15 December 2015

Sweltering heat further impacts yellow-eyed penguins

NEW ZEALAND - High temperatures throughout November have been unkind to Otago's yellow-eyed penguins, and nest numbers have hit rock bottom.

Despite the efforts of local conservation groups working hard to keep chicks alive, fewer than 190 breeding pairs have been counted on the Otago coast this season. In 2012, there were an estimated 491 breeding pairs.

Egg hatching success had remained around 85% in North Otago and on the Otago Peninsula, with avian diphtheria infection rates being up to 100% at some breeding sites. Some chicks had perished on hot days as they were still under full protection of their parent's body.

"We've lost about 50 chicks, despite our more intensive efforts this season," Department of Conservation (DOC) Coastal Otago Biodiversity Ranger Mel Young said. Approximately 115 chicks at monitored sites from the Peninsula to Moeraki had survived.

Attempts to address illness and dehydration to manage chick survival have included removing the oral diphtheria lesions, which can prevent feeding and breathing, as well as feeding chicks a smoothie of salmon and rehydration fluids every few days.

"There's no obvious pattern to the outbreak of infection, but most chicks that have been infected have also been underweight." Ms Young said.

"We can't be sure if illness or starvation has driven the observed mortality, but the heat certainly has played a large part too."

Temperatures in excess of 16°C caused discomfort to adult penguins.

Human disturbance at unregulated breeding areas is also of ongoing concern, as adult penguins returned ashore regularly to feed chicks.

"We recommend that people take a tour to see yellow-eyed penguins this summer," said Sue Murray, General Manager of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust.

"Tour operators are experienced in guiding visitors appropriately to minimise disturbance and ensure that birds are not disturbed when they come ashore to feed their chicks."

Tour operators Penguin Place have been heavily involved in management of chick survival over the last few weeks, and have recorded only one chick death.

Over the last three seasons Penguin Place's rehabilitation facility has cared for over 400 yellow-eyed penguins that would have otherwise failed to survive in the wild. Funding for the rehabilitation centre came completely from Penguin Place's guided conservation tours, with their staff working closely with local vets and experts to increase survival of injured and underweight yellow-eyed penguins.

Rehabilitation Manager Julia Reid said, "Our facility will usually become busy from mid-late January as underweight chicks begin to be brought in from monitored sites on the Otago Peninsula and the Catlins.

"We are preparing for this influx by stocking up on quality fish and medical supplies."

DOC and local conservation groups will now be focused on the most critical part of the season, when injured, underweight and moult-compromised penguins may need to be rehabilitated.

Patrolling of monitoring areas will continue throughout the season to ensure penguins are in good condition as they prepare their annual moult. Underweight or injured birds will be removed for veterinary treatment and rehabilitation.

Sweltering heat further impacts hoiho, 14 December 2015, Department of Conservation

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