Richard Robinson

What are little blue penguins trying to tell us?

This spring, penguins in the Hauraki Gulf abandoned their eggs and chicks en masse. What happened?

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

There are eight little blue penguins, and their names are Waddles, Te Henga, Lucky, Pengy, Pebbles, Gus, Aroha, and Bob Hope. They were found back in October, when they were chicks, starving. Pebbles and Aroha are clutchmates, rescued from the same nest underneath a house on Waiheke Island. Te Henga came from Bethells Beach, Lucky from the new marina on Kennedy Point.

The penguins all look the same to me, but the volunteers at Native Bird Rescue can tell them apart: their faces are unique, their eyes slightly different shades of blue-grey, their personalities distinct. Pebbles gets overwhelmed by too much attention. Te Henga is hungry all the time. Lucky always waddles up to newcomers.

Karen Saunders, the founder of Native Bird Rescue, returns the kororā to their habitat after their daily swim.

“They were all abandoned around the same time, within two or three weeks,” says Karen Saunders, Native Bird Rescue’s founder. When penguin parents can’t find enough food, they quit their nests and don’t come back, leaving eggs or chicks behind. In October, that seems to have happened en masse in the Hauraki Gulf. “So it looks like a generation has been lost,” says Saunders. “Whatever has happened in the Hauraki Gulf, all adults have just abandoned their nests.”

Now, the eight kororā are growing up in a shipping container outfitted with the latest in penguin home comforts: wooden nest boxes, swimming-pool mats, rocks and branches from outside. Someone comes in the morning to give it a deep clean, and someone comes in the afternoon to feed the penguins anchovies, dangling the fish above their beaks, one by one.

At the sound of Saunders’ voice, the penguins appear from their nest boxes and begin to investigate photographer Richard Robinson, who’s lying on the floor with his camera.

They waddle hunched over and bent forward, Scrooge-like, their eyes bright. They’d have a look of permanent grumpiness if they weren’t so beautiful.

“You’re on the wrong side of the camera, buddy,” says Robinson, addressing the penguin which has just interposed itself between him and the viewfinder.

“They will try and climb up your shorts,” warns Saunders, and they do.

Native Bird Rescue is a collection of shipping containers and prefab office—the whole outfit is portable, in case their landlord, a expat New Zealander, would like his land back. It’s perched on a hilltop up a dirt road on Waiheke, an island off the coast of Auckland that’s famous for its wineries, rich-listers, and off-the-gridders, but which also has more than its share of deprivation. Native Bird Rescue offers rehab to people as well as birds: the chance to bring something back to life. (It’s hard, physical work. Saunders tells prospective volunteers that 90 per cent of their job will be cleaning.)

Rescued from around the Auckland region as starving chicks, these kororā have just begun to reach their adult size. What happened to their parents remains a mystery. “We don’t have a huge amount of information about what these birds in the Hauraki Gulf do for a living and where they do it,” says DOC’s Dave Houston. “We just know that they obviously found food had to come by.”

And there are a lot of birds that need rescuing. Last winter, one of the volunteers, Helen Fuller, took over Native Bird Rescue so Saunders could have a break.

“And, boy was that a learning curve,” says Fuller. “Basically, you have two phones, your own phone and the Bird Rescue phone. And the Bird Rescue phone goes all the time, like, you can’t even cook a meal.”

The birds that arrive have been mauled by dogs. They’ve crashed into glass balustrades. Or they’re starving: “They just look like they’re wearing an overcoat that’s too big,” says Fuller.

For a newly arrived penguin, the odds aren’t great. “That first couple of hours is, ‘Are you going to survive or not?’” says Fuller. More than half don’t make it through the first day—they’re so far gone already. Native Bird Rescue admitted 13 penguins over the spring: these eight are the ones that made it.

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Across the water from Waiheke, on an island that looks a bit like a sleeping hippopotamus from the shore, no penguin chicks survived the month of October.

Tiritiri Matangi is a predator-free bird sanctuary: ideal real estate for a kororā family. John Stewart, a volunteer who monitors birds on the island, said that 11 penguin pairs laid eggs, and there were 15 chicks at the start of October. “They were all dead by the 24th,” he says. “Every single one.”

To the north, on Motuora, an island which looks like a chip struck off the Mahurangi Peninsula, it was the same story, says Stewart. “We were following 12 pairs,” he says. “Between them they laid 23 eggs, and 15 or possibly 16 of those eggs hatched. They were all dead by the 22nd of October.”

