The last item on our “to see/do” list for our 8 week South Island roadtrip was a big one: spot a Yellow Eyed Penguin in the wild.
We tried yesterday, heading to Roaring Bay, the very same bay where James and I were lucky enough to spy one back in January 2004. We both remember it with amazement: the tiny penguin riding in on a wave, popping up to standing, and waddling its adorable penguin walk up the beach to its nest.
Alas, a half an hour of waiting quietly in the DOC penguin hide didn’t turn up any penguins. We decided to leave and come back the next day for one more try, on our last vacation day before returning to Christchurch.
Today James headed out for a short run from our house in Jack’s Bay. It’s a super-short distance to the nearby beach, and he was a short way in to his run when he came around a rocky corner and right upon a… yellow eyed penguin!
He ran home to gather us all, and the kids and I excitedly got our shoes on to come see this elusive bird.
It wasn’t until later that day when I was reading up on the species that I discovered how very rare YEPs are becoming. Recent years have seen numbers at their lowest levels since the early 90s. Reasons include avian diptheria (which kills chicks by constricting their airwaves so they starve to death), hot weather, human disturbance at breeding sites, and increased barracuda attacks.
The population decline is repeated across Otago and Southland, where the populations crashed from almost 500 breeding pairs in 2012 to fewer than 200 today.
And New Zealand is the only place in the world this species lives.
Even though we had seen one of these darling peguins, we decided to return to Roaring Bay for the chance to see another one, hopefully moving around instead of just standing sentry at a nest.
We arrived and the cold breeze blowing off the water came in through the windows. And even though we were bundled up, everyone was chilly.
Right away, though, we could see an adult yellow eyed penguin standing near a nest! Now if only we could spot one coming in from the sea, that would cap off a day of good luck viewing these birds in the wild!
Evelyn was patient, but Charlotte started complaining of a stomach ache and Cal just wasn’t interested in hanging around in case a penguin swam up.
Finally I told the kids we would leave in 10 minutes, but that they needed to hang in that much longer.
Just as we were preparing to leave, in surfed a little penguin. Just like I remembered from 12 years ago, it went from horizontal on the water to a proud standing position, just 24 inches tall. It hopped and waddled up the rocky beach, following a path through the grasses.
It was truly spectacular to get to see three of these rare penguins in the wild, all in one day. I hope that the work of the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust and Forest & Bird continue to improve breeding outcomes for the penguins.
We rounded out our evening with another walk out to the Nugget Point Lighthouse. Because it’s just that beautiful.