What we do to protect the penguins in Pohatu
Pohatu penguin colony benefits from being located on a private property where public access is limited. We do not have to worry about car strike like other colonies in other parts of New-Zealand where penguins are frequently killed having to cross busy streets or roads to get to their nest sites. However, we have other kind of threats that can be as dangerous so we have strict rules on:
Dog attack is the greatest threat to Little penguins in New Zealand. Farm dogs, which work on the Pohatu/Flea bay farm, are supervised at all times and never to be left by themselves. They are kept in an enclosure when not out working.
Uncontrolled tourism is the newest threat on the list of all penguin colonies around the world. We control access to the colony with small guided groups, mitigating human disturbance but still allowing people to have a wildlife experience while learning about the conservation of the species and financially participating to the project.
Little penguins walk on land at night to reach their burrows that can be found over 800 meters in land and 200 meters altitude. They are carrying food for their chicks in a crop, similar to a pre-stomach, and need every bit of darkness that they can get before having to walk back to sea an hour before sunrise.
No artificial lighting is being used to see penguins as this is very disturbing for them and would end up in adults running back to the water leaving their chicks to starve.
Although we cannot control the general public to enjoy the marine reserve, we have set up a curfew on our operation not allowing any kayaks to be on the water 4 hours before sunset as this start to be penguin time when they socialise on the water before darkness falls.
The main actions of conservation are:
|Pohatu in the past, as most of the peninsula before human arrival, would have been covered with ancient forest. Forest areas were cleared first by the Maori for kumara gardens and settlements, then later by the Europeans for farming sheep and cattle. Farming is still the main livelihood of the Helps family living in Pohatu.|
|Grass on farms is non-native and would turn into long rank grass without sheep or cattle grazing it down. Rotational grazing is done in the penguin breeding areas, keeping grass shorter non intensively with sheep. Little Penguins can find their path home easily when the grass is shorter instead of trying to climb through a jungle of long rank grass.|
|Past experience has shown that leaving sheep out of the penguin areas was a big mistake as the grass becomes long rank and penguins left trails using the same path every night. It became obvious to Shireen and Francis that stoats, predators to penguins, were also using these penguin highways to pick birds off as they come up. With shorter grass penguins can see predators coming and have more access to move around the colony.|
|Grazing the grass, keeping it shorter, also helps to stop it from germinating and producing a lot of seeds (food for rats and mice). A lot of food for rats and mice will increase their population which will then increase the population of their predators such as mustelids (ferrets, weasels, stoats) This would not end well for the penguins. A survey study in 2004 in Pohatu shows areas with long rank grass had more signs of predation than areas lightly grazed by sheep.|
|Pohatu/Flea bay farm is 1000 acres, with 40% dedicated by the Helps family to native forest regeneration and 60% used as productive grassland for sheep. There are 7 covenants (legally protected zones) on the farm, which hold legal protection in perpetuity.|
Without taking out introduced predators, penguins would not have stood a chance to survive. Intensive trapping has been done on a weekly basis for the last 35 years around the Pohatu colony.
The main predators which have the biggest impact in the Pohatu colony are: rats, hedgehogs, weasels, stoats, ferrets, possums and feral cats.
We have different trapping methods but the main one is instant kill traps. DoC 150 and DoC 200 are A-class humane traps. We also use Timm’s traps for feral cats and possums and Good Nature traps for rats and stoats.
All traps are baited with a lure. Over the years we have experienced different types of lure: we can use mouse pee spray, goose meat, rabbit meat, stoat pheromones, blood, cat food, rabbit poop. The most efficient lures so far are: fresh meat, mouse pee and rubbing a dead stoat - reasonably fresh - through the traps so the smell rubs off. This seems to attract other stoats but you may not be able to catch rats in the trap for a while after that.
|Trapping is done by the Pohatu Penguins team and is funded by the eco-tours. When guides aren’t running tours, they are actively involved in the conservation work. We also have a team member, Jessica Helps, as a full-time trapper as this is a big job. Jessica processes the bait we use in traps by culling the wild geese and rabbits around the farm.|
Traps are set around the property and the penguin colony in areas where predators may be present. Getting to our traps involves a lot of hiking. There are various trap lines set up around the property and over 180 traps to check weekly.
At certain times of the year, we often find wild kittens around so we use live catch traps, which doesn’t hurt the animal just catches them in a cage. Cats can have a huge impact on native forest birds and marine birds, including penguins and even adult albatrosses in some areas of New Zealand.
