Inger Perkins has two connections to the Kawatiri Coastal Trail. Firstly, as Regional Field Advisor for Herenga ā Nuku Aotearoa Outdoor Access Commission (formerly the NZ Walking Access Commission), and another as Manager of the West Coast Penguin Trust.
In her outdoor access role, Inger worked with the Charleston Westport Coastal Trail Trust as they began to create their vision and route for the Kawatiri Coastal Trail. Herenga ā Nuku supports trail trusts to use their maps and with grants, advice, guidance and support to secure easements that result in enduring access.
As manager of the West Coast Penguin Trust, Inger is always looking for opportunities to advocate on behalf of threatened seabirds. Their vision is that “West Coast seabirds and their habitat are healthy and thriving.” By keeping an eye on resource consent applications, she saw the Trail was due to go through or close to penguin nesting areas.
Their Ranger at the time, Matt Charteris, and current Ranger, Linden Brown, have been able to work with the Trail team, to ensure penguins were not disturbed, as construction of the Trail extended to Cape Foulwind and towards Charleston.
We asked Inger to tell us more about her research projects, the penguins, threats to the colonies, and what the public can do to help.
Photo credit: Tui de Rooy – blue penguin
How do your research projects benefit the coastal wildlife and community?
The Trust’s first research projects (established when the Trust was founded in 2006), were to identify causes for the apparent decline in blue penguin / kororā numbers, particularly in the Charleston area. We began monitoring several colonies of penguins and installed traps around half of them.
At the same time, we started recording dead penguins. When and where they died, and cause of death if known. Within a few years, it became abundantly clear stoats were not the threat to penguins as had been expected. Instead, we found that 60-70% of dead penguins were being killed on coast roads, and a further 20% by dogs.
In 2016, we began investigating the apparent decline in Fiordland crested penguins, or tawaki in South Westland. We found that stoats only rarely predated eggs or chicks, except when stoats were in plague proportions, when all eggs and chicks were likely to be predated. Such plague events are linked to mast events, when beech and other native trees produce vast amounts of seed, leading to mouse plagues, followed by rats, and then stoats.
In the past year or two, we have started adding PIT tags (microchips) to blue penguins / kororā. We’ve also installed a fixed PIT tag reader at a narrow point in a Charleston penguin colony, where penguins must pass between nest and sea. We also have a wand reader, the kind of gadget used to identify farm animals and record data.
We will learn much more about penguins as a result, and knowledge is key to conservation. Acting on a whim, assumption or guesswork is wasteful of resources. Science underlies all that we do. The more we can learn about the two penguin species that breed on the West Coast, the more we can do to ensure they survive, and continue to be part of the coastal ecosystem, and part of the nature on our doorstep.
Where along the Trail are penguin colonies located?
Blue penguins / kororā nest all around New Zealand and can turn up on any beach at any time. In the Westport to Charleston area, there are some key breeding locations from the mouth of the Buller River, along past Carters Beach, and towards and around Cape Foulwind and Tauranga Bay. There are occasional records of penguins between the headland at the southern end of Tauranga Bay, along Nine Mile Beach towards Charleston. There are several small colonies close to Charleston.
Heading further south, more penguins breed from the White Horse Creek area, along the coast past Punakaiki. This section of coast road must have been built through penguin nesting areas many decades ago. Several penguins were being killed on the highway there every year, until we installed our penguin protection fence in 2014.
Where do penguins like to make their nests, and can they be seen all year round?
Blue penguins / kororā need somewhere dry, shaded and defendable to nest. They choose a variety of sites to achieve those goals, including under rocks, among tree roots, under buildings and in nest boxes. They need to be able to defend their eggs and young chicks from stoats weka.
The breeding season gets underway in June and runs through until December. After chicks are fledged, adults spend time regaining condition before a two-week moult. This is their most vulnerable time, as they are not waterproof, and can’t get to sea to fish or escape disturbance. Some penguins are present in colonies throughout the year. Many however will disappear for a couple of months after moulting, before returning to start the process all over again.
It is rare to see a blue penguin / kororā, as they come and go under cover of darkness. They leave before dawn and can return from their foraging at sea at any time of night. The best indicator that penguins are around, is their tracks in the sand. If penguins are seen in daylight, they may be sick or injured, and in need of protection from dogs and require assistance. Phone the DOC Hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).
Photo: Tauranga Bay
What are the threats to penguins, and what can Trail users do to help protect them and conserve their habitat?
The biggest threats to penguins on land are vehicles and dogs. There are two key things that will help protect penguins. Firstly, driving more slowly at night on coast roads is a great idea. It’s safer for you, more economical, and gives you a fraction more time to safely avoid a penguin on the road.
Secondly, if you have a dog, and live or are staying in a coastal area, keep it secure at home, and don’t allow it to roam. If you have your dog with you when out and about near the Trail or in other coastal areas, keep it on a lead. If you have absolute confidence your dog will return when you call, let them off during daylight hours, but under very close control at all times. Dogs are interested in the smell and movement of a penguin. It only takes a moment for them to pick one up like a toy, and it’s all over for the penguin. Please don’t let your dog explore dunes and coastal vegetation off lead.
How has the Kawatiri Coastal Trail been taking care of penguins?
From its inception, the team at the Kawatiri Coastal Trail have been keen to protect, celebrate and share the values along the Trail, including the many historical, cultural and ecological values. With the Trail passing through or close to areas where blue penguins / kororā nest, they jumped at the chance to assist with penguin protection.
Firstly, they commissioned a blue penguin / kororā survey report by Ecological Consultant and former Penguin Ranger, Matt Charteris, so they would know where penguins could be nesting, and construction could be managed accordingly.
Next, 14 nesting boxes were built and installed to provide additional nesting sites. New signs have gone up advising Trail users that penguins are nesting in those areas, and reminding people that no dogs are allowed.
Work is underway in collaboration with the West Coast Penguin Trust to design and install two new Interpretation Panels on the sea birdlife around the Tauranga Bay Section of the Trail.
Photo: New penguin nesting signs on the Trail
Tell us about other seabirds you protect?
I mentioned the Fiordland crested penguins / tawaki, that breed from South Westland around Fiordland to Stewart Island. We have an annual breeding success monitoring programme and continue to monitor stoats to better understand the risk they present, linked to mast events. We work with DOC to improve predator control in tawaki breeding areas.
Our vision is that all seabirds in our region, and their habitat, are healthy and thriving. We have done some work with Westland petrels / taiko in the past, but that research project is now in the very capable hands of Kate Simister, Biodiversity Ranger at DOC.
We have two predator trapping projects. One at Cape Foulwind, to protect sooty shearwaters that nest there and to protect seabirds on nearby Wall Island, and another beside Seal Island. These are to keep the islands rat and stoat free, to protect seabirds nesting there. We advocate for the conservation of all Seabirds through submissions on resource consent applications and plans, such as the new combined district plan, Te Tai o Poutini Plan.
What opportunities are there for the public to get involved?
Reducing the risk to penguins through driving slower at night on coast roads and being a responsible dog owner, and sharing that advice are the best things people can do to help protect penguins. We love to share our stories and invite people to sign up for our newsletter that comes out every two months.
We share our stories and others on our Facebook Page, so people can connect with us, and if there are further opportunities to help, we’ll share them there. As with any charity, we always need to raise funds, to keep our research and conservation work going. Donations, however large or small, whether one-off or regular, will always be hugely helpful.
You can find more information and sign up to receive the Newsletter on the West Coast Penguin Trust website here.