Featuring Mena the Penguin Detective Dog

Anyone who knows KORI (Kaikōura Ocean Research Institute) knows we love our little penguin friends and want to help their families grow along the greater Kaikōura Coastline, however, in our efforts we were lacking information on how and where these wee birds are distributed along the 75km stretch from Waipapa Bay to the Conway River. By locating their nest sites we also then wanted to learn more about the characteristics of what made the most suitable breeding habitat for our little penguins to grow their families; ultimately enabling us to take action so we can protect and encourage preferred sites – we’re all for a little penguin baby boom!

With gratitude to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) Community Fund for providing us with a grant to make this penguin mission possible and to highlight the importance of conserving New Zealand’s diverse and beautiful natural offerings for current and future generations, we are eager to share our findings.

Let’s Go

Our team and star member Mena, the penguin detective dog spent 11 days in October 2019 exploring the greater Kaikōura coastline on the hunt for sites our little penguin’s like to call home. We chose October as this is both a period of burrow occupation for little penguins and a time of egg laying, incubation and hatching of chicks – the chance of finding penguins on land during the day time – HIGH. Once Mena and her magical nose were able to guide us to little penguin sites we then used a number of variables to decipher whether these sites were actively used by little penguins and if they were, whether they wereoccupied by breeding or non – breeding pairs.

Breeding nests were characterised by fresh guano (excrement) and nesting material or adult birds, chicks and eggs. In the case of absence of such factors, we determined the sites not to be breeding nests – with the hope, of course, they will be in the future. In our search Mena guided us to both little penguin sites which we considered as actively being used where guano was present at the entrance trail and inactive sites where we (the people on the team with the less sensitive noses) could not detect any signs of activity. Mena has had plenty of experience and a top reputation in the field of seabird detection, locating a whopping 250 little penguin sites in Golden Bay a few months prior, so we had full faith in her capabilities to guide us to any sites in our study area.

In the cases we did find penguin pals we photographed individuals and used flipper photographs to identify whether they were the ‘little blue’ our ‘white-flippered’ type. Mena proudly identified 20 individual birds in our search – all of which were later identified as ‘little blue’ penguins.

So, what about our chances of a little penguin baby boom in the near future?

In our search we discovered only one breeding colony which was in fragmented or disconnected areas of habitat on the southern face of Kaikōura’s Peninsula. You may be familiar with this little penguin colony as KORI has been monitoring for a number of years. If you aren’t so familiar learn more about our neighbours here https://kori.org.nz/koris-penguin-project. The fact that we were only able to locate one breeding colony in an entire 75km stretch of potential coastline habitat is highly concerning for populations of little penguins and highlights a number of aspects of importance to their survival on the greater Kaikōura coastline.

Primarily, the protection of this colony is a high priority as it is our only known breeding colony and therefore our best hope in increasing little penguin populations, who can continue to live together in colonies as mother nature intended.

Why Are We So Passionate About Protecting Our Local Penguins?

Little Penguins along the greater Kaikōura coastline and other areas of New Zealand have seen populations declines due to attacks by predatory mammals such as rats and domestic dogs, entanglement in fishing nets and vehicle collisions. If appropriate efforts are not taken habitat risks becoming further fragmented which would mean enhanced competition between penguin
neighbours for suitable breeding sides and so a further negative effect on population growth. Given that habitat edges here are susceptible to disturbance from human activity and construction activities including car park creation and roadworks, it is crucial we take measures to minimise disturbance so that this established colony can continue to grow both through breeding (aka our little penguin baby boom) and recruiting new members.

We have already taken measures to try and protect the little penguin breeding colony at South Bay from such threats happening very close to home – you may have heard about the loss of one of our colony members to a fatal dog attack earlier this year, with the further loss of 6 eggs to mammalian predators. Such measures included the establishment of a low- level predator
fence at South Bay, with informative signs designed by the local school children and the expansion of potential nesting area through the movement of boulders and planting of native vegetation.

The fact that Mena and the team located only one penguin breeding colony on this 75 km stretch of coastlines sets alarm bells ringing for action. With little penguins only being found in parts of New Zealand and Southern Australia, we are passionate about helping their families and their populations flourish and so we are starting at home – on the greater Kaikōura coastline. Our ONE and only little penguin breeding colony are not only part of the greater Kaikoura coastline but the greater Kaikōura community, and as a community – it is important we look out for all our members big and small. We are hopeful that with appropriate conservation efforts as a result of our findings Mena will be sniffing out a few more breeding nests in the coming years.

P.S let’s all congratulate Mena on the first official science publication to come from her work!

The link to the full article in New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater
Research can be found here: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/XTRIGMJUHA6G9DEXUEMU/full?target=

Two little blue penguin chicks with most of their adult feathers inside one of KORI's purpose-built nest-boxes

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