Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Feature: Hard times for Penguins by Derek Onley

Penguins are like fish; they are at home at sea. Home to many people
is the place where your family is, where children are raised. Not so
to a penguin. Family life on land is a chore. Laying eggs, sitting on
them for weeks on end, feeding chicks for a month or so in a place
where there is nothing to eat yet is full of things that will eat you
given half a chance, a place that is far to sunny and hot for comfort
(even in Dunedin) and where you have to stand up and waddle and jump
around in a manner that invokes gales of laughter from those humans is
not where it's at for a penguin. Though at least during that nesting
season they do get to share the workload with a partner and a couple
of days on land is followed by a spell zipping around in the cool
refreshing ocean. Family life is not to hard compared with what many
penguins are going through at this time of year.

In late summer and autumn you may find penguins standing around in odd
places on the beaches and rocks looking decidedly dishevelled and dozy
amongst a mound of discarded downy feathers. They are not ill but are
going through the annual renewal of their feathers, the moult.
Penguins rely to a large extent upon their thick tough cover of
feathers for water proofing and insulation in the cool sea so they
cannot swim around and feed whilst moulting and have to do so ashore,
a place where there is nothing to eat yet is full of things
etc................... Penguins prepare for moult in much the same way
as Godwits prepare to fly to Alaska by laying in stores of fat as
fuel. When penguins come ashore to moult they are about one-third fat
but all of it is gone by the time the feathers are renewed. In years
of poor food supply birds can have problems laying down enough fuel to
last through the moult and some starve. Others will be killed by over
heating, some by stoats and dogs. Even hedgehogs have been known to
bale up Yellow-eyed Penguins. Its a hard time for a penguin.

Locally the species you are most likely to find moulting are Little
Blue Penguins, Yellow-eyed Penguins or one of the crested penguins
(most likely Fiordland Crested). Blue Penguins tend to moult in holes
in rocks, rabbit burrows or in the wooden nest boxes that have been
built in several places around the seashore so are relatively safe but
the larger two penguins just come ashore and stand dejectedly around .
They have been seen in recent years just above high tide on the cliffs
to the north of Warrington, in the dunes on Warrington spit and under
the pine trees near the car park at Doctors Point beach. If you do
find a penguin it is fine to look at it for a while, photograph it
even, but please do not disturb it or get to close and keep dogs well
away. If it is in a relatively safe place, up a cliff or in a small
cave maybe, far from where most walkers and dogs go then it is best
left alone. At Ocean beach a penguin recently moulted safely in a
children's playhouse. If however it has decided to dice with death,
in, for example the Doctors Point carpark, then please do not try and
help by moving it but ring up the Dept of Conservation (03 4770677)
and they will come along and transfer it to a safer beach.

by Derek Onley


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