Thursday, January 16, 2014

13 January 2014: Yellow-eyed Penguins...maybe

We made it to Dunedin, checked-in at our hostel, and then made our way to the site of the Yellow-eyed Penguin, Sandfly Bay.  Our visit to see these particular penguins is important because we have the opportunity to see one of the rarest penguins on Earth in its native habitat.

Our trip to Sandfly Bay takes us out of the city centre and southeast onto the Otago Peninsula.  The peninsula, some 30km long, is covered with pastures used to raise livestock, primarily sheep.  The south edge of the peninsula is primarily cliff-face and small beaches and one of these beaches has the penguin colony.  The wind was howling today, from the south, at about 30mph, and it made the walk onto the beach EXTREMELY difficult.

We walked the 1/2 mile down the beach toward the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony site, which up in the hillside next to the beach.  At the base of the hill, we found about a dozen sea lions.  The sea lions, apparently a sub-species of sea lion only found in New Zealand, were largely lounging on the beach.  According to an information panel by the Department of Conservation (DoC), the afternoons are when sea lions come ashore to bask in the sun and to let their food digest.  It didn't seem like the sea lions were particularly alarmed by our presence, as all were content to continue sleeping.  We all managed to take a number of good pictures, but in the end, we were probably sabotaging our efforts to see any penguins: the penguins do not come ashore when people are detected.  After 30 min of visiting with the sea lions, we headed to the 'hide' (or 'blind') to look for penguins coming ashore from a morning of foraging.

After a 50m walk up a sand dune, we arrived at the 3m x 3m blind.  Our entire group got into the blind and then we shared my binoculars in order to find penguins in the water or on the hillsides nearby.  A few shags (cormorants) were seen swimming in the water, and a subadult albatross was seen flying out at sea, but we didn't manage to see any penguins.  Sigh...we were all disappointed, but that's the way wildlife watching goes.

As we made our way along the beach back to the van, we spoke with a DoC volunteer who told us that we had just missed several penguins that came ashore about 400m from the hide trail.  The DoC volunteer said that the penguins were probably afraid of all the human traffic on the beach close to the hide (most likely us) and that they came ashore anyway in order to make their way to their nesting site in the hillsides.  Although none of us saw the penguins, we made a great effort nonetheless.

Our trip back to Dunedin went quickly and after arriving at our hostel, we all quickly got changed and headed out to get something to eat.  Tomorrow, students have the opportunity to visit the Cadbury Chocolate Factory or visit the sites in Dunedin.  I'm gearing-up for a visit to the Royal Albatross colony.

 David Hobbs (Business, 2015) taking pictures of sleeping sea lions on Sandfly Bay, Dunedin.

Our group posing at the trail head to Sandfly Bay, Dunedin.  The group looks good given the windy conditions we experienced on the beach just before this picture!

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