By Alison Ballance
Little penguin in a nest box, and the 'Penguin Team' on a rainy morning on Matiu/Somes Island (images: A. Ballance)
Little blue penguins, as they were traditionally known (although they are now officially called little penguins, and are also known as blue or fairy penguins, and korora), are the world's smallest penguin, and they inhabit the New Zealand coast, often in close proximity to people. The number of little penguins breeding on Matiu/Somes Island in Wellington Harbour has climbed significantly in the last few years, since Forest and Bird planted more than a quarter of a million trees on the island, restoring the island from grazed pasture to a thriving forest, and providing good shelter for penguin nests. More than 170 artificial nest boxes have also been placed on the island, and are well used.
Reg Cotter, from the Ornithological Society of New Zealand, has been involved with little penguins on Matiu/Somes Island since 1975, and over the last two years he has led a dedicated team of volunteers who regularly visit the island to survey the penguin population. As part of the survey, Graeme Taylor, a seabird expert from the Department of Conservation, is testing the use of web tags (very small tags clipped through the webbing of a bird's foot) as an alternative to the more traditional flipper tags. Alison Ballance joins Reg Cotter, Graeme Taylor, Ros Batchelor, Vince Waanders and Mike Rumble for an afternoon and evening checking nests, helps catch some penguins coming ashore in the evening, and sees the first chicks of the season.
Matiu/Somes Island is managed by the Department of Conservation and is open to the public. It is easily accessible by ferry from downtown Wellington, and it is possible to arrange overnight accommodation on the island.
Little penguin chick, just a few days after hatching; the late Vince Waanders with a little penguin; and checking a natural penguin nest on the foreshore (images: A. Ballance)