This has got to be the year of the crested penguin!

Kristina and Thomas (Christchurch penguin Rehabilitation), have had a busy season.

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With the big flood we had in December 2021 many of our Little penguins were sent to this amazing couple for care. Our own rehab was overflowing - with chicks found daily after that horrible event - starved and homeless, many almost ready to fledge but needed a final boost to get them to a healthy weight. Team work made the dream work and all those fledglings went to sea fat and healthy by the end.

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White flippered penguin chick that became homeless and lost after the December flood.

But it wasn’t just Little penguins in need of some help this season – Kristina and Thomas along with Pauline the penguin vet are the Big penguin Rehab experts of Canterbury! Kristina and Thomas both intensive care nurses by trade, dedicate all their free time, and their house and garden, volunteering to run a DoC approved Penguin Rehab center… and us at Pohatu take advantage of this all the time.

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In February, a Tawaki/Fiordland crested penguin found on a Banks peninsula beach ended up in our rehab bought by our local DoC Ranger. The plan as for the bird to be released and finished to molt in the quiet of Pohatu - with no dogs or general public to disturb her, intensive predator control and the fact it’s a marine reserve - Pohatu is a great place for this. But unfortunately, after having a good look at her a wound was found under her flipper.

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Photo we took for Pauline the penguin vet to access if it needed vet care. It was pretty deep L

We had a Hoiho/Yellow eyed penguin end up in rehab in the past for a cut I’d seen similar to this, and it ended up having a bone infection – I didn’t want to risk it, so we took some photos and sent them off to Pauline. “Bring her in” she said. So, Katy, our friendly neighborhood DoC ranger, hit the road - in her awesome electric car/now penguin ambulance to Christchurch to deliver the patient.

After a few weeks of TLC by Pauline, Kristina and Thomas it was time to be released and the bird was brought back to Pohatu.

Pohatu also being a good location for what we call a soft release – this is where the penguins are placed in a quiet sheltered area with a sea view! Our team can quietly check on them, making sure they are in good health. If condition starts to fall off them (if they haven’t yet gone to sea after several days…) we can supplement feed them. These birds need to navigate their way back home – to Fiordland or for the Erect Crested penguins the sub Antarctic islands. With such a long journey ahead on them, we want them to have the energy they need.

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Thomas carrying the first of the crested penguins to be released in Pohatu.

More Crested penguins were found in need of intensive care during the season and were brought into Christchurch penguin rehab by DoC. One came as far afield as Kaikoura. The other found around Banks peninsula. Both Erect Crested penguins far from home, severely underweight and weren’t going to make it through their molt.

But of course, Kristina and Thomas got them through and once again when ready to go, brought them over to us.

Kevin (my husband and Pohatu Trustee) had volunteered to build a brand-new soft release house for Big penguins. With team work we got the new shelter to the beach, tucked under the pine trees, with a turquoise bay on its doorstep. I covered it from view with Kanuka branches. So, it would feel nice and secluded, protected from wind, and away from the view of our visitors – we don’t want Rehabbed penguins getting use to people. This proved a good spot in the past for the bigger penguins and an easy spot for us to keep an eye on them (from a distance). Crested1 (6)
Kevin (Chairman of the Helps Pohatu conservation trust).
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Ave ( me ) Kanuka branch wall on one side for shelter.
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A sign for the rehab box being made - Stay 20 meters away.
This is DoC recommended distance for Penguins and Seals.

 
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The Tawaki/Fiordland crested was the first to use the new beach house.
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Bye bye Tawaki – success she left after 2 days.

 

Penguin number 2

The next crested penguin that arrived to us had a very interesting personality. We were told by Kristina that it was a juvenile Erect Crested penguin and that he didn’t really know what he was doing. But he was now big and strong and rearing to go.

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The next crested penguin - Juvenile Erect crested – just survived it’s first ever molt, now in his adult plumage.

So, to the Soft release box he went! … and then left straight away. Deciding not to use the fancy new beach house, but to climb through the fence, hike/waddle up hill (away from the ocean) and hang out with my Aunt Shireen’s sheep in the old horse paddock. Penguins do what they want to do. So, we hoped when he got hungry enough, he would head for the sea. We couldn’t find it anywhere the next day, we figured he must have gone to the call of the big blue…

But 2 days later, Shireen discovered him sitting on a rock, outside our kayak shed, happily preening, pooping up the place. This was not good, we needed to use the kayak shed for tours and a penguin was in the way!

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So, plan B: Hard release.

