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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Feb 20th – 22rd Penguins and the East Coast (Oamaru and Timaru)

The oceanside community of Oamaru, boasted two big attractions for us, which were both penguin-related.  A conservation society in Oamaru had set up a preserve in the natural habitat that is home to the largest colony of (tiny) Blue Penguins in New Zealand, and not far from town is a nesting spot of some Yellow-eyed Penguins, which are a very elusive and endangered species.  The penguins actually live in nests and burrows in the ground, along the shorelines of certain beaches.  They leave the nest at daybreak each day to swim miles and miles offshore in search of food.  They gorge themselves on fish and then return to the nest to feed their mates and their young.  When the chicks are young, one mate stays behind to protect the nest.  This is the only place we know of in New Zealand that provides an opportunity to see both species in their natural habitats.
We arrived at our hotel and naively asked the woman at the front desk to help us find out how and where to see the penguins.  She very graciously informed us that we could venture on our own over to the nesting site of the "Yellow-eyed" penguins and that we should drive on over shortly because they come in around dusk.  She further mentioned that we might see several or none at all.  We would need a reservation for viewing the "Blue-eyeds", so she phoned the Habitat headquarters to make us a booking and was told there were only 3 spaces left.  We had no idea it was so formal.  We begged and cajoled for 4 people, but the person on the other end of the phone line stood firm.  Earl and Marsha said they were just too tired and begged off so Frank and I paid the $20 PP and took 2 of the remaining spots.  We were told to arrive at around 8:45. 
The Yellow-eyed penguin habitat is on protected land; you park your car along a dirt road and walk 100 meters or so to a cordoned-off area on the face of a cliff.  There are signs everywhere reminding us to please keep very quiet and to remain as still as possible so not to disturb or disrupt the penguins.  If they become frightened or distressed they will not come to shore, leaving the nestlings to starve to death.  Video cameras are discouraged and still cameras should be used sans flash. The staging area for viewing is covered in tall grass and weeds practically obscuring our view of the beach far below, so we didn't understand all of the warnings and precautions, but abided even so.  Many people were already crowded around the barrier at various vantage points.  We got close to the front of the barrier and waited.  I looked at the ground immediately in front of the barrier and saw holes that appeared to be rabbit or groundhog burrows.  I wondered what they were and thought perhaps these were Stoat burrows.  Stoats are natural predators to these and other protected species such as Kiwi Birds.  Frank indicated that we should move to another area to get a better view of the beach.  Later we realized what a mistake that was.  We moved and waited.  We waited about an hour as several people gave up hope and left, yet others continued to arrive.  It seemed we were all dubious at this point.  I had been straining to see down the 100 yards or so to the beach for so long that my mind began to wander and my eyes started playing tricks on me.  I was just about to give it up when I saw something break the surface at the water's edge.  It was the tiny little head of a penguin.  How exciting!  He belly-floated in on the surf, popped upright and began waddling across the sand and out of sight, obscured by the cliff's edge.  We continued our wait for another half hour, but saw no more arrivals, and then there was a sudden mumbling and bustling over at the area we had originally been situated.  We could see that the penguin had actually climbed the cliff face and was in the bushes not 5 feet from where those onlookers stood.  She was calling to her chick and spreading her flippers in a ritualistic manner.  Apparently the holes in the ground are penguin burrows – argh! Of course we are kicking ourselves for having moved.  We could see her but not very well, so we inched our way over and hoped that someone would give us a chance to get a closer look.  The chick came out of the burrow and began interacting with the adult.  It was an intimate moment and a touching sight.  The group of onlookers became a typical (rude) crowd as people began shoving and chattering loudly, elbowing and stepping on one another, shoving cameras in front of other peoples faces forgetting the warning signs posted all about.  It was upsetting to watch; yet this penguin and the chick seemed locked into their own world, sharing something very special.  It was beautiful. I wanted to swat those rude people.  We could not get close enough for a good picture so we held our cameras over the heads of the others and tried for random shots, and then left.  In spite of the actions of some people, we felt touched by this experience and were very happy that we had come.