Cats can be deadly predators but some actions can easily be taken to reduce and eliminate their impact.
Here are some important rules to become a responsible cat owner:
3. Providing habitat: Nesting boxes and forest restoration
|Pohatu/Flea bay has been a working farm since 1843, penguins and farm animals like sheep have been co-existing ever since. Areas which were cleared of ancient forests when farming families first arrived to New-Zealand were replaced with houses, farm buildings and grass land. Only 0.8% of original native forest was left on Banks Peninsula at the end of the 19th century.|
Over the last 40 years the Helps family has placed covenants on forest and bush reserves closing it off from sheep and cattle with fencing, and making sure that they don’t block any penguins returning home. These areas provide amazing natural habitats for penguins and other biodiversity.
Penguins like to dig nests under tree roots (their natural burrowing instinct) and we find the shade provided by trees gives a good cover on hot days.
Penguins like to live under farm buildings and houses: they choose anything where they feel safe for them to make a nest in - under floorboards is a great spot! If you are going to live in a penguin colony you have to put up with penguins living under you and vocalising all night. We like to let penguins have free reign over all of Pohatu and if that means they choose to live in the garden you let them!
|To increase nesting opportunities, nesting boxes are placed around the farm in spots where we noticed penguins like breeding. We have 250 nesting boxes around the farm, 200 are monitored regularly in order for us to check on the well-being of the colony and collect data. The rest have the roof nailed. On top of that we have around 700 natural burrows, usually dug in earth or created by rock caves.|
4. Penguin rehabilitation: Giving penguins a second chance
|At Pohatu, we have a special permit from the Department of Conservation to rehabilitate all kinds of penguins, from chick or adult Little penguins to Yellow-eyed penguins and sometimes vagrant Fiordland crested and Snares Island crested penguins that end up in our area.|
Seriously injured penguins are brought straight to Christchurch where they are assessed by a vet. After surgery or treatment, penguins are then brought to be looked after by the intensive care penguin rehabbers Kristina and Thomas from Christchurch Penguin Rehab. We work closely with them: many of the Pohatu birds end up in their expert care until being released at Flea bay.
|Around mid-December is usually the time when we start finding penguin chicks that need help. Sometimes while monitoring nest boxes, we may come across a problem case like skinny chicks in their nest obviously under-fed or abandoned. Depending on the degree of help they need, we either bring the penguins in care or supplement feed at the nest.
Every year we also find fluffy chicks on walk about around the farm. Usually, penguin chicks don’t leave the nest until 8 weeks old when they are all covered by blue mature feathers.
There could be many reasons why chicks have gone on walk about: one or both parents could have died which lessens or stops the amount of food brought to the nest. Parents sometimes push one of the chicks out of the nest if they can’t get enough food for 2 chicks, wanting to focus on the first chick.
Getting chicks ready for the release to the wild
|The aim of caring for injured or weak birds is to make them strong and healthy enough so they return to the wild with a higher chance of survival at sea and hopefully one day find a partner, thus increasing the general penguin population.
Most penguin chicks we do find just need a bit of feeding to put on body weight. We keep the chicks in specially made hutches which give them a bit of walking space but a nice cosy dark area too which they can retire in when they need to (like a nesting box).
|One week prior to release, the rehab chicks are taken to a creek by the beach, to allow them to practise their swimming skills and trigger the reflex of preening which means putting oil through their feathers giving them a waterproof coat.|
Release to the wild - the “soft release”
Once physically ready (waterproof feathers, good weight) and showing signs they are wanting to leave by not accepting fish from us anymore or diving chasing whitebait while training int the creek, chicks can be released. We bring them to the beach near the creek they have been practising in so they recognise a familiar environment. Most of the chicks just take off without a thank you. Some might be more hesitant or take time to imprint with the place (for when they are ready to come back to breed). Either ways it always feels good to know you gave these birds a second chance at life.
This is called a “soft release” because it introduces the birds to the environment and allow them to decide when they are ready to leave and be on their own. It even happens that some, not quite ready, come back by hanging out by the creek or waddle back up to the garden. Eventually going to sea after another try.
|Pohatu Penguins eco-tours started in 2001 to answer a need to allow the public to view penguins in the wild with the least disturbance. Pohatu Penguins’ tours rely on natural viewing, without artificial lighting, on keeping quiet and staying at a distance using binoculars, wearing camouflage clothing and keeping it in small guided groups.
