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I love penguins

13 Mar 2009 / in natural world, travels

I find it impossible to look at penguins and not smile. So I was happy to discover that New Zealand is home to a number of species of penguins, some of which I hoped to see when we visited that extraordinarily beautiful country last month.

At Roaring Bay, in the very south of South Island, the guide book suggested it might be possible to see yellow eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes). Yellow eyed penguins are not only endangered and rare – the world’s population is estimated at only 4,000 – but they are also shy and solitary.

Despite this, we arrived at Roaring Bay at the suggested time of day, and we had patience and determination on our side. The weather was foul; drizzle with pulses of heavier rain and a chilly stiff breeze. I put on six layers of clothing, longjohns, gloves and a hat and off we set.

We sat quietly on the exposed rise at the back of the beach on a muddy patch of ground taking the full force of the weather for over an hour, listening to the sea roar, watching every wave in case a little penguin was thrown out of it. Finally our tenacity was rewarded.

A single bird appeared and made its way determinedly over the sand, pausing to preen itself, before jumping over the large pebbles at the tide line and climbing up into the thick vegetation on the hillside beneath us. Suddenly a large chick popped up – presumably it had hidden all day in a burrow, waiting for its parent to reappear with a full crop of fish and squid. We were ecstatic! Despite the miserable conditions, this one little penguin and its chick warmed the cockles of our hearts.

The guidebook also suggested that the Otago peninsula, near Dunedin on South Island is a particularly good place to spot sphenisciformes. So we turned the campervan northwards and headed up there.

We were told that blue penguins (Eudyptula minor), the world’s smallest sphenisciform, could be glimpsed at dusk at Pilot’s Beach, right at the tip of the breath-taking beautiful peninsula, near an albatross colony. The light was fading fast when we arrived at 8.30pm. We stood quietly, silently at the top of the beach as the gloom turned to virtual darkness. We strained our eyes to see anything at all, but knew the birds would come back to feed their chicks which waited in their burrows among the grasses and bushes on the dunes.

Then they arrived. Tiny little things only about 14 inches tall. We could just make out their white fronts and that distinctive penguin gait as they hurried up the beach. They climbed up into the vegetation, scurrying past us within metres, unafraid of people, to be reunited with their chicks. As the parent birds found their chicks, the rookery began to sing: chicks crying like babies, squawks, whirrs, chirps and peeps.

As we left the beach we walked slowly in the darkness – it would have been easy to tread on a bird – they were moving all around us. We sat in the campervan with the windows open and listened to the symphony of penguin music.

Such was the magic of this place, we came here to watch and listen to the blue penguins for three nights in a row.

Pictured left: me filming a blue penguin in a nesting box at a different location close to Pilot’s beach.

Photos: Moth Clark

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