Some died a few days after hatching. Others survived until they were almost due to gain their adult feathers.

“It appeared that the parents just stopped coming back,” says Stewart, “so presumably they couldn’t find enough food to feed the chicks.”

Whatever happened took place close to the penguin colonies, and recently. In early spring, the penguin parents were in good shape. Stewart weighed them, and they were all around a kilogram: the size that Waddles, Te Henga, Lucky, Pengy, Pebbles, Gus, Aroha, and Bob Hope are aspiring to.

Franca Zabala, a zoo vet from Argentina, keeps track of how many anchovies each kororā eats. The eight penguins are getting through two kilograms of fish a day.
Hygiene is front of mind at Native Bird Rescue, hence the gloves. Birds in captivity carry a high risk of picking up diseases or injuries, like bumblefoot.

“It’s really an informed guess that they died because the parents couldn’t get enough food, you know,” says Stewart. “We didn’t have necropsies or anything on the birds.”

We don’t keep track of any of the fish species that kororā eat, except for pilchards. In one study, kororā in the Hauraki Gulf were found to be eating anchovies, sardines, red cod and squid, and they probably eat pilchards and yellow-eyed mullet, too. In Australia, pilchards feature strongly in the little blue penguin diet, and a study there found that fewer pilchards meant fewer penguins.

In the Gulf, the pilchard fishery is in bad shape: the catch limit is 2000 tonnes, but in 2021, fishers only caught 70. “It crashed really fast,” says University of Auckland marine biologist Brendon Dunphy.

In addition, the sea is getting warmer, which causes some fish species to move out of penguin range.

“We did have one of the most significant and prolonged heat waves last year and whether this is having carry-over effects, I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” says Dunphy. “Food is not only hard to find but it’s lower quality.”

There are other theories. The penguins could be sick, though Melissa McLuskie from the New Zealand Penguin Initiative points out that being malnourished or starving makes kororā more likely to catch diseases.

Many scientists point to sedimentation as an issue. Perhaps there’s simply too much dirt washing into the Hauraki Gulf—from storms, developments, bare land, farmland. Penguins hunt by sight, and murky water prevents them spotting prey.

But it’s not quite as simple as that, says penguin scientist Hiltrun Ratz, who directs the Penguin Initiative. “Keep in mind sedimentation provides food for plankton and that means for fish as well. So it’s possible that sedimentation provides a lot of nutrients.” A study that tracked Cook Strait penguins found they were swimming to the sediment plumes of rivers to feed.

It’s been a funny year in general, says Stewart. There aren’t any white-fronted terns breeding on Tiritiri Matangi this season, which isn’t too alarming, he says, because “terns are fickle”. But there aren’t any red-billed gulls, either, which is unheard of. Usually they’d have between 50 and 300 gull pairs. “And it looks like we have none. I suspect we’re going to have our first ever year with no red-billed gulls breeding.”

Stewart’s data is the best in the Gulf, but he only has four years of it. One thing is for certain: something’s happening out there, and the penguins are a clue.

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On Waiheke, the young penguins are about to take the second swim of their lives, in a paddling pool under the shade of mānuka. They waddle into the water and transform: the hunch vanishes, their bodies elongate, and they zoom from one side of the pool to the other, ping-ponging off the sides.

When they float on the surface, they make little barking sounds to each other. I notice one swimming on its side, wiggling—Saunders calls it “flippering”, and tells me it’s cleaning its feathers all the way through.

It’s these penguins’ second-ever swim, and they’re starting off in fresh water. Saunders or another volunteer will act as lifeguards during the penguins’ daily swims to make sure they don’t get cold or waterlogged. If they do, it’s possible for penguins to drown.

Today’s swim lasts only 15 minutes, and afterwards, each penguin has to pass a waterproofing test. Saunders pulls on gloves and checks each one to see if it’s wet through. The barbels of their feathers are supposed to interlock so perfectly that water doesn’t reach their skin. If penguins enter the water before their feathers are properly developed, they can become cold and hypothermic, or waterlogged and drown.

“This little dude is actually deep-surface wet, which is not so good,” says Saunders, and puts Aroha down.

It’s so much work to rehabilitate a single penguin. “It’s really, really intensive care. It’s really long hours.”

