Hundreds of Little Blue Penguins (korora) being found dead or dying around the Auckland and Northland region are causing great concern.
With new reports every day of birds washing ashore emaciated and malnourished, many beyond help, it's estimated the total across the country could be into the thousands.
Karen Saunders of Waiheke Island Native Bird Rescue says she's never seen these sorts of numbers in twenty years on the island.
"What I see coming in is starvation. They're severely underweight, they're dehydrated, they're hypothermic, hypoglycemic, so we try to get them through that – but we're not having a huge success rate," Sauders says.
Auckland Zoo says it has seen more than five times the number of Little Blue Penguins it would normally treat. The birds are being spotted by the public at local beaches.
James Chatterton, a senior veterinarian at Auckland Zoo's veterinary hospital, has been treating the most severe cases and says the penguins aren't being helped by people stopping to take selfies with the dying birds.
"By the time a little blue penguin is in the shallow water in the daytime, and you're able to pick it up – that means it's critically unwell, so this is not an animal that needs selfies taken, this is an animal that needs urgent veterinary care," he explains.
Chatterton highlights that if you see a penguin in the shallow water and you're concerned about it, the most important thing to do is keep your distance, and observe it for a few minutes. If you are still worried, he suggests that you call the SPCA, Department of Conservation or a local bird rescue, rather than picking it up.
With bird rescue staff scratching their head over the record numbers of penguins being found, DOC penguin expert Graeme Taylor says the deaths are most likely due to a sudden change in weather patterns between breeding season and the time the chicks hatch.
During the penguin breeding season, New Zealand was going through an El Niño period, with cold waters creating rich food supplies and successful breeding. However, in the late spring, we moved into a La Niña event, where the waterrapidly warmed, pushing the cooler currents to the bottom, and with it the food supply.
"In this particular situation there is often going to be quite a high mortality of young birds in their first three or four months in the ocean as they learn to find food," Taylor says.
However, he highlights that this mass-mortality is not unprecedented.
"We do get maybe once or twice a decade substantial numbers of little blue penguins washing up on beaches."
The last mass-death was in 1998, where nearly 3500 penguins washed up on the beaches around New Zealand.
Department of Conservation : 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)
SPCA Auckland: 909) 256 7300
New Zealand Bird Rescue: (09) 816 9219
• Kororā or the little penguin is the world smallest penguin – on average around 33cm tall – just slightly larger than a rugby ball. They weigh around 1kg.
• It is the only penguin in the world with adult blue and white feathers –not the regular black and white.
• It is also known as the Little Blue penguin in New Zealand, and is called the Fairy penguin in Australia.
• Little penguins ususally dive between 5-20m, however the deepest recorded dive was 67m.
• Little penguins can swim at speeds of up to 6km an hour.
• New Zealand has three species of mainland penguins: the Little, the Yellow-Eyed and the Fiordland crested penguins.
• Codfish Island – west of Stewart Island – is the only place where you can find all three species of New Zealand's mainland penguins
- Aotearoa Science Agency