Little Blue Penguins Tracked

Little blue penguin enthusiasts will soon know more about the fishing habits of the birds whose movements are about to be tracked for the first time on the West Coast of New Zealand. Six GPS tracking devises will be fitted onto penguins from two colonies with nest boxes at Charleston and will track their movements at sea. The Blue Penguin TrustĀ  of New Zealand had been measuring breeding success at Charleston, including when eggs were laid, when chicks hatched and how many chicks survived, said trust ranger Reuben Lane. “That’s given us a pretty good idea of what’s happening on land. That’s why we’re moving to this tracking study because we sort of need to fill in the other part of the picture,” said Mr Lane. “They are marine birds, they spend most of their time at sea, so we kind of need to know about that.” The trust hoped to find out where the penguins were fishing. That information had implications when marine reserves, bottom trawling or any activity that might impact the penguins was being discussed. “If we don’t know where they’re going then we can’t have an intelligent input into that kind of discussion,” said Mr Lane. While there had been a lot of work done on tracking penguins, none had been done on New Zealand’s West Coast. The Coast’s birds and its fisheries were different to elsewhere in the country. Antarctic currents meant the east coast had a rich sea life close to the shore, whereas he thought the birds struggled more on the West Coast. Analysis of stomach contents showed Coast birds often seemed to have to feed on squid, which Mr Lane described as “the tofu of the sea” without much nutritional value. Temperatures on the West Coast also meant the fish tended to be more spread out and harder to catch. While it was the first time the devices were being used on the Coast, the same work had been done at Phillip Island near Melbourne in Australia. Mr Lane said he was there in May learning how to apply the devices. The devices were smaller than a matchbox. They were taped to the feathers on the penguins’ backs, just above their tails, so they could still steer. They were designed not to create drag and didn’t seem to hinder the birds. The GPS devices would be put on birds with young chicks who were going out fishing for a day at a time, leaving at dawn, then returning just after dark. They would stay on each bird for a day before being moved onto another one. Mr Lane said the first penguin chick should hatch in about three weeks time so he hoped to deploy a few tracking units in mid-October.

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