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Dunedin area

     Oamaru Little Penguin colony


Of the at least 6 possible species of Penguins which can be found around New Zealand, Little Penguin is perhaps the most common and easily seen. Yellow-eyed Penguin is much rarer, and much more tricky to see. However, at Oamaru, nearly 2 hours drive North of Dunedin, the former can be more or less guaranteed, and there is also a possibility of the latter at a small colony in the same area. It is also worth a look at one of the disrepaired jetties just before the visitor centre at Oamaru harbour, to marvel at the hundreds of Cormorants tightly packed in places. They are in tight and distinct groups – Spotted Shags more loosely nearest to the land, and perhaps the largest numbers that of dense Otago Shag (both Pied and Bronze variants).

Before going to the Little Penguin colony, we drove along Tyne Street to eventually find the car park at the end of Bushy Beach Road – the location of Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve. There is a shingle backed beach below the base of the reserve, and this is the site of the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony. The beach itself is only accessible until 3pm each afternoon, following which it is closed off in deference to the returning birds. A path from the car park runs above the beach to end at a small hide (more of an open shelter really). Rather than the small number of birds returning from fishing and legging it up the beach to quickly disappear, the 4 birds that we saw were in view for most of the time we were there (about 20 minutes). 2 were a little distant about half way along, heading to the back of the beach next to the thicker vegetation, and later 2 more were bobbing around in the surf next to the shoreline.

Bushy Beach Yellow-eyed Penguin

Bushy Beach Scenic Reseve

Yellow-eyed Penguin
Spotted Shags Otago Shags

Spotted Shags

Otago Shags

The LittlePenguin colony is around the headland from the Yellow-eyed Penguins, on the edge of town next to the harbour. It is heartening to see the “Beware Penguins Crossing” signs on approach to the reception, and also the hundreds of cormorants on the opposite side of the road on the jetty. There are two prices for tickets to access – NZ$30 as standard, and an extra NZ$15 for the premier seats. It is worth paying the NZ$45, since the penguins file past this seating area very closely – perhaps less than 4 metres from the front row. Most people are queuing for the 6am opening of the doors – a seat on the seaward part gives better views of the birds in the water and climbing the rocks. No photography of any sort is allowed, and the viewing area is bathed in an orange light which apparently doesn’t startle the birds. They can be expected any time from 18:30 – we saw our first raft of 12 birds 10 minutes later. They tend to all come ashore and climb the rocks to their nesting area within about an hour. They can be seen swimming in these tight rafts before being battered around the surf on the rocks yet climbing out with apparent ease. They then stopped in a hollow or around 5-10 minutes to preen and cool down a bit, before gaining the courage to patter in a tight group past the dozing Fur Seals (not a threat), and dash to the openings at the base of the fence surrounding their colony. Most could then be seen making haste to the nest holes, but good numbers hung around the fence and boardwalk before moving on. In all we saw 54 birds in 3 rafts – a good number for the time of year.
 

     The Otago Peninsula


For any birder visiting anywhere in the Dunedin area, the Otago Peninsula is a must. It can probably be covered by self guided tour, with paid access to the Royal Albatross colony easy and potential hides above beaches for Yellow-eyed Penguins. However, for a much closer look at some of the wildlife, it is likely that taking a guided tour may be the best option. There are one or two choices for this, but we chose The Peninsula Encounters tour from Elm Wildlife Tours (www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz). They are based in Dunedin and begin their 1.30pm pickups in the centre of the city. They also pick up at 2pm at the Portobello Store on the peninsula – our preferred choice since it negated the need to park in the city (parking can be found easily for free at Portobello). They used a small minibus for our afternoon, which had only 6 others on board.

We headed straight for the Northern Royal Albatross colony at the end of the peninsula (Taiaora Head). There is a visitor centre here based on the presence of a small area for nesting birds, and an extra payment can gain access to somewhat closer views of the nesting birds. We were informed by our guide that it probably isn’t worth this extra cost, since the birds are still a little distant, and the best views are probably of the occasional birds which soar past the observation points lower down near the cliffs. This is where the standard tour-goers are directed to, and I would certainly recommend this. Some Northern Royal Albatross were indeed seen close to overhead, but the extra benefit is that some decent seawatching can also be had from here. In addition to the odd Northern Royal passing by, there was also a Southern Royal Albatross low over the waves, as well as a handful of Buller’s, and a Northern Giant Petrel. Sooty Shearwaters were regular, and there was a constant flyby of Spotted & Otago Shags. Swamp Harrier was hunting over the cliffs.

Tairora Head Caspian Tern Paradise Shelduck

Taiaora Head

Caspian Tern Paradise Shelduck
Northern Royal Albatross Northern Royal Albatross Swamp Harrier

Northern Royal Albatross

Northern Royal Albatross

Swamp Harrier

There was then a half an hour drive to the Papanui Cove area. This is privately owned by Maori, and Elm pay a sum of money for sole wildlife watching access. The large Papanui Inlet is rounded, and then the head crossed, passing through 2 locked gates to ensure the exclusivity of this tour. The van was parked with a partial view of the cove, and we walked along a track which descended to a rocky cove which was to the South-east of the main beach. This is the site of a New Zealand Fur Seal colony, which is totally wild and untended, apart from a fence to stop access and a hide above for when it is raining (which started while we were there). The close views down of the mothers and pups is excellent, with plenty of activity to keep interest. To the rear of the colony, on rocks a couple of hundred metres away, is an Otago Shag colony with both pied and bronze variants. Of greater additional interest is the seawatching potential here, particularly from the hide. In the short time we were there, I had an additional Southern Royal Albatross, Shy & Buller’s Albatrosses, a few Northern Giant Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, and the first Cape Petrel I had seen since the trip at Kaikoura.

We then retraced our steps back up to where the van was parked in the increasing rain, passed it by, and then descended down to the main cove and beach. We had spotted some New Zealand Sea Lions from the top, but on entering the beach, had much better views only metres away. They are apparently unconcerned by our presence, and this seemed to be the case. A large bull made its way slowly to the shore and then into the sea with us following it only a short distance away. It made its way through small collections of Silver Gulls and White-fronted Terns, as well as Variable Oystercatchers and Pied Stilts. Impressive as these are (and rare – apparently the world’s rarest sea lion), the Yellow-eyed Penguins which can be found here are arguably the stars of the show (also the rarest of their kind – this time of the world’s penguin species). And on this tour they are not only easy to see in good numbers, but also in unexpectedly close quarters. Over the course of the hour that we were on the beach, we saw a grand total of 15 birds. First ones were at the opposite end of the beach, but we walked the shallow dunes behind a couple on the open sand to a hide which watched a few come out from the sea and then slowly make their way up the banks. Best was reserved till last. An individual came out of the sea at the end of the beach where we had entered, and as we stood still next to the base of the hill, it passed by only metres away, calling occasionally to what was likely to be its partner in the vegetation behind the beach. It didn’t seem to have much idea where it was going, since it re-entered back through a gate to the beach, wandering around where we were for some time. It could still be seen preening on a small bridge in the vegetation as we left the area.

Fur Seal colony Fur Seal Fur Seal

Fur Seal colony

Australian Fur Seal

Australian Fur Seal
Fur Seal Otago Shag Kelp Gull

Australian Fur Seal

Otago Shag

Kelp Gull
Papanui Cove Sea Lion Sea Lion

Papanui Cover

New Zealand Sea Lion

New Zealand Sea Lion
Yellow-eyed Penguin Yellow-eyed Penguin Yellow-eyed Penguin

 

Yellow-eyed Penguins

 

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