Tracking tawaki in Milford Sound

Tawaki with two chicks Milford Oct 2017 Kerry-Jayne Wilson rTrust Chair, Kerry-Jayne Wilson spent a week in Milford Sound earlier this month helping Dr Thomas Mattern from The Tawaki Project, and filed this report.

The previous week Thomas and his team had deployed small GPS loggers on tawaki (Fiordland crested penguins); it was our job to catch the loggered penguins to retrieve the devices. Thomas could then download the accumulated data and find out where the penguins had gone and how often they returned to feed their chicks.

Our field day would start with a tourist cruise on the Sound courtesy of Southern Discoveries.  We were fortunate to enjoy their scrumptious buffet lunch while cruising Milford!  Near the end of the journey they would drop us off at the Discovery Centre in Harrison Cove, which was our base for field work. After a quick visit to the underwater observatory to admire the tree-like black corals and other marine life, we would kayak across the cove, landing 100m from the penguin colony.  The rest of the day was spent waiting for loggered birds to return, attended by Milford’s notorious sandflies.

Thomas and assistant Jeff would station themselves out of sight either side of the most likely penguin landing spot ready to catch loggered birds if they returned. I sat at the far end of the beach watching for penguins, using VHF radio to direct the catching team to the target bird or calling them back if a penguin appeared while they were doing other work in the colony.  At about 10 pm, when all birds coming ashore that night were probably in, we would kayak back to the Discovery Centre, then next morning catch the first tourist boat back into town.

Of the four days I was in the field with the team, three were sunny; we suffered the torrential rain Milford is renowned for on only one day. Sitting waiting for penguins is less pleasant in the rain, although on rainy days the sandflies are less persistent. Of the six loggered birds we needed to catch, five were relatively easy, the sixth evaded us for four days then spent over an hour swimming around the bay, teasing us before landing at an unusual spot making capture and device removal somewhat of a challenge.

The tawaki of Milford Sound are doing well; tawaki usually make long journeys to feed far off shore, and raise only one of their two chicks. Milford tawaki seldom leave the fiord, the average tourist cruise travels further, and many pairs manage to raise both chicks. 

If you visit Milford Sound, and everyone should, support Southern Discoveries; they support penguin conservation.  And don’t miss their underwater observatory at the Discovery Centre.

Tawaki with two chicks Milford Oct 2017 Kerry-Jayne Wilson r