It was a week of endangered species for me. After being bitten by a kea on Monday, I was lucky enough on Tuesday to have a chance to see a Fiordland crested penguin / tawaki at Haast School, where I’d spent the morning teaching.
After lunch that day, a trio of Department of Conservation rangers arrived with a juvenile female tawaki that had been rescued off a nearby beach where she had been found emaciated. She was being nursed back to health in preparation for re-release, and the rangers took the opportunity to share her with the local school.
Tawaki are not quite as rare as kea, but they’re shy and tend not to frequent tourist areas like the kea do. This was the first one I had ever seen. There are about 2500 to 3000 breeding pairs remaining, and they’re one of only three penguin species that nest on mainland New Zealand.
Like many of our native birds, they are threatened by stoats, which eat eggs and chicks, and dogs, which can wipe out entire breeding colonies.
The children at Haast School named this particular penguin Ellen, and they had great fun watching Ellen take a warm saltwater bath. The water needed to be warm because Ellen wasn’t preening and waterproofing her feathers properly (because she was too weak to do so). Without waterproof feathers, she got waterlogged in the bath, rather than staying nice and dry as penguins usually do underwater. After her bath, the DOC ranger wrapped her in a fluffy pink towel to dry off, and put a hot water bottle underneath her.
A full spa experience, I would say.
It wasn’t quite the same as seeing a tawaki in the wild would have been, but it was closer than I’m ever likely to get to one of these birds in the wild.
Ellen will spend about four weeks eating and taking spa baths before she’s ready to fend for herself again. I wish her luck.