You’d be excused for thinking ‘how can an almost tropical island like New Zealand have penguins’, but once again New Zealand surprises everyone by having their own Native Penguin. We call it ‘HOIHO’ which in Maori means ‘noise maker’ due to its rather shrill vocalization. Hoiho is also known as the Yellow-eyed Penguin, which can be found along the South East of the South Island, smaller islands off Stewart Island, as well as Stewart Island itself, and on the Auckland and Campbell Islands of the New Zealand Sub-Antarctic.
The Hoiho is a ‘endangered’ species and several conservation programs are in place to protect and help numbers of these wonderful birds climb in the wild. I was lucky enough to see two Hoiho in the wild during a recent trip to The Catlins in the South Island. Viewing was strictly from a hide building on the ridge of a cliff overlooking pristine water and a beach. Well hidden from view we didn’t have to wait long before the first penguin emerged rather clumsily from the water’s edge and made its way up the beach where it sat and preened itself. A mere few minutes later it was joined by a second Hoiho. We couldn’t believe our luck. We had been told there were Hoiho in this area but the normally shy Penguins don’t always arrive on cue and where they are supposed to turn up, so we lowered our voices as we whispered our ‘oohs and aaahs’ at the sight of these amazing birds. The Hoiho is considered the world’s rarest penguin (with a population of an estimated 4000), and may also be the most ancient of living penguins, so these precious moments watching these two was very special.
The Hoiho is a fairly large penguin, about 65-80cm long (26-32 in) and weighs between 5-8 kg depending on which time of year it is. Heavier before moulting than afterwards. The males are larger than the females but both have pale yellow heads, with paler yellow iris. The chin and throat are brownish-black. And off course the distinctive bright yellow ‘band’ running from its eyes around the back of the head. The juvenile has a grayer head with no band and their eyes have grey iris (adult plumage is achieved at 14 – 16 months of age).
The Hoiho are relatively long living penguins, some living to 20 years of age, with the males generally living longer than the female. These birds usually nest in the forest or scrub, among Native Flax and Lupin which are on slopes or in gullies. Sometimes they’ll nest on the shore itself, facing the sea. Although a group of 4 to 6 may come ashore together, the Hoiho keep to themselves while nesting and choose nest sites out of sight of each other. Pairs form long term partnerships after they reach the breeding age of 3-4 years. The incubation duties are shared by both adults after the nest site is selected in August and the eggs are laid in September. Incubation period is between 39-51 days and there are normally 2 eggs. For the first six weeks after hatching the chicks are guarded during the day by one parent while the other is at sea feeding. The foraging adult returns at least daily to feed the chicks and relieve the partner. After the chicks are six weeks old, both parents will go to sea to supply food for their off spring who are at this stage growing rapidly (but still covered in brown downy feathers). The chicks usually fledge in Mid February and will be totally independent from that time onwards. The fledglings will weigh between 5 and 6 kg by then.
The Hoiho will forage between 7 and 13 km off shore (that’s about 4-8 miles) and will travel an average 17 km away from the nesting site. The birds will leave at dawn and return the same evening while raising chicks but will spend 2-3 days at sea at other times. The average dive is 34 m (112 ft). Their diet is made up of fish mainly with cephalopods such as arrow squid for a tasty treat, and these penguins will pursues prey in 20-60m deep dives.
An onland reserve protecting more than 10% of the mainland population at Long Point in The Catlins (South Island) was established in 2007 by the Department of Conservation and the ‘Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust’ and our famous Hoiho appears on the reverse side of the New Zealand $5 note, as well as in numerous television advertisements and print advertising. To see these gorgeous and unique Hoiho, the Yellow-eyed Penguin in the wild will rank high up on the ‘most favorite moments’ in the minds of those who have been lucky enough to see them.
About the Author :
Monica Toretto is a writer, painter, photographer and blogger. She lives with her two young sons in Invercargill near Bluff. She has travelled widely in Canada and the US and worked as a veterinary technician before returning to New Zealand. Her work has appeared in several magazines in the UK and New Zealand. She has also authored a book of poetry and photography called ‘Words’.