I got him back to the beach and in the water – he drank and swam and preened and looked very content. I left him to it, hoping he would swim off into the sunset….

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But no... next day he was hanging out (very nonchalantly) this time under our kayaks. Also, not good, we needed those for the tour, and we didn’t want him near people. Luckily, we had no tours booked… so we left him to it, at least he was on the beach side of the fence.

Ok, so plan C.

Day 5 - still there… time for a feed then. Baby salmon. He scoffed them all.

We wanted to transition him to an even wilder environment, hoping that would inspire him to go. Me and Dan (my cousin, sheep farmer living in Pohatu, and trustee on the Helps Pohatu conservation trust) put him in our biggest carry cage and awkwardly took turns carrying this 6 kg monster half way to the heads of Pohatu, to an area we call … The Black hole. Doesn’t sound like a great place to release a penguin back to the wild, but it’s nowhere near our kayaking activities, it’s right on the water’s edge, reasonably sheltered, not too many seals to annoy him and he could take refuge in the native bush if need be, with a nice access slope back up hill if he still wasn’t ready.

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Dan carrying the cage.
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Dropped into the rocky wilds of Pohatu.
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Black hole check list: Nice access to water, good landing pad, no seals, visible from our kayaks for checkup, and if the penguin wants to can use a trail up hill to shelter in native bush.

I still had the job to do a daily checkup (just check he’s ok from a distance) … but I wasn’t keen to hike out there. I figured the fastest option was to kayak!

I asked Ben (kayaking guide and Trustee) if he could assist me. Unfortunately for Ben, he wasn’t prepared for a last-minute kayak - as I’d roped him into it when he was in the middle of doing colony maintenance - cutting thistles and stinging nettles away from Little penguin nest boxes. He didn’t have a change of clothes, only a pair of heavy work pants. Crested1 (19)

Ben didn’t really want to get his only pair of pants wet and sandy, with a day of cutting thistles still ahead of him… So, undies it was! It was cold and overcast with the wind picking up. Ben being super delighted to be standing around in undies… Not!

Also, unfortunately for Ben - as we were just about to take off, I had left our paddles just out of reach- he left me holding the kayak, a wave hit, I lost all balance and grip – with my super soft feet on sharp rocks - I couldn’t move fast enough to catch the kayak before the next wave took it further away.

Ben arrived with the paddles, looked at me (stumbling around with my soft feet), did a little sigh and resigned himself to wading/swimming out to get the kayak back. So, now Ben completely soaked from the chest down, sat in wet undies as we kayaked out to check on our crested friend. Argh… the penguin was still there but being big and fat looked happy. We left him to it.

The next day, Ben went out in the kayak (without me) and yay! Penguin was nowhere to be seen in the bay. Hopefully he’s safe and sound and heading home.

 

Penguin number 3
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The next arrival. Female Erect Crested.
12 days later, the next Crested penguin arrived for soft release, this time an older female. Kristina and Thomas both saying they would miss her dearly, as she’s been the most talkative, funny bird they had ever had in rehab.

This time Tim was roped into helping me. A volunteer that had helped us with the Banks peninsula penguin survey. As we drove over the hill to Pohatu, Kristina was right, the penguin chatted away to Tim, who was sitting next to her cage - holding it steady on our windy gravel road. Kristina and Thomas told us Black hole would be the best place for her release. I remembered how hard it was to carry the heavy cage last time. Luckily Tim’s a bit of a MacGyver and jimmied up a carrying system. So, the old girl was carried like an emperor – sitting in her palanquin as we navigated the steep hills, following tiny sheep trails, with a sheer drop to sun bathing seal colonies below us. Once we got there, her carriage door was opened, she stuck her head out, had a good look around, deemed it suitable and hopped out, as only a penguin does.

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Tim , jimmying up the cage to carry it. MacGyver style!

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Black hole. This is a good spot! Penguin approved.
We got a couple of photos for Kristina and Thomas, packed up and trudged back up the hill. Tim now jimmying the Cage as a backpack. She called out a couple of times as we were leaving, but from a nice hiding place I saw she had started preening her feathers and looked pretty comfortable where she was.

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Success, Ben went out kayaking the next day – there was no sign of her. The experienced older bird we figured must have headed home.

All penguins have different personalities, you see this in rehab, working so closely with them how different they are - just like people, some taking a bit longer to go than others... a bit of trial and error at times, but the call of the wild is strong and it’s always the best feeling in the world to see them go in a good healthy condition.
 

Thanks for reading.

Ave Parthonnaud

Trustee – The Helps Pohatu Conservation trust.