22 November 2019
Having filled our birding boots at the Royal Albatross Centre, we head off for another special treat: penguins. Everyone loves a penguin: improbable, comical, cute, even iconic, and amongst the non-birders on the bus – that’s everyone except us, it seems – there’s a palpable sense of anticipation as we set off.
Although we’ve been in New Zealand several weeks and seen all three species of penguin that breed here, we’re looking forward to meeting up with some of them again. I mean, you really can’t see enough penguins, can you? And also, our only previous view of the rarest of them all – the Yellow-eyed Penguin – was disappointingly distant, so we’re hoping to do better this time.
The company we’ve booked with has a private reserve on the Otago Peninsula. Our bus first takes us to a cliff-top, from where we scramble down a short but steep path to take a look at a bunch of fur seals. Some cavort in the water and pose like mermaids, while others stand proud on the rocks, masters of all they survey.
New Zealand Fur Seals have recovered well from the predations of the nineteenth century sealers, who almost drove them to extinction. Although we’ve seen them several times previously around South Island it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance once again.
But we have to tear ourselves away, and make our way down to the beach if we’re to see the penguins. Trouble is, the path is long and way too steep for us to cope with, given the condition of our backs, hips and knees, which have deteriorated markedly in recent days. No question, at the end of this holiday we’re going to need a bloody good rest.
Mrs P has been anxious for a while about not being able to make it down to see the penguins at all , so yesterday she phoned the tour company and explained our predicament. To their credit, Elm Wildlife Tours came up with a brilliant solution. They’ve laid on an extra-powerful bus, with loads of torque and grunt, that can drive most of the way down, and – more importantly – back up the murderous incline.
Our guide explains the new arrangements to the group, and although a few mad fools decide the walk will do them good many others join us in the bus. A few minutes later we’ve made it to within spitting distance of the beach, and disembark feeling rested and in good spirits. The weary foot-soldiers arrive a few minutes later, breathing hard, sweating profusely, glowing crimson. Serves ’em right, I say!
We make our way down to the beach and happen across an artificial burrow strategically placed to attract Little Blue Penguins. These guys are found in small numbers around much of the New Zealand coastline. They rarely move on land during the daylight hours, so the best chance of seeing them on terra firma is after dark, as we did about ten days ago on Stewart Island, or maybe – if you’re very, very lucky – in the entrance to their burrows during the daytime.
But to see inside a Little Blue Penguin burrow you get down low, until your chin is almost scraping the ground. I don’t even bother – I’ll never be able to get up again – but Mrs P’s willing to get down and dirty in pursuit of a penguin. And yes, she spots one, watching her grumpily as she lines up to take a photograph. Annoyingly, a random piece of dead vegetation gets in the way, and Mrs P can’t move it for fear of upsetting the penguin. But never mind, it’s an interesting shot even if it won’t win any prizes.
We walk along the beach a few hundred yards, then inland slightly to a small hide – or blind, as Americans would call it – positioned to overlook the route that Yellow-eyed Penguins take on the way to and from their nests. The hide is modest in construction but will serve its purpose: it gives good views out towards the beach and the penguins’ regular route inland, while hiding us from sight. It’s late afternoon now, about the time they start moving about on land, so we settle back and wait for the fun to begin.
And sure enough, as we scan the hillside that rises up from the beach we spot one. The slope’s steep, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Somewhere up there, hidden in the undergrowth, he must have a nest where his chicks are waiting for their next feed.
He’s full of determination, hopping between boulders and scrambling through the long grass, hauling himself along with his bill when the going gets tough. If he had teeth, he’d be gritting them. Once or twice he stops to preen himself, removing stray seeds and strands of grass from his feathers. But he doesn’t delay for long: his family needs him.
Finally he approaches the crest of the hill. He turns and looks back at the route he’s taken, the route he takes regularly so that his chicks get a decent meal every day. But there’s no time to admire the view, he still has a distance to travel. At last he makes it to the top. His nest must be there somewhere over the brow of the hill, his family waiting patiently for the Great Provider to return. Our hero continues grittily onwards and disappears from view, never to be seen again.
With a mixture of emotions – admiration at the lone penguin’s courage and endurance, sadness at his leaving us – we turn our attention back to the shoreline. Will another penguin show himself before we have to go back to the bus?
It seems there’s nothing of interest out there, just waves crashing into the rocks and surging up the sandy beach. We’re all scanning carefully, more in hope than expectation. It’s a penguin-free zone, but then we spot a different and altogether more sinister animal instead.
A sealion has hauled out, and is now strutting the sands as if he owns the place. He’s right, I guess, sealions are formidable creatures, the apex predators hereabouts. Worryingly, penguins feature in his diet, and if one shows itself now it may well end up on today’s menu. OK, I know, life’s hard and sealions have to eat. Of course they do, but not penguins and not on my watch, please.
We feel conflicted. We badly want to see another penguin, but at the same time worry that if one turns up its blood and guts will be all over the sand within minutes. Time stands still for a while. The sealion watches and waits, and so do we, listening to the steady rhythm of the waves slapping into the sand.
And then we spot him, another penguin in the surf. He’s battling to reach the beach without being smashed into the rocks that are scattered along it. Finally a wave drives him between the boulders and shoves him belly-first into the sand in an undignified heap. He hauls himself upright, shakes the excess water from his feathers, and begins to waddle up the beach.
The penguin isn’t heading directly for the sealion, but his route will take him too close. Once the sealion spots him it’s curtains: a sealion on land can move surprisingly swiftly; a penguin can’t. We all watch, transfixed, waiting to see how the story will play out, fearing the worst but hoping for the best.
Suddenly the penguin stops dead in his tracks and studies the way ahead. He’s obviously detected the sealion’s presence, and in a second he’s turned 180 degrees and is hot-footing it back to the safety of the sea. We all heave a sigh of relief, and start to relax.
Too soon. The penguin is on a mission, his chicks need feeding so he’s got to find a way past his enemy. He re-emerges from the sea, some distance from his previous landfall, and heads for the safety on the grassy hill beyond the beach. But once again he’s too close to the sealion, and turns back.
We can hardly bear to watch. The longer it goes on the more certain we are that it will end badly, at least from the penguin’s perspective. It seems like he’s on Mission Impossible, only just when we need him Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen.
But at last, after what seems like an eternity, the penguin finds a path that will take him to his destination without drawing the attention of the sealion. We watch for minute after agonising minute until at last he’s made it, and heads off into the long grass.
We all heave a sigh of relief. We’re emotional wrecks, but at least there was a fairy tale ending. It’s time to walk back along the beach and return to the bus.
However there’s one last treat in store us. While we’ve been watching the drama unfold at one end of the beach, at the other a third penguin has taken his chance to make a run for the nest site. He’s made it over the sand to the grass beyond.
A fence-line blocks the way into some low bushes where he’s probably hidden his nest, and he has to work his way along it until he finds a gap. As he does we get a perfect view of him. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the rarest penguin in the world, and we feel privileged to get such a perfect sighting.
And as this wonderful bird disappears into the undergrowth, the day draws to a close. We’ve had a great time, and so too have the first-time birders who’ve been caught up in the life and death drama of a penguin on an unremarkable beach in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island. Hopefully a few of them have caught the birding bug, and will soon be as passionate about it as we are.