We left there and drove directly over to the Blue Penguin habitat not far from the town wharf.  Now this is quite a professional set up. We were led to a grandstand that had been built adjacent to the nesting grounds. We sat and listened as the head researcher explained to us a few housekeeping rules before the penguins were to begin arriving.  No cameras of any kind were permitted here.  In fact, no lighting is permitted so as not to cause them night blindness (or to frighten them).  Occasionally, some of the penguins get confused when coming out of the water, and for whatever reason, an odd one here and there will start heading off in a different direction, sometimes ending up in the grandstands, the parking lot, or even on the nearby railroad tracks. Under no uncertain terms were we to engage them.  We were further warned to be mindful of this fact when leaving, and to be sure to look under our cars and to scan the parking lot for these perplexed penguins that had lost their way.  If we saw one we were not to shine our headlights nor try to take photos of them because this would cause them temporary blindness, or make them frightened or agitated and they would then not be able to find their nests.  There have been dead penguins found on the railroad tracks, in ditches and on roads and nearby driveways.  After feeling she had made this clear to us she continued to acquaint us with the nature and habits of these tiny penguins.  Each one is tagged so that at night when they come ashore they are counted and inventoried so that the conservation society can keep track of them.  We could see the nests and burrows and hear the chicks inside them as a few adults scurried back and forth from one to another.  Just when darkness began to settle the first "raft" of Blues arrived in the surf below.  They swim in groups of 20 – 50, called rafts.  They stand at the water's edge for 10 to 15 minutes getting dried off and picking at themselves with their beaks.  Actually they are applying waterproofing to their feathers by means of a gland by their hind legs, which produces the substance.  They use their beaks to spread this stuff throughout their feathers.  When they have finished this process they move en masse to the top of the embankment where they just stand stark sill for another 15 minutes or so.  They appeared to be waiting for an indication that the coast was clear to cross the dirt road that separated the beach from the nesting grounds.  Then one would lean way over and make a mad dash!  Or a mad waddle whatever the case may be, and the others would follow, sometimes tripping and falling face down in the rush to cross the road.  They would enter the habitat and stand in yet another huddle waiting for their mates or chicks to call them to the nest. It is quite an amazing ritual to observe that, from start to finish lasts about 30 minutes. It is nothing short of cute!  As one group would be staging at the top of the embankment another raft of penguins would arrive, repeating the exercise.  We watched 4 separate rafts arrive; numbering over 143 penguins that had made it safely back to shore.  By then it was nearing 11:00 PM and we decided to leave, so we missed the final words of the experts.
On a sad note, as we were checking under our car, we saw a group of 5 young adults standing in a circle around one of the lost penguins with cameras flashing and a lighted video camera running.  The poor little guy was just standing there, frozen.  I began to go over to them, ready to give them hell.  Frank held me back, saying it was not for me to police the premises.  I fumed!  He told me to get in the car, and as he was driving slowly, headlamps off telling me how I needed to mind my own business we saw another little penguin shoot across the lot, running for cover as another idiot tried chasing him in his car, with headlights illuminating the frightened creature.  The penguin suddenly fell forward and disappeared into a ravine, blinded by that motorist's headlamps!  I was beside myself, and in tears demanded that Frank stop the car so I could report this to someone.  He told me that the conservation society's goal was to provide a protected nesting ground for the penguins and had made it clear to us all that they have a "no interference" policy, and that includes staying out of the way of natural predators and acts of stupidity and aggression on the part of inconsiderate humans.  Although I knew he was right, I was still furious and didn't speak to him again until we got back to the hotel.  All I could do was to cry for those precious, defenseless little penguins.  It affected me deeply, and took days for me to get over.
We left Oamaru shortly after breakfast and enjoyed a lovely drive up the coast to a quaint and lovely seaside town called Timaru.  At one time, Timaru had been the Riviera and the Coney Island of the South Island.  I'm not sure what happened to that famous persona, because now it is a charming, low-key little bedroom community, with a magnificent beachfront park, yet we were the only 4 people on the boardwalk. There are sculptures, statues, historical markers, pictures (all relatively new) and a dilapidated amusement park.  Hmmm.  Oh well, we enjoyed a lovely walk, then strolled through the town centre, which reminded me of my childhood hometown of Longview, TX.  It was like stepping back in time.  We discovered the old Customs Bldg. had been purchased by a notable chef from Queenstown, and converted to a steakhouse, appropriately named "Steak @ Customs House".  Intrigued, we made a reservation for 7:30 PM, giving us a chance to spruce up for dinner.  We were not disappointed!  This was one that went into our Top 10 list.  Each course was truly delectable – even the homemade breads! 
We spent one night in Timaru and then moved on to Christchurch.

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