Monday, January 16, 2012

16 January 2012: Yellow-eyed Penguins!

Today we were fortunate to have many things work for us: 1. we had sunshine!; 2. we had relatively warm temperatures; and, 3. we saw one of the rarest species of penguins: the Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes).  

We drove out from Dunedin to the nearby Otago Peninsula to see one of the few mainland colonies of this solitary-nesting species.  Our visit was timed such that we would get to the colony site in mid-afternoon, when adults foraging at sea return to their burrows to feed their recently-hatched nestlings.  The colony site is located among the dunes of a wind-swept stretch of beach along Sandfly Bay.  "Sandfly Bay", as we would learn, refers to the fact that sand 'flies' (more like whips!) across the shore and inland due to strong southwesterly or southerly winds blowing into the bay.  Over millennia, the blowing sand created huge mounds that were then populated by grasses, sedges, and reeds capable of surviving the harsh shoreline environment (NB: A similar landscape developed on the southeastern shoreline of Lake Michigan, so if you're in the area, check it out!).  It is in these hills that the Yellow-eyed Penguins have established a nesting colony.  

After driving through a few acres of pasture slowly being grazed by sheep, we parked our van and walked a 1/2 mile along the beach to the site of the track ('trail') leading to the observation 'hide' (or 'blind').  As we walked along the shore, we found two pairs of Variable Oystercatchers (Haematopus unicolor), one of which was tending to two of the cutest little birds you ever did see.  We also found a number of fur seals (Arctocephalus fosteri) and sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) loafing on the beach, as well as the rocky outcropping that bounds the eastern edge of the bay.  Our students were very inquisitive, searching the rocky shoreline for any bulls, cows, or pups they could find!  After some good looks of the pinnipeds, we made our way into the penguin blind situated atop one of the tallest dunes in the bay and hoped for the best.  Well, we wouldn’t be disappointed!  After 15 minutes in the blind, our first Yellow-eyed Penguin made its way onto the shore.  It waddled, hopped, and scooted along the rocky shoreline, and then began its journey up the grassy hillside en route to its…burrow, we supposed.  Our fine feathered friend didn’t travel very far over the next 45 minutes; it just waddled/hopped a few meters, then took a break to preen or sun itself, then moved a little further up the hill before taking another break.  Our students patiently watched the penguin, sharing the lone pair of binoculars we had with us.  Students with digital SLR cameras snapped pictures of our friend 100m away from us.  The entire group seemed to relish in the fact that they were viewing a penguin in the wild; a Yellow-eyed Penguin, for that matter!  After another 15 minutes, the action had slowed with our penguin friend; yours truly was wondering whether it might be time to call it a day.  But, then, what’s this, ANOTHER penguin?  Yes!  Our second penguin moved rapidly onto shore, jumped onto the rocks, and began making its way toward our first penguin (mind you, this took about 10 minutes; not quite the explosive action of penguins springing out of the ocean as portrayed on television nature specials!).  After our second friend disappeared, attention waned (and bellies growled for dinner!) and it was clear that it was time to make our way back to the van.

Back at the ranch (or YHA, whichever you like; sounds more rustic/romantic when you say ‘ranch’ rather than ‘YHA’!), Dr. Moran and I prepared a spaghetti dinner for the students (although they did a lot of the heavy lifting!).  We didn’t quite get the proportion of spaghetti: sauce correct, but we had sausage to make up for the lack of sauce.  Another great group effort helped get the meal together in no time flat and we all enjoyed a warm meal after the windswept journey we had this afternoon.  What a fantastic afternoon and evening!

Tomorrow’s big adventure: the Royal Albatross colony at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula!

Our group prior to exploring the beach in Sandfly Bay.

Sandfly Bay.  The Yellow-eyed Penguin colony is located in the dunes just below the rocky outcropping in the middle-left of the picture.

Our students patiently watching as each Yellow-eyed Penguin made its way onto shore.

Our first Yellow-eyed Penguin (look at the center of the picture)!  Thanks to Becky Seepersad (Chemistry) for snapping this pic!

Gratuitous picture of sheep grazing in the pastures surrounding Sandfly Bay.  We've seen sheep throughout our trip, but interestingly, no one has taken pictures of these abundant animals until this point in the trip!

Our group preparing tonight's spaghetti dinner at the Stafford Gables YHA.  Great meal, crew!

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