A passion for penguins!

On Sunday 18th February a group of 7 members of Southland Forest and Bird were privileged to join Mel Young and 3 Otago University colleagues at Long Point in the Catlins.

Mel is doing her PHD on yellow-eyed penguins (YEP’s) and is fitting transmitters to juveniles so she can see where the they disperse to when they go to sea for the first time. Other parts of the study involved foraging behaviour and diet studies. With declines in YEP’s over recent years what is happening at sea remains the biggest unanswered question for penguin survival.

Mel made the whole procedure look easy as she methodically attached a transmitter to the back of the first bird. Mel also seemed instinctively to know when to place the poo bottle in position before getting covered in quite foul smelling penguin goo! Analysis of the poo would give a good indication of what the adults were feeding the chicks this year. But first, a few stats were collected – weight, size, condition and to do that the penguin was put into a bag to restrict movement.

Ron Munro was put in charge of the pointy end to calm the bird and prevent it from doing any damage with its sharp beak. He gained a few bloody mementos (but nothing compared to the scratches and bruises on Mel’s arms!). With various members of us helping – holding the bird, writing notes, cutting tape, mixing glue, it was amazing to know that Mel had done all this on her own the previous day!

As the transmitters cost a few thousand dollars each, Mel is meticulous in attaching it to the feathers on the penguins back with a combination of very adhesive tape, cable ties, pva glue – it sounds messy, but experience has given Mel the confidence to do a very thorough and tidy job and the finished article sits very neatly on its back. The transmitter is expected to fall off in a few months. After more than half an hour the job is done and the penguin is released to wander back to its nest in the forest undergrowth and await an adult returning from the sea with food.

A second healthy heavy chick was located and fittingly it was nesting in the original John Darby hide at Hina Hina Cove. The same procedure was followed and eventually the team walked up the steep hill back to the 4WD’s and back through the locked access gate and home.

The Southland group consisted of Chris and Brian Rance, Ron and Gay Munro, Peggy Snoep, Lori Johnston and Christine McKenzie and all were inspired by Mel’s passion and skill.

Chris Rance