A bird’s weight plateauing is a sign of good health. Eventually, they begin to refuse food, stopping after four or five anchovies rather than eating everything they’re offered.
Saunders has tracked penguin admissions since 2016, when she opened Native Bird Rescue. Her first summer, she treated two penguins: the second summer, 41 arrived, represented by the big spike on the screen.

Bird rescues like this one can’t compensate for the deaths that are happening in the wild. But they’re one of the few indications that those deaths are taking place. “Otherwise you just don’t know what’s happening,” says Saunders. “We’re like that canary in the coal mine, our role in rehabbing. We get to see what’s coming in and what’s happening, and we understand if there’s been massive deaths or die-offs or mass sickness.”

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When you try and learn anything in detail about little blue penguins in New Zealand, you generally hit a blank.

Ratz is trying to change that with the New Zealand Penguin Initiative, which collates data from 17 penguin-monitoring community groups. She has other groups in the wings, waiting for permits from the Department of Conservation (DOC), and she’s hoping to train more, especially from parts of the country that aren’t monitored, like the east coast of the North Island. The idea is to finally build a national picture of how kororā are getting on.

Kororā live all around New Zealand, and so far, it looks as though only the Auckland penguins and the Bay of Plenty penguins had a catastrophic spring. “Something’s going on up there that was initially impacting the Hauraki Gulf penguins, and then it seemed to shift over to the Mount Maunganui penguins,” says Ratz.

The summer’s not over. Of the 23 penguin pairs that Stewart was monitoring on Tiritiri Matangi and Motuora, three have laid eggs for a second time. “But of course,” he says, “we don’t know if they will be able to hatch those eggs and feed the chicks.”

Kororā face a multitude of challenges. At sea, it’s finding food. On shore, it’s people’s dogs.

If penguins can’t make it on Tiritiri, a predator-free sanctuary, that’s bad news for everywhere else. “Tiritiri Matangi should be crawling with penguins,” says Ratz. “And it isn’t. It really isn’t. So why is that? And what can we do to make it so?”

Kororā in other places have extra problems. In Leigh, north of Tiritiri, a massive storm in September wrecked local penguin nests, but by then, two adults had already been killed by dogs. (“A dog is absolutely lethal to a penguin,” says Ratz.)

On Waiheke, penguins frequently nest underneath houses, and not everyone appreciates having kororā as flatmates: they’re noisy, smelly, and stay up all night. Saunders helps people move penguin nests to more amenable locations, but she’s heard of more than one ruthless eviction.

“The more groups that we have that are starting to monitor around the country, the more issues we’re finding with kororā,” says McLuskie from the Penguin Initiative. “Everything is very location-based, so what one colony is facing in one area might not be the same for another.”

Helen Fuller checks a nest box at Native Bird Rescue’s rehab colony. Fuller keeps an eye on trail cameras which track comings and goings. When the eight young penguins are big enough, they’ll be released here, a quiet spot adjacent to a private beach.

It’s early days. The Penguin Initiative started in 2019, after the mass kororā deaths in the summer of 2017-2018. Saunders admitted 41 starving penguins that summer.

“We don’t really know what’s going on with kororā,” says Ratz. “And we get told again and again by people, ‘Ah yes, there used to be lots of kororā here, but now there aren’t, or we only find dead ones’. And that’s really concerning. If we have a real decline of the kororā throughout New Zealand, we need to step up our conservation efforts. But the first step is always gathering the data.”

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Waddles, Te Henga, Lucky, Pengy, Pebbles, Gus, Aroha, and Bob Hope are now swimming two hours a day, in salt water rather than fresh. The penguins will be released after the Christmas break: Waiheke’s population of around 10,000 people is about to quadruple with holidaymakers, and Saunders wants to give them the best chance of survival.

Saunders doesn’t know how many rehabbed penguins survive once they go back to the sea, except in one case: Roimata refused to be set free, stubbornly stayed on shore, and now lives at Auckland Zoo.

There may be a second wave of penguin rescues and deaths later in the summer. Kororā adults shed and regrow all their feathers between January and March in what’s called a catastrophic moult, and they have to put on enough weight beforehand to survive it. Saunders isn’t sure what the summer will bring. Nor is DOC technical advisor Dave Houston.

“This year, things were looking really, really good, and then there was a sudden change in the food availability,” says Houston. “So, yeah, things can change quickly. But we don’t know what those things are.”

Stay tuned for part two of this story later in the summer, as New Zealand Geographic continues to track what’s taking place in the Gulf.