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In search of hoiho

There are just 250 breeding pairs of yellow eyed penguin left on the mainland. Photo: naruedom / 123RF Stock Photo

When his semester at the University of Otago ended in November, 22-year-old student Niklas Becker decided to spend most of the next four months tramping before returning to Germany.

“I’m quite an outdoors person,” he says, “and I do a lot of tramping and mountaineering.”

But he is also curious about the unusual wildlife that can be seen by visitors to New Zealand, including endangered bird species like the yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho.

Becker set out keen to catch a glimpse of the bird at three well-known locations, Stewart Island, Curio Bay, and Sandfly Bay, but he was disappointed.

“In Curio Bay, I was a few minutes too late – people told me there had just been one,” he says.

Hoiho are native to New Zealand. They are shy birds that nest in isolation from one another, rather than in densely packed colonies. Standing about 75cm tall, the hoiho is the fourth largest penguin in the world and it is thought that individuals can live for as long as 20 years.

Becker, like many trampers and wildlife enthusiasts who visit New Zealand, was keen to see hoiho because they are one of New Zealand’s unique, but vulnerable, bird species – like the kiwi or kaka.

“I think hoiho have become a thing that tourists want to cross off their list,” says Becker.

When he visited areas where people sometimes see hoiho, he noticed signs warning tourists not to disturb the birds. This is because the penguins are easily spooked by people, explains Sue Murray at the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in Dunedin.

“It will not come out of the sea if its path is interrupted by tourists on the beaches,” she says, referring to the penguins’ frequent march from sea to shore in order to feed their chicks. “It’s really important that people let them have a clear path.”

Murray’s organisation monitors breeding pairs of hoiho and works to ensure the protection and expansion of the habitat – tall vegetation – that it prefers to nest in.

But in 2013, an alarming number of hoiho deaths were recorded in a sudden “die off” event.

“You take 67 birds out of the population in just one area and that will have a snowballing effect on the population into the future,” says Murray.

Today, there are just 250 breeding pairs on the mainland – down from 261 a year ago, according to Murray. In the past, the number was occasionally as high as 600. As well as lack of habitat for nesting, disturbance from humans and other challenges, the hoiho has also been badly affected by avian diphtheria. Chicks younger than five weeks old are particularly susceptible to the disease.

James Holbrow at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation says the best views can be had by using binoculars and watching the birds from at least 50m away. Watchers should keep voices low, move slowly along marked paths and hide or squat to keep out of sight.

Finally, he adds, it’s very important to keep dogs away from the penguins as they may attack them.

For Becker, not seeing hoiho was unfortunate, but the wildness of the places he has visited has nonetheless made a strong impression of him.

“The most special location I’ve been to was Stewart Island,” he recalls. “It is relatively unharmed and untouched – the most amazing place.”

– Chris Baraniuk