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Rare penguins thriving in Milford Sound

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 2/12/2016
The Tawaki penguin © Facebook/Tawaki Project The Tawaki penguin

New Zealand scientists hunting for signs of one of the world's most elusive penguins have found a thriving breeding colony in remote Milford Sound.

Tawaki or Fiordland crested penguins are the world's third rarest penguin species behind the Galapagos penguin and the yellow-eyed penguin.

Their current population is thought to be between 2500 and 3000 breeding pairs and has been in decline since the 1950s.

But in the first major research project into New Zealand tawaki numbers since the 1970s, scientists with the help of local tourism operators have found more than 60 breeding pairs in the Milford Sound-Piopiotahi area.

"There are still areas we haven't searched," the head of the joint project between the Department of Conservation, University of Otago, Global Penguin Society and West Coast Penguin Trust, Dr Thomas Mattern said.

"And from what we have seen this year, there might be more than 100 breeding pairs in Milford Sound."

The project aims to identify factors affecting the penguins' feeding and breeding habits along the South Westland, Fiordland, Stewart Island and Codfish Island coasts.

The scientists have also teamed up with tourism operators and visitors for the research project.

By attaching small GPS devices to the penguins, scientists have been able to track, in three-dimensions, where the penguins swim.

But the colour-coded tape used to attach the GPS trackers has also allowed nature guides and visitors on tourist boats to identify individual penguins.

However, while the Milford Sound penguins are thriving as a result of a successful stoat trapping program, another tawaki colony at Jackson Head on the West Coast was not so lucky.

Scientists reported stoats had been able to eat the eggs and chicks of the entire colony of 150 breeding pairs within days.

"Without any predator control in place, the reproductive outcome of tawaki at Jackson Head was close to zero for the second year in a row," Dr Mattern said.

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