Over the years it has become more than just viewing penguins. By providing information backed up by scientific studies the eco-tours have become an educational tool as well as a way to pay for the conservation work done in Pohatu.
|In 2020 a trust has been formed called the “Helps Pohatu Conservation Trust”. Profits from the eco-tours and donations from our Adopt a penguin program have enabled us to welcome schools and groups wanting to learn about wildlife, marine reserves, forest restoration and penguin conservation.|
6. Supporting Research
|By monitoring nests, we are collecting observations about the penguins but also any other clues such as poo, parasites, predation marks, etc. It gives us information to understand better what is happening in the colony, so that we can adapt the conservation work we do. For example, if we notice signs of competition for nesting sites (injuries on the face) we can then build and place more nest boxes in competitive areas. Or step up our trapping in certain areas if we see signs of predation.|
|Monitoring can temporarily bring stress to the penguins so the guides are trained in “what to look for” in a short amount of time to lessen the disturbance to the bird(s). Little Penguins are incredibly tenacious when it comes to where they want to live. Monitoring is a small inconvenience for a great benefit for the entire colony. Through the helpful data we get out we learn how to better protect them and we can also see trends over time.
A breeding biology study was undertaken in the Pohatu bay colony in 1996-2009. It was undertaken monitoring 30 nesting boxes and became a published paper.
|Since this study was done, penguins in our colony haven’t been banded (Flipper-bands) *. Microchipping is best practise in New Zealand now but is more expensive. The nest boxes are all numbered so this can give us a good overview on the breeding success of the Pohatu colony but we can’t track an individual penguin without micro-chipping.
*One old penguin still had her band and she kept coming back in the same nest box for 21 years. This gives us a very interesting info on how old penguins in the wild can live up to.
Our data is shared in a national study of Little penguins in a partnership with New Zealand Penguin Initiative.
Every 4 years a survey is done by the Pohatu team along with the help of volunteers and the Department of Conservation. We walk over the 91 hectares of penguin breeding habitat and look for active nest sites.
From our successive surveys we have learnt that the Pohatu colony has increased from 717 breeding pairs in the year 2000 to over 1260 in the year 2016.
In 2020 our quadriennal survey was due but we due to Covid and having more times available we also took on leading a replica of the 2000/2001 survey led by DoC surveying the all of Banks Peninsula (a study that was not done ever since).
To find out more about the process you can visit our blog page.
Partnership with others
|It’s important for us to stay up-to-date in the latest penguin conservation techniques and best practises. Our team frequently goes to workshops and seminars meeting with other people who work in the field. This has kept our enthusiasm alive for protecting our little penguin friends, knowing we are not alone.|
Penguin rehabilitation experts: Kristina & Thomas, Pauline
We also have a strong connection with other penguins’ rehabbers. In Christchurch, Kristina & Thomas are doing an amazing work of rehabilitation with the penguins who needs the extra care we can’t provide in Pohatu. We have brought penguins to them and once penguins have recovered, we bring them back to their colony for a soft release.
We also worked closely with Pauline expert wildlife vet when penguins need surgery or in case of suspicious death for an autopsy.
Marine science students.
We have had the opportunity to work with some very passionate people, volunteering in the field research for the Hoiho/Yellow-eyed penguin, watching and learning how to handle, weigh, microchip and collect data using loggers and satellite GPS location devices. This has been vital information for research scientists to help protect these birds, which are on the brink of extinction. This information has gained insight into how these birds live at sea which is going to be a major factor in putting in more marine protection.
Department of Conservation.
Of course, we work closely with the DOC. We are a “DOC approved operator” and a “DOC SMART operator” and hold a special license under the Wildlife authority act to rehabilitate birds. We also take part in a conservation-based pilot program run by DOC, and work together for the penguin surveys. Over the years we have developed good communications with our local rangers and partnership in the protection of the marine reserve, using a direct line to local rangers to inform them of any poaching activities in the marine reserve with illegal fishing or disturbance to wildlife.
We are also lucky to work with various local community groups and trusts. The Banks Peninsula Conservation Trust, the Akaroa Marine Protection Society, Friends of Banks Peninsula and Regenerate Banks Peninsula.
|As we like to say “Team work makes the dream work”!!|
Our conservation efforts have been happening for over 30 years now and we want to continue to protect the penguin colony and other endangered wildlife at Pohatu far into the future. This work has been self-funded by Shireen and Francis for the first 10 years without any exterior support.
The penguins and the Pohatu team would like to thank you from the bottom of our heart for coming and staying with us as your support helps to directly fund all what you have read above.