The nocturnal nature of the little blue also means that most people miss out on sharing in the magic of these birds. Even though the raucous braying of Korora will never compare to the hauntingly beautiful song of the Kokako, nor the blue tuxedo match up with the shimmering green, blue and purple coat and red boots of the Takahe, the little blue penguin has by far the greatest personality.
Penguins are truly deserving of the title “sea bird” since they spend most of their time on the ocean, even sleeping on the water. They may have lost the ability to fly but the short paddle like flippers that replaced their wings are perfect for flying through the water faster than Danyon Loader. Their webbed feet act like paddles when floating on the surface or rudders for underwater manoeuvring. They also have an oil gland just above their tails which keeps their feathers drier than Clive James’ sense of humour.
However, these birds have not yet mastered the art of incubating an egg while bobbing around on the water, which means they must return to land in order to raise a family. This is the time when they are most vulnerable to being attacked or disturbed. As more and more people flock to the seaside to holiday or live, little blues are forced out of traditional nesting areas. Without controls on people and predators, basically the only places left for penguins within their range — most of our coastline and the southern coast of Australia — are deserted offshore islands and remote areas of the country where fewer people will have a chance to share in the enchantment of the world’s smallest penguin.
However, there is a chance that their human characteristics and perky personalities could be the saviour of the little blue. Conservation funds are swallowed up by even more desperately endangered species but Korora might be helped by good old commercialism. While the importance of protecting species for commercial purposes, namely tourism, is well underway across the Tasman, we seem slow to grasp the concept here.
Every year thousands of tourists in Australia happily pay out to see the blues coming ashore at dusk, strutting up the beach, chatting about the day’s fishing, arguing about whose turn it is to feed the kids or even indulging in an affectionate preen. New Zealand seems a bit slower to grasp the commercial opportunities of our marvellous wildlife but the South Island town of Oamaru’s flagging tourist industry has already been completely revitalised by a commercial penguin watching operation. And stardom has been good for the Oamaru penguins too. The carefully managed colony has the most successful breeding rate in the country despite its urban location.
In the Bay of Plenty most of the Kororā colonies are on predator–free offshore islands such as Whale Island. However, Mauao, Mount Manganui, has a small number of penguins that with an intensive predator control and relocation programme could be built up into a substantial colony. With careful management there is no reason why the penguins should not also become an added attraction to the area.
Widespread. Breed on the coasts of southern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. Often seen in shallow inshore harbours close to their breeding grounds.
The NZ Rock Lobster Industry Council is confident that NZ commercial fishermen do not harvest penguins for use as bait. The NZ rock lobster industry is well aware of its responsibilities in regard to the protection of all threatened or endangered species.
NZ Rock Lobster Industry Council, Private Bag 24-901, Wellington, New Zealand. (64 4)385 4005
Buller's Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed., Rockhopper penguin (l), Little Blue penguin (r).
Gould, John, Birds of Australia, 1840–48.
Buller, Walter Lawry, Birds of New Zealand, 1st ed., 1873.
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