8 November 2019
The timing of our visit to New Zealand has been planned to maximise our chances of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Today’s the day when we find out if we’ve got it right.
Gerry drives us and a couple of other guests from the Lodge and drops us off by the side of the road. He tells us to lurk in the bushes while he secrets the van at another location some distance away. On his return we are ushered into the undergrowth, leaving no evidence that we were ever there at all.
This cloak and dagger stuff is worthy of a television crime drama, but Gerry has his reasons. The Fiordland Crested is endemic to New Zealand, meaning that it’s found nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the world’s rarest penguins, and to protect it from mammalian predators the Department of Conserevation has laid baited rat traps all over the area.
But this penguin is also desperately vulnerable to disturbance by people and, especially, their dogs. The colony that Gerry’s taking us to visit isn’t well known and is very difficult to find. He’s determined to keep it this way.
The path takes us deep into the forest, past palm ferns and a variety of native trees. It’s twisty, steep and slippery, and not at all pleasant to walk. But that, of course, is exactly the point.
To cover our tracks we ford the same river a number of times, and at one point a false trail is laid so that anyone following us won’t find the correct river crossing. The Lodge has loaned us all gumboots (wellingtons to any Brits reading this), and this is a good thing in view of the trek we’ve embarked upon.
However the river’s running fast and high due to all the rain we’ve had recently, and at the second crossing Mrs P fills one of her gumboots. She’s not at all a happy bunny, but the prospect of penguins stiffens her resolve and she squelches on stoically.
Eventually we arrive at the beach, and Gerry leads us to the appropriate spot. To our right the sea, waves slapping into the beach and shoreline rocks; to our left, a steep hillside, green and thickly forested. The penguins nest in the forest, and trudge up and down the hillside every day to feed their youngsters. This is what we’re hoping to witness.
Within seconds we spot our first penguin. He’s out at sea, but paddling calmly towards the shoreline.
Soon he’s out on dry land, looking this way and that to check that he’s safe. We can tell immediately that he’s a good looking lad. He stands at around 60cm, a stout bird with dark head and upperparts, and white underparts. A broad yellow crest, which is the source of his name, runs above his vivid red eye.
Having established that the coast is clear, both literally and metaphorically, he moves up the beach a little and begins to preen. He needs to ensure he’s in tiptop condition before he starts the yomping to the nest site.
Once everything is in order he sets off. And as he walks up the beach we spot his unusual posture. Whereas most penguins that I’ve seen (albeit courtesy of Sir David Attenborough) hold themselves upright when they move, he walks in a stooped position like an old man with a walking stick.
But his posture doesn’t hold him up, and soon he’s reached the spot where the beach ends and the hillside begins. Now he’s been joined by another penguin, and the two of them begin to scramble up the slope. They’ve walked this path many times before, as have the colony’s other adult birds. The lower slope is bare of all vegetation, worn away by the trudging of countless webbed feet, and the soil is crumbling away.
At last our hero is within metres of the forest edge. He turns and surveys the beach one more time, before heading off amongst the trees. He may still have several hundred metres to travel, but we will never see him again.
By Gerry’s reckoning we see 19 penguins on parade over a period of about 90 minutes, some climbing uphill to their nests, and others returning down to the sea to catch more fish for their ravenous chicks. It’s been an honour and a privilege to watch them go about their business at Gerry’s secret location. Here’s hoping the secret remains a secret, and that the action continues for generations to come.