What is it about penguins? Everyone loves a penguin. Who can look at a penguin for more than a couple of seconds without chuckling, or shaking their head in admiration? I guess part of the reason could be that, walking upright, they remind us of ourselves, becoming avian caricatures of waddling human determination. Or is it their lifestyle that appeals, their battle with the elements, their ability to survive and thrive in huge, crashing seas and monstrous, crushing cold?
Whatever the reason, penguins are deeply embedded within our culture, loved by wildlife enthusiasts, writers of children’s books, makers of animated movies, and marketing men the world over.
And, of course, biscuit-loving Brits. In the UK, Penguin biscuits, or cookies as our American cousins would describe them, are a popular, chocolatey treat. For decades the McVities marketing department has urged us to P..P..Pick up a Penguin, and we’ve obliged … in our millions!
So, given their status as cultural icons, it’s no surprise that penguins have been granted their own “World Day” on the 25th of April every year, to celebrate their lives and to raise awareness of their conservation needs.
The world is home to somewhere between 17 and 20 species of penguin today (typically, the scientists can’t make up their minds!), the majority of which are on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. Over the years Mrs P and I have been lucky enough to see four penguin species in the wild. However we’ve never seen them against a background of ice and snow, an indication that the shared cultural image of penguins in a frozen landscape is too simplistic.
In fact, our very first sighting of a wild penguin was on the Galápagos Islands, within spitting distance of the equator. The Galápagos Penguin is one of the world’s rarest – the rarest according to Wikipedia, although other sources disagree – and the only one to venture into the northern hemisphere. It survives in tropical waters thanks only to the cooling Humboldt and Cromwell currents, and in an El Niño year – when the water warms up – the population comes under threat.
During the 1982/83 El Niño numbers fell by around 77%, and although there has been some recovery since then, according to the WWF the total world population remains below 2,000 individuals. Mrs P and I were privileged to visit Galápagos in 1989, and had the extraordinary experience of swimming alongside penguins in a remote, beautiful bay.
It would be 27 years before we’d see wild penguins again, this time in Tasmania. The Little Penguin goes by various other names, including Fairy Penguin in Australia and Little Blue Penguin in New Zealand. The names are a clue to the bird’s defining characteristics – at 33 cm in height it’s the smallest of all penguin species (the Galápagos Penguin is the second smallest), and its plumage is a distinctive slaty-blue colour.
Colonies of Little Blues exist along the southern coast of Australia, and all around the coast of New Zealand. By comparison with the Galápagos Penguin these birds are plentiful, with numbers estimated in 2011 at between 350,000 to 600,000. However they are in decline, and are particularly vulnerable in their mainland breeding grounds. On uninhabited offshore islands they fare better.
Our best penguin encounter in Tasmania was in the northern town of Stanley where we were, quite literally, almost tripping over and driving round them as they clambered out of the sea to return to their burrows under cover of darkness. You can read about this very special evening here, in my blog of our epic Tasmanian adventure.
On reflection, the behaviour of the Little Blues in Stanley highlights their vulnerability in areas settled or visited by humans. Many of their burrows are some way inland, sometimes in the gardens of local residents, and the daily journey to and from them is fraught with perils. These include marauding dogs, sneaky cats and speeding cars. All things considered, it’s a tough life, being a Little Blue and living on mainland Australia and New Zealand!
Our 2019 trip to New Zealand was timed to maximise the chance of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin, which is endemic to the country and breeds in small colonies on inaccessible headlands and islets along the shores of south-western South Island, and all around Stewart Island. They nest in rock crevices or hollows beneath tree roots in coastal forests. Eggs are laid in late August, and hatch after a period of 32 – 35 days. Two eggs are laid, but typically only one per clutch will hatch.
Chicks are guarded by the male and fed by the female for the first three weeks, at which point they are left unattended and typically form small crèches. Both parents continue to feed the chick(s) until they fledge at around 75 days old in late November or early December.
Mrs P and I were pleased to see Fiordland Crested Penguins on several occasions, on land and occasionally swimming offshore. Our best view was courtesy of an experienced wildlife guide, who led us on a tortuous trek through the bush, fording a stream on several occasions, until we reached a secluded bay where we could watch the comings and goings of the parent birds.
Upon making landfall the birds preened themselves carefully and checked their surroundings for potential predators, then set off on their journey, trudging stoically inland. Standing around 71 cm tall, they are more than twice the size of Little Blues. When walking their posture is stooped, like that of an old man hunched over his walking stick, but although they look ungainly and uncomfortable Fiordland Crested Penguins can make steady progress on land.
Pretty soon the penguins we’d been watching reached the spot where the beach ends, and the hillside begins. Then, like intrepid mountaineers, they began to climb the steep slope along a well-worn track. As they did so they passed other birds that were making their way back down from the crèche site to the sea after feeding their chicks. The constant coming-and-going was hypnotic, and we watched spell-bound for around 90 minutes until it was time for us to leave. You can read more about this, one of our best birding experiences ever, in this post from my New Zealand blog.
The current population level is unclear; surveys in the 1990s counted 2,500 pairs of Fiordland Crested Penguins, though this was likely an underestimate. However numbers are believed to be declining due to human disturbance, predation by introduced mammals such as dogs, cats, rats and stoats, and fishing industry by-catch. The species is classed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and New Zealand’s own Department of Conservation changed its status from vulnerable to endangered in 2013.
New Zealand’s third, and rarest, penguin is the Yellow-eyed. In 2018/19 there were only 225 breeding pairs on mainland South Island, the lowest level since 1991 Most sources – although not Wikipedia – regard it as the world’s rarest penguin.
Perhaps in response to its plight, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has recently achieved celebrity status by being voted New Zealand’s 2019 Bird of the Year in a poll organised by the conservation organisation Forest & Bird. It’s the first time in the poll’s 14 year history that a seabird has emerged victorious, and the fact that a penguin is the first to break through the glass ceiling is further confirmation of the special appeal of these birds.
The Yellow-eyed Penguin is slightly taller than the Fiordland Crested, standing at around 76 cm. It nests in clumps of flax, scrub and forest close to the shore, often in a scrape lined with grasses, against a tree trunk or log. Nests are always hidden away from other nesting pairs, and the bird communicates with a high-pitched scream. They are not very sociable.
The BBC website’s report of the Bird of the Year poll result is headed “Rare anti-social penguin wins New Zealand poll.” I can’t help thinking that Yellow-eyed Penguins came up with the concept of social distancing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head!
Given its rarity and celebrity status we were very keen to become acquainted with the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and so were delighted to encounter them at a couple of locations on the south-east coast of South Island. Again our best views were achieved courtesy of experienced wildlife guides, and this time we were witnesses to a heart-in-mouth drama.
At a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula we watched spellbound as a bird emerged from the waves, dripping seductively like Ursula Andress in that James Bond movie, only to find its way blocked by a hungry sealion. It scuttled back to the waves, swam along the beach a little way, then made another landfall.
Again it stopped in its tracks, judging the sealion was too close and too ravenous for safety. Time and again it tried, only to slam quickly into reverse before the sealion gave chase; we watched intently, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. You can read all about it here. SPOILER ALERT: the penguin finally made it safely to the forest, and the sealion went hungry. Phew!
Meanwhile at the other end of the beach another Yellow-eyed Penguin, perhaps seeing that the sealion was distracted, waddled casually up the beach and along a fence-line before disappearing into the bush, giving us outstanding views as it passed. It was the last penguin we would see on our New Zealand odyssey, and a reminder of why these iconic, intrepid, flightless birds have been granted their very own “World Day.”