The Jewel in the Crown: New Zealand’s Yellow-Eyed Penguin | by Tracy Brighten

Huddled behind the hide at the far end of Sandfly Bay, we shelter from winds whipping sand across the dunes. The sun is yet to break as we wait for yellow-eyed penguins to make their way from the headland to the rocks below. It’s a perilous journey from forest nests to ocean feeding grounds, and I wonder why a penguin makes this long trek across farmland each day. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Millions of years ago, these solitary penguins enjoyed the cool sanctuary of a forest canopy that stretched the length of the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. To survive in icy seas, yellow-eyed penguins are insulated by fat, but on land they need protection from the summer heat. Ancient hardwood forests provided weatherproof nest sites and protected chicks against seabird attack. With no predators stealing their eggs and chicks, these native penguins flourished in a forested paradise.

I held a tiny hope we might be watching penguins alone. I hoped the half-hearted would be put off by the early start and the hike across farmland and down steep dunes to a game of British bulldog on the beach as we dodged Hooker’s sea lions, magnificent but wild. It’s mid-summer, but the wind is bracing.

Inside the small hide, people are sitting on benches and standing behind. Sheltered it may be, but it isn’t for me! I like to be free to shout out with excitement. Outside, the rising sun strokes the sky with pinks and peaches as I look through my binoculars, sharp-eyed and hopeful.

I wonder if we’ll be lucky enough to see one of the rarest penguins in the world. I think about the adult penguins vulnerable to dog attacks and heat stress as they cross open pasture. Early settlers burned coastal forest for farmland, forcing these native penguins inland. Adults, eggs and chicks became easy prey for the dogs, cats and stoats the settlers brought with them.

There! A penguin! At least I think it is. The Department of Conservation hide is a safe distance from the penguins’ path. Tourists can easily disturb these shy birds caring for their young. I can see more penguins!

In the ethereal light, I watch penguins resplendent in yellow crowns start their steep descent. Leaning forwards over their pink feet and jumping down the craggy slope, I can’t take my eyes off them. I’m willing them to stay safe. At six weeks old, fast-growing chicks are left alone in twiggy nests while both parents go to sea. If they don’t come back, their chicks will starve. We watch this feat of endurance for almost an hour, knowing these birds will have an even tougher climb when they return.

Penguins gather on the rocks below waiting for the morning light. Waves break over the rocks, licking, foaming and teasing. I can hear the penguins calling out, heads thrown back. Their Maori name is hoiho or ‘noise shouter’. I could listen to their trilling forever.

One by one, these two-foot tall penguins dive from the rocky shelf. They travel up to 25 km and dive to depths of 150 m in search of small fish and squid, sometimes diving 200 times a day. But this endangered Red List species lives on the brink, battling fisheries, pollution, climate change, predators, and selfie-seeking tourists.

The last of the penguins gone, I take in the glinting ocean frothing up surf on golden sand that stretches to dunes dancing with marram grass. On this remote beach on the Otago Peninsula, I feel nature’s wildness and resilience. I’m in awe of the yellow-eyed penguin. I think about the chicks waiting. I want these birds to survive. Just because.

In the lazy heat of the afternoon, we hurry through camouflaged trenches connecting hides as we follow a solitary penguin from shore to dunes. At Penguin Place now, we watch unseen as the penguin greets its hungry chick. I’m spellbound and silent. They’re so close I don’t need binoculars. I don’t want to forget this moment. I don’t want to forget this penguin with pale yellow eyes, white chest, and slate-blue back and tail.

The brown downy chick with pot belly rushes forwards beak wide open to receive the fishy soup. Hoiho are devoted parents. At three to four months old chicks moulted into their waterproof plumage. With fewer than 20 per cent surviving to juvenile maturity, this remarkable penguin could be lost from the mainland. Private conservation reserves like this are crucial.

The single trail of penguin footprints across the sand is poignant. Each day, a yellow-eyed penguin may not come back. I think about how incredible nature is and how finely balanced. I’m inspired to understand more about our impact on wildlife and how we can live responsibly with nature in mind.

Image credits: David Brighten.

About the Entry

Tracy Brighten

I am a freelance writer and editor focusing on nature, health and sustainable living. I’m passionate about communicating scientific research and nature stories and have a fascination for birds in particular. I’ve always enjoyed spending time outdoors but my experience of living in New Zealand for twelve years inspired me to write about wildlife conservation and how culture, vested interests and modern lifestyles impact wildlife. I’m as excited by blackbirds in my garden, barn owls in the countryside and terns at my local beach in Norfolk as I am about wildlife in more remote places.

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  • Why should someone visit your site? At Nature in Mind you’ll find articles I’ve written on wildlife conservation, sustainable living and animal welfare as well as first-person stories of my own experiences. I care deeply about people, animals and the beautiful and amazing world we live in. Regardless of our culture or where we live, we’re all connected in our responsibility to humanity and nature. I’d like to help spread the word about why nature matters.
  • Entry TitleThe Jewel in the Crown: New Zealand’s Yellow-Eyed Penguin
  • Entry Number | 57

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