Hero photograph
Two Kororā Little Penguins - the chick left, adult right.  
Photo by Hiltrun Ratz

A Scientist’s Dream

Suzanne Middleton, Wild Dunedin —

Penguin scientist Dr Hiltrun Ratz has been monitoring Kororā Little Penguins at Takiharuru Pilots Beach since September 2016. Hiltrun works for the Pukekura Trust, a joint venture between the Korako Karetai Trust which owns Takiharuru, and the Otago Peninsula Trust.

In her role as scientist for the Trust, Hiltrun puts into practice their objectives of enhancing the natural environment, protecting the habitat, and gaining knowledge about the lives of Kororā.

Introduced plants such as lupins, grass, hemlock and thistles are being removed and replaced with natives. This makes it easier for Hiltrun to find the Kororā’s nesting boxes and their natural nests, and gives less cover for stoats, ferrets, feral cats and rabbits.

Introduced predators are a risk to native birds like Kororā, likewise cars, dogs, domestic cats and humans can have a huge impact on the success or failure of their breeding. Other important factors include a safe nesting place, good sea conditions with no storms or murky water, plus a healthy supply of fish.

The Kororā at Takiharuru are microchipped, and this makes it possible to record information about their comings and goings as Hiltrun explains

"So far I have microchipped 675 adults and 1082 chicks since September 2016, a total of 1757 Kororā. I check the nest boxes at Takiharuru twice a week to collect information about the penguins present on that day. Are they breeding, loafing or moulting? We also have an automatic microchip reader installed on the access path they use when they come back at night after a day’s fishing or head out to sea in the morning. They check themselves in and out of the colony so to speak."
RFID tagging of Little Blue Penguins, left Hiltrun Ratz and right helper Charlotte Barker. — Image by: Pukekura Blue Penguins

Some adult Kororā had difficulty finding food for their chicks last summer due to murky water in their feeding area. Many abandoned their chicks, but a supplementary feeding programme was very successful and 61 chicks were saved. The chicks that were assisted in this way had the same survival rate as those fed entirely by their parents, a very pleasing statistic.

Hiltrun sums up her work for the Pukekura Trust like this

"So much is already known about Kororā from the colonies studied in Oamaru and Australia but nothing was known about the penguins at Takiharuru. Starting with a blank canvas is a scientist’s dream – in fact getting this job and doing this job including the supplementary feeding of starving chicks is a dream. It’s like winning Lotto. In fact it’s better than winning Lotto because it’s meaningful and useful and so much fun!"

 At the moment you cannot visit Pukekura Blue Penguins, but we have discovered a 3 minute short film "Following Little Blues" by Karthic SS that shows the penguins and Hiltrun's monitoring work. 

Following Little Blues | Short Film | Wildlife Conservation | Blue Penguins Karthic SS

 After this current COVID-19 period of isolation, if you can support Pukekura Blue Penguins by visiting them your tour fees will help with their continued survival.

"Blue Penguins Pukekura is the cute part of Taiaroa Head, which is dominated by the Dunedin icon, the Toroa or Northern Royal Albatross. The husbandry or kaitiaki work portrayed in this story is made possible by visitor contributions."  Hoani Langsbury, Manager, Royal Albatross Centre, Otago Peninsula Trust