The world’s rarest rainforest penguins have arrived in Fiordland and the West Coast of New Zealand after an epic cross-ocean swim.
Each year the tawaki, or Fiordland crested penguins, make a 2000-kilometre migration from the sub-Antarctic ocean and the far side of the Tasman Sea.
After spending most of their year at sea, they’re back to take up occupancy in their unusual breeding grounds in temperate forests.
It’s an event that Dr Gerry McSweeny looks forward to.
“Each year at the beginning of July, we have welcomed tawaki - Fiordland crested penguins - returning to the Lake Moeraki coastal forests to start their five-month breeding season,” he says.
Having started the Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki in 1989, the hotel has become an important site for monitoring the endangered penguins.
With bright yellow tufts above their eyes, the tawaki crested penguins are a spectacle. However, they’re a rare sight, even in Fiordland.
With only between 2,500 and 3,000 breeding pairs left in the wild, they’re thought to be the third most endangered penguin in the world. However, around a tenth of the population return to nest near Moeraki - making it the crested penguin capital of New Zealand.
The lodge has been at the centre of a Department of Conservation breeding programme that has helped them turn a corner.
“Penguin numbers counted at our study colonies have nearly tripled over our 33-year study period,” says McSweeny. Educating visitors about pest control and keeping dogs on leads has helped the Tawaki Project bring the penguins back from the brink.
“In both 2021 and 2022, we recorded more penguins than in the previous 30 years of our monitoring work.”
The lodge on the remote West Coast is one of the only places in the world offering guided trips to see the yellow-headed penguins. Each evening, the lodge takes small groups of tourists out to their viewing hide to watch the 60-centimetre-tall penguins waddle out to sea.
The first footprints of the chubby penguins have appeared on the beaches near Haast. Each penguin weighs between 3.5 and 4.5 kilograms after long summer feed, with male penguins slightly heavier than the females. This is an important fact, as it is the male penguins who spend the next 28 days, from early August to mid-September, incubating the eggs.
The birds will remain on the coast from around now until December, when the parents and new chicks will be ready to head back out to sea. The rest of the year the penguins spend swimming, only stopping to sleep on the surface of the ocean.
Satellite studies by the Tawaki Project show the penguins swimming up to 15,000km over that six-month period.