White-flippered penguins: These flightless birds are found only in Canterbury

The kiwi may be New Zealand’s official bird and it has a kooky Dr Seuss-ian appeal, but for charm and personality, a 30 cm-tall little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) is tough to beat.

For many years little blue penguins held sway as the world’s cutest flightless bird. Despite the common name “little blue” it was generally accepted that they occasionally varied in colour – like the random ginger-haired child in a family of blonds and brunettes.

However, genetic analysis conducted in 2006 found the equally small white-flippered penguin (Eudyptula minor albosignata) may be a distinct species from little blue penguins. Found only in Canterbury, there are approximately 10,000 white-flippered penguins and the Department of Conservation classifies them as At Risk, Declining.

Ecologist Karin Sievwright from Boffa Miskell’s Wellington office has been surveying white-flippered penguins at Lyttelton Port of Christchurch (LPC). These small penguins nest in rock crevices and caves; under logs and vegetation; and in a variety of human-made structures. A number of white-flippered penguins were found in seawall habitat, which was created following reclamation works.

“During our surveys, we observed three pairs of nesting penguins and six moulting adults,” Karin reported.

“We also found two old nests, four possible nests and saw lots of moulted feathers and guano (penguin poo) – so there are a few around. This is a positive finding as it shows that white-flippered penguins are using this human-made habitat.”

White-flippered penguins, like most penguins, are generally monogamous. The female typically lays a single clutch of two eggs, which they incubate for up to 36 days. The chicks are brooded by the adults for approximately three weeks and they fledge (leave the nest) 7-8 weeks after hatching.

Following breeding, white-flippered penguins spend a few weeks foraging at sea – feeding on squid, crustaceans and small shoaling fish such as anchovies and pilchards – before returning to land for their annual two-to-three week moult period. During this time, they are confined to land as their new feathers are not waterproof.

Following the moult, they forage and fatten up at sea for a few months before commencing breeding again.

“As well as ‘mating for life’ white-flippered penguins are site-fidelic – which means they generally return to the same place each year to breed,” says Karin. “So, it’s quite possible that this small colony could increase in numbers, especially since there’s a source population of penguins nearby, on Motunau/Quail Island.”

Lyttleton Port of Christchurch is private property, so the public can’t see or interfere with the penguins. LPC has a management plan for what to do if they discover a penguin while undertaking construction works, and has a wildlife permit in place to allow them to capture and relocate penguins, if needed.

For further information please contact Karin Sievwright

20 April 2018