Seeing a penguin in the wild is one of the most captivating experiences New Zealand has to offer and one of our favourite places to see them is at Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki.
During breeding season, which is October to early December, Fiordland crested penguins or tawaki, come ashore at a beach near the Lodge to nest and breed. They are the third rarest penguin species (after Galapagos and Yellow-Eyed), with the world population being about 5,000 birds.
Tawaki are only found in the south west corner of New Zealand and they are the only penguin species that nests in temperate rainforest. Guides from the Lodge have been taking tours to see the penguins and monitoring their numbers for more than 20 years. This season there have been nearly double the historic average sightings.
Conservationist Dr Gerry McSweeney founded Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki with his wife Anne Saunders. He’s shared his notes with us from this season:
This spring breeding season, Wilderness Lodge Nature Guides have been guiding regular half-day penguin viewing trips through the rainforest to the coastline. Participants sit quietly in the Lodge’s Open Hide and watch Tawaki penguins as they go back and forth across the beach to feed their chicks. The chicks are hidden high above the beach in the densest rainforest areas and we never visit the nests. The adult penguins are aware that Lodge guests are there but think that they are just part of the landscape because every group is guided to the same observation points over the last 28 years. They do not move, disturb or threaten the penguins in any way.
Since 1996 on every penguin trip the Lodge has recorded the number of penguin movements across this beach. This is a total of 1,474 observations each standardized to a 90 minute viewing window.
Average Tawaki penguin numbers seen on these trips have nearly doubled over the 28 year period. Almost certainly this represents an increase in successful penguin breeding at the colonies. This increase is the result of a combination of careful control of people to prevent disturbance to the penguins, a prohibition on dogs being taken to this coastline since 1994 and excellent pest control work by the Department of Conservation and by the Wilderness Lodge along these coastal rainforests every 2 to 3 years since 1998.
Tawaki-Fiordland Crested Penguin viewing season is drawing to a close at Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki. In the last 2 weeks of penguin season many of this year’s chicks have already gone to sea. The adults will stay behind for several more days until about December 7. In this final period of the breeding season, perhaps because they are free from parental duties, the adult penguins behave very differently. The play on the beach, chase each other, mutually groom, go in and out of the water and play on the waves.
Yesterday our Wilderness Lodge guided group watched this group of 5 penguins spend nearly 30 minutes right in front of our penguin viewing hide. You could say they were just horsing around. Maybe a better description is “penguin play time”.
A special guest on yesterday’s guided penguin trip was Australian filmmaker George Miller and his photographer wife Margaret. George Miller AO is an Australian filmmaker and former physician. He is best known for his Mad Max franchise, with The Road Warrior and Fury Road being hailed as amongst the greatest action films of all time. Aside from the Mad Max films, Miller has been involved in a wide range of projects. These include the Academy Award-winning Babe and Happy Feet film series. The film’s central stars are penguins and George was absolutely delighted yesterday to watch the clownish end of season behaviour of our Tawaki penguins.
Tawaki-Fiordland Crested Penguin breeding season at Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki has just finished. Instead of penguin trips, every day from the Lodge we are now guiding our two 3 to 4 hour wilderness seacoast walks. The Hectors Dolphin, tangiwai jade and marine biology walk traverses rainforest and 7km of flat, wild and deserted coastline. The 4 hour NZ Fur Seal, waterfall and rugged seacoast walk is about the same length but is a more challenging walk only suitable for fit people with good balance.
Penguin Season 2018 started a week earlier than in previous years. It also finished about a week earlier.
In 2018 we guided a record number of people on the penguin viewing trips. Over October to December 2018, the core part of the viewing season we saw an average of 15.3 penguins per 90 minutes viewing period versus 13.5 penguins per trip in 2017. The overall trend of penguin numbers seen on our guided trips over the last 22 years shows that 2018 was a great viewing season. This steady population data is really good news in a world where so many bird populations are in steady decline.
Special thanks to Darren Creighton for managing the penguin data and to all our Wilderness Lodge Guides for their infectious enthusiasm in recording penguin numbers.
If penguins are your special interest, now is the time to make your booking to stay at Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki for the next tawaki penguin season in October and November 2019. Do get in touch on +44 1298 74040 if you would like to visit the Lodge and enjoy some experiences that are truly unique to New Zealand.