Mass blue pen­guin die-off

Waikato Times - - Front Page - MICHAEL DALY

‘‘By the time a lit­tle blue pen­guin is in the shal­low wa­ter in the day­time, and you’re able to pick it up – that means it’s crit­i­cally un­well, so this is not an an­i­mal that needs self­ies taken, this is an an­i­mal that needs ur­gent vet­eri­nary care.’’

James Chatterton, of Auck­land Zoo

Large num­bers of dead blue pen­guins have been washed up on north­ern East Coast beaches this sum­mer, with the to­tal num­ber thought to be in the thou­sands.

The num­ber of dead birds was un­usual but not un­prece­dented, Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion pen­guin ex­pert Graeme Tay­lor said. It was about a one-in-20-year event, with the last sim­i­lar year be­ing 1998.

Re­ports of dead pen­guins had been com­ing in from East Coast beaches from Bay of Plenty north since the start of the year.

A clearer idea of the num­ber of dead pen­guins found would not be known un­til the Birds New Zealand

Beach Pa­trol Scheme put out its 2018 re­port, but the num­ber would have to be in the thou­sands, Tay­lor said.

‘‘I’ve heard peo­ple say­ing they’ve picked up 20 or 30 on a sin­gle small beach some­where.’’

The num­ber of deaths was prob­a­bly a re­sult of a change of weather pat­terns – during the pen­guin breed­ing sea­son, there was an El Nin˜ o pat­tern, with cold wa­ters cre­at­ing rich food sup­plies and suc­cess­ful breed­ing, Tay­lor said.

In the late spring, La Nin˜ a took over. The wa­ter rapidly warmed, push­ing cooler cur­rents to the bot­tom, and with them the food sup­ply.

Pen­guin deaths were also more no­tice­able in years with more east­erly winds and cur­rents, which pushed dead birds back on to the beaches. In years with more west­er­lies, dead birds floated out to sea.

Tay­lor didn’t know whether any of the birds found dead this sum­mer had un­der­gone au­top­sies, but in the past au­top­sies had found the lit­tle blue pen­guins al­most al­ways died of star­va­tion.

There were prob­a­bly 5000-10,000 lit­tle blue pen­guin breed­ing pairs along the east coast of north­ern New Zealand, mostly breed­ing on off­shore is­lands.

Ba­si­cally there were two chicks in the nest. One was big and health­ier and got most of the food, while the other strug­gled to get enough food. It was usu­ally the smaller of the two that died when they went out to sea.

Auck­land Zoo said it had seen more than five times the num­ber of the pen­guins it would nor­mally treat.

James Chatterton, a se­nior ve­teri­nar­ian at Auck­land Zoo’s vet­eri­nary hos­pi­tal, said the pen­guins weren’t be­ing helped by peo­ple stop­ping to take self­ies with the dy­ing birds.

‘‘By the time a lit­tle blue pen­guin is in the shal­low wa­ter in the day­time, and you’re able to pick it up – that means it’s crit­i­cally un­well, so this is not an an­i­mal that needs self­ies taken, this is an an­i­mal that needs ur­gent vet­eri­nary care,’’ Chatterton told the Aotearoa Science Agency.

Rather than pick up a bird that looked as if was in trou­ble, it was best to call the SPCA, DOC, or a lo­cal bird res­cue.

PHOTO: BRADEN FASTIER/STUFF

Re­ports of lit­tle blue pen­guins wash­ing up dead on East Coast beaches from Bay of Plenty north have been com­ing in since the start of the year.

Graeme Tay­lor

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