Penguins, albatross, seals
Saturday 26 May . The day I would see Yellow-Eyed penguins (YEP) for the first time.
I slept in a bit. My original plan was to go to the Dunedin Farmer’s Market, which is held every Saturday near the old train station. However, I was still recovering from jet lag and did not want to overdo it, so I decided to keep that for another weekend.
I took my time getting dressed and having breakfast and left around 10:30 am. I bundled up, wearing about three layers and my Northface. I had gloves, hat, and scarf as well. It took me about 30 minutes to walk downtown. It’s really only one road with shops on both sides that will eventually take you to the Octagon. I realized as I was getting ready that my SD card for my camera was broken, so I stopped in a few shops to look for one. I had plenty of time before I had to meet at the Visitor’s Center at 12:45 pm. I popped into a small café near the Council Hall and got a smoothie. I made friends with a seagull too, as I sat in the Octagon taking in the sights. I think most of the birds are fed here and see humans as their “bread supplier”, so they will often come over, look at you waiting for something, realize you do not have anything, and then walk away. This happened a few times with gulls and ducks. Anyway, a van came to pick us up at 1 pm. There were 8 other people on the tour with me. Our guide, who had been doing this for 16 years, drove us around the 20 km long Otago Harbour to the end of the Otago Peninsula, called Taiaroa Head, to see the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross colony made up of about 30 breeding pairs. It took a LONG time to get there, about an hour. The road was narrow, long, and VERY winding road. When we arrived, our guide took us to the cliff face on a lookout. He said that we would be lucky to see one albatross this time of year. Because of the relatively small colony (makes up about 1% of the total Royal Albatross population worldwide), only one or two birds return from their fishing trip each hour. Due to their expansive wings, they will fly near the cliff face on the wind and head around the headland to the other side and back to their nests. Right now they still have chicks, but they are getting ready to fledge so parents tend to be at sea longer. We were incredibly lucky to see TWO albatross returning to the colony. They are so impressive, beautiful white birds with huge wings gliding over the ocean. It made my heart stop.
I will be returning to the Royal Albatross Center again, to not only see more Albatross but also to see Little Blue Penguins. These little guys usually return at night (more of a nocturnal species), and they have a small colony where you can see them return to their nests. We got back into the van and headed to the Elm Tour conservation area. It is on the south facing side of the Peninsula. The land is privately owned by local farmers and allow the tours to access this area (aka private!).
On the half hour journey, we saw an abundance of local wildlife, including
- Black swan
- Little Shag
- Black Shag
- White-faced heron
- New Zealand Falcon
- Swamp harrier
- Sacred kingfisher
We passed tons of sheep and cows as well. We first went to see a breeding colony of New Zealand fur seals. How incredible are they! They blend in so well with the rocks, the harder you look the more you see. The rocks were dotted with playful and sleeping pups waiting for their next meal delivery by mum. There were a few adults as well, all sleeping peacefully. You could hear the pups make calls looking for the mothers. They were aware we were there, and you can tell they are very timid and if we got any closer or were on their level they would have ran away. In the distance a few pups were splashing around in a tidal basin. They were adorable. Hiking back up the hill and down another, even longer one, we arrived at a long beach. On the way we passed through a replanted forest-like area. Our guide explained that the two goals of the Elm Tour company was to reforest/replant natural vegetation on the peninsula to provide habitat for breeding animals and to get rid of invasive mammal species preying on seabirds (mostly stoats, rats, and opossum). Look out for another post in the future about the natural history of New Zealand, it’s quite fascinating. Along the way we came across… YEPs! Two birds were standing on a little wooden bridge resting. They were preening and carefully concealing themselves against the brush after their foraging trip. I will be honest, I nearly cried. They were some of the most regal, beautiful animals I have ever seen. They are very timid as well and we were incredibly lucky to get this close to them. Our guide was shocked and said he had only seen an average of two or three birds per tour recently (they are between molting and breeding season so they spend most time at sea, and they had a particularly bad year as well). I could have sat there forever watching them. Unfortunately, we had to move on. We walked along the grassy bit of the beach and watched a small group of New Zealand sea lions. Much bigger than the fur seals, this mostly male group were sleeping. The only reason they come ashore in this part of New Zealand is mainly to rest. There is not a breeding colony here, although there is occasionally a birth from one of the resident females. They were quite intimidating, mostly because they were not scared of us and were actually capable of chasing us around. Luckily that didn’t happen, but we were told to watch out. We walked among the sleeping sea lions, giving them a wide margin. We made our way further down the beach to where YEP come out of the water. There was a lookout to shield us from their view. There were three on the hill side (and a few sheep), making their way to their nests. They nest away from the beach for protection against the water and the sea lions. They had quite a tiring trek up the hill, but they gave us a beautiful image of them against the setting sun. To our surprise and luck, we saw a total of 5 coming out of the water. They surfed in on the waves and waddled up the beach, knowing exactly were to go. They leave in the morning and come back at night, usually. I cannot explain how amazing it was. These rare birds trying to survive in such a hostile world. The new land owner of the field were these penguins were nesting was not interested in selling the land to the Elm Tour company and was putting the birds in danger around the grazing animals. I am not sure if this is out of spite, ignorance, or what, but even money would not sway this farmer. It breaks my heart when people just do not care. How can we protect our world and the animals that live there is people are not willing to negotiate and work with us?
We watched for about a half hour until it got dark and started to rain. We hiked (yes, it was very steep) back up the cliff in the cold rain and were very happy to get back in the van. Our 45 minute drive back to central Dunedin was very dark and wet. Our guide dropped us off at our accommodations (hotels for most), which I was particularly happy about. When I arrived at Abbey, I ate my dinner which I had requested to be put aside for later, took a shower, and had a very sleepful night.