Smelly work reaps reward for bird-dog
All seabirds smell but penguins reek, according to the woman whose job is tracking them down.
Joanna Sims and her birdhunting dog Rua have just discovered what could be Wellington’s largest colony of little blue penguins living undiscovered on the east coast of Mana Island.
‘‘In 20 years of work, I’ve never come across that concentration of penguins.
‘‘In the first 1.5km, we found at least 50 of them living under driftwood. You would never have known they were there.’’
The birds, the world’s smallest penguins, are the most common penguin species found around New Zealand.
Sims and Rua make a living out of finding seabirds. Their work takes them from island to island, discovering birds hiding underground.
‘‘A lot of people don’t realise these birds burrow underground. They don’t nest in trees or on the surface.
‘‘The dogs sniff them out. Penguins smell of ammonia – it will make your eyes water – but other seabirds smell sort of musty. It’s really not unpleasant.’’
The pair were on the island scouting for burrows as part of the ongoing work to repopulate the island with native birds.
Rua is one of the few seabird dogs in the country and is also trained to find kiwi, Sims said.
The 4-year-old border collielabrador cross was trained with lots of encouragement and a feather-filled sock.
‘‘He’s trained to sniff the birds out, then stand still and look at them, but never touch them.
‘‘Nobody has written the guide to training seabird dogs, so I just figured it out as I went along.’’
Seabirds burrow into the ground using their feet and claws. They then lay eggs and raise their young, returning year after year to the same burrow.
‘‘They will return and reunite with thier mate – they’re monog- amous – clean any mess out of their burrow and use it again.’’
The babies then return and make new burrows near the ones where they were raised.
Friends of Mana Island president Brian Bell said he was delighted with the discovery of the penguin colony.
‘‘According to [the Department of Conservation’s] Graeme Taylor, this could turn out to be the largest colony of little blue penguins in the Wellington region.’’
A little blue penguin released by Wellington Zoo.