We are going to talk about one of Banks Peninsula’s many special avian residents today. They are noisy, stinky, awkward little creatures on land, but in the water, they are feisty, fish seeking torpedoes. This is of course our kororā, little blue and white-flippered penguins.

Photo: Life's a beach!

Banks Peninsula is home to two different species of kororā, the little blue penguin (with its variant white-flippered penguin) and we also have a small population of hoiho/yellow-eyed penguins.

Little blue penguins are found in small colonies all around our dramatic Banks Peninsula coastline. Little blue penguins feed primarily on anchovies and pilchards. They will also consume squid, plankton, krill as well as small octopus. A small study in 1996 showed that the primary food for Pohatu/Flea Bay’s little penguins was arrow squid at that time, different from other populations around the country. In time, local agencies and organisations hope to do a more in-depth study of the current foraging habits of our feather-flippered friends.

Penguins were once plentiful on Banks Peninsula. Locals say they once waddled the streets of Akaroa at night, nesting under houses and causing an unseemly ruckus at all hours. Their numbers, however, swiftly declined, and presently little penguins tend to live in remote and scattered colonies around Banks Peninsula. This drop in numbers can likely be attributed to a number of factors, including habitat loss, diminishing food sources, climate change, predation by an increasing population of mustelids and feral cats. Also, uncontrolled domestic dogs can have had an impact.

In recent years, climate change and changing sea temperatures seems to be having a more significant effect on their food foraging habits. We have all seen the reports of starving or dead penguins washing up on beaches lately. It is a disturbing trend, one that has been confirmed locally. The Pohatu penguin population has dropped from 1360 breeding pairs in 2016, to 955 in 2020. With the increased network of predator control, and large numbers of artificial nesting boxes being put in place during that time, the decline of this population seems to be pointing more towards food source rather than other on-land pressures. The short film Korora which follows the 2020 Horomaka kororā, (Banks Peninsula little penguin survey) touches on the history of penguins on Banks Peninsula, their current state, and what the future may hold for this perky wee bird.

Photo: We could be anywhere...

When seeing little blue penguins in the wild it is important to remember some rules on how to behave around wildlife. Give them plenty of space; 20 meters is a good guide. Don't go close to them, they are either resting after feeding, or on their way to see their chicks. Do not shine torches or lights on them, Banks Peninsula’s little penguins are shy. If interrupted while coming on shore at night they will leave again, leaving their chicks unfed in their burrows. How we act around our little penguins, and their nest sites can directly affect their breeding success. A perfect rule of thumb is to leave them alone to do their penguin business. If you find a sick bird talk to DOC on their 0800 DOC HOT line (0800 362468), or if you know local bird rescue groups they can be notified too. You need a special wildlife permit to interact with these birds or be under the supervision of a permit holder, so do not pick up a sick bird unless permission has been given.

Before working for Pest Free Banks Peninsula (PFBP), our ranger Jess spent quite a bit of time with these little characters at Pohatu’s penguin colony. And the team knows, she absolutely loves talking about these tenacious little birds.

Story time from Jess

Photo: Miss Biter in the basket.

We got all types through the penguin rehabilitation at Pohatu Penguins. Most of our penguins in the colony hatch successfully, raise healthy chicks and moult with no problems, but sometimes during Pohatu’s regular nest monitoring we find birds in trouble. These ones sometimes end up being taken into care until they reach fledging. That generally happens around 8 weeks old as this is when they have lost their fluffy chick appearance and grown sleek adult feathers. The ideal weight for a chick's release is over 1kg. So, to get them ready, they get fed lots of fish thanks to generous donors such as The Antarctic Centre.

While in care, some birds embrace the experience with gusto, eating all the fish they are given by their handlers and begging for more. Others are fussy turning their beak up at the offered morsels unless it is given to them in a method or manner that is acceptable. An example is a bird that only wanted to be fed from the left-hand side. There are also plenty of those birds that will try to tear your fingers off if you so much as even look at them, behaving just as wild animals should.

Penguins have a delightful stab, bite, twist technique to defend themselves, that can cause blood blisters, grazes, or sometimes even slice and draw blood. I stress again, never ever try to touch a penguin in the wild, as this will either cause harm to you, or cause harm and distress to the penguin which is an offence under the Wildlife Act 1999.

Photo: Miss Biter with a hunger for ranger fingers...

Little Miss Biter was one of these later types of rehab penguins. Jess was tasked with feeding the little menace after being given the obligatory warning, “handle with even more care than usual”. The little penguin had a masochistic thirst for her feeder's pain but when she finished trying to maim the hands that feed, Little Miss Biter also loved her fish.

Pohatu Penguins took her in when she was approximately 4 weeks old as she was no longer getting fed by her parents and was rapidly losing weight. After monitoring the situation, it was decided they had to step in. As you can imagine, feeding time for little Miss Biter was a delicate procedure, and so was the daily swim. The Pohatu team knew that this particular penguin would do very well in the wild, as she was a real fighter. Unashamedly we fondly talked about the day she would suddenly walk downstream during her swim and disappear into the big blue. We loved her, but we would love to see her return to the wild where she would so obviously thrive.

Miss Biter managed to grab and twist several of her handlers' sensitive areas in transit to her daily swim one day, and then had the nerve to preen herself between her handlers' feet after the dip as if nothing had happened, expecting to be taken back to the rehab area. Jess looked down at the bird knowing this momentary good-natured behavior was indeed a trap, but she gently shushed the bird back into its carry container. As Jess transported it back to the rehab, she looked down to see the penguin just staring back at her steadily, she found it quite unnerving. A few days later, Little Miss Biter was thankfully ready to go and left hastily as the Pohatu staff knew she would.

Jess often wonders how little Miss Biter has done since going back in the wild, hopefully in a year or two the bird will have little hell-raisers of her own, and they do well, and tender-fingers crossed they do not end up in Pohatu’s Penguin rehabilitation.

Little blue penguins are known as a sentinel species for the health of our marine ecosystem. If the penguins are not doing well and declining in numbers, then we need to figure out what we can do to improve conditions. This goes further than just providing a safe habitat to nest, that is free from predators, but also looking out into the Peninsula's turquoise blue waters and considering what we can do to preserve or restore conditions out there. Our job here at PFBP may be land based, but we know a lot of our locals care deeply about the sea too. What matters most for you in our local slice of ocean? Is it the fish you catch for kai, the dolphins, seeing orca cruise the harbour searching for sting rays? There are so many wonders out there. So, share with us what you are passionate about in the Peninsula’s deep blue.

Photo: Miss Biter has her "pecking" order.