A world of penguins

SES, 06 December 2020


The last Birdwalk for 2020 looks beyond the city

The eighth instalment of Southern Eye on the River sees our exploring team visit larger than life penguins and get the best view yet of the breeding season within ‘Apocalypse Park’. Dr Allan Simpson reports on all facts, sights and thoughts from the tour.

December’s Birdwalk fell on the first day of summer and it was warm and sunny when Jo-Anne, Mahesh, Debbie and Justin joined me.

Our first stop had to be the Pop-up Penguin that Southern Eye Specialists is sponsoring: Pattern #1453 – Antarctic Fair Isle. Its knitted livery, fitting in with our waiting room knitting project for a rescued dog charity, looked soft and pastel against the backdrop of our famously brutalist Town Hall. A Black-backed Gull perched atop a concrete pillar had a birdseye view of our group photo.

The penguins are scaled to human height, the same size as several species of giant penguin that lived in New Zealand around 60 million years ago, their fossils having been found recently in Waipara and Otago. They were second only in size to a larger penguin that used to live in Antarctica. The largest penguin living now is the Emperor, which I photographed on an iceflow off the Antarctic Peninsula some years ago.


In 1968 my wife’s cousin at the age of eleven found a fossil of an extinct penguin the same size as an Emperor on Motonau Beach. The penguin was officially named Ridgen’s Penguin, and I unofficially named the discovery excursion Birdwalk Unlimited!

In October after a Greymouth Eye Clinic, I spent a morning on a South Westland beach with Tawaki, the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin. I photographed this one returning from the sea clean enroute to its muddy nest in the bush.


And Hoiho, the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, is struggling but surviving on our southeast coast, here pictured at Nuggetburn in 2009.


The smallest living penguin is our Little Blue, or Korora. One of our Banks Peninsula variety actually swam up the Otakaro in 2018, under Southern Eye’s noses, to the partly-constructed Earthquake Memorial. Here it was spotted by workmen and photographed by Joseph Johnson.


Photo: Joseph Johnson, used with permission of stuff.co.nz

The second smallest living penguin is the Galapagos Penguin, which I photographed a year ago. The northern-most penguin habitation only evolved in the Galapagos Islands on the Equator because of the Humboldt current. This runs up the coast of South America and envelopes the Galapagos in its cool water. It’s how this bird can live on the boundary of the known world for penguins.


If any bird characterises the ‘southern’ location of our business identity the penguin does, popping up as it does diversely around the South Island and the southern hemisphere.

In Christchurch this summer, penguins are us. And like ours their survival is equally threatened by the climate emergency. Currently an iceberg twice the area of Banks Peninsula is drifting towards South Georgia. After breaking off Antarctica in 2017 it now threatens to cut off access to the feeding grounds for many of the several million penguins that live there, like these king penguins at St Andrews Bay. At least penguins don’t have to worry about the melting Arctic!


For the sake of Antarctic completeness we also had an elephant seal living on Scarborough Beach in the 1980s. Elizabeth the seal once swam up the Otakaro River as far as the Barbadoes St Bridge – that would have given Justin’s giant river rat a fright!

Time was passing so we marched back to the river and upstream opposite the horse-watering ramp, where two Grey Teal ducks rested. Then we spotted a LBJ (Little Brown Job) feeding in a wild cherry tree next to the old Law Courts. First impression was of a song thrush, but later we decided it was a female blackbird, which is brown. It cherry-picked the best of the fruit on the wing – like a hummingbird but much clumsier. Several flocks of pigeons also flew overhead.

Pressing on we saw two male blackbirds fossicking on the lawn behind Queen Victoria’s back. Then one of the party asked about a larger bird in a flowerbed, “What is that?” Well, if it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is… another Grey Teal in fact.

Still time for a peek into Apocalypse Park and we were rewarded with one of the most comprehensive sights yet of tarapuka yet. The child-rearing enterprise of these black-billed gulls ranged from tiny chicks through middle-sized to half-moulted juveniles. And, as always, there was the stench of colonial life.


Back over the Manchester St Bridge we saw more penguins across the road, to be ‘collected’ on the popup app another day. We paused on the bridge for a nice view of a pair of scaups grazing agilely under the water just as two welcome swallows darted above – more proof that it really is summer.

We arrived full circle and crossed our carpark right on time for clinics. Debbie picked up a pigeon feather and gave it to Mahesh – who now has a feather in her cap. She has done the birdwalk!