Auckland Islands Survey
Thursday 18th February, 2010Now that the excitement of the trip is behind us, our sub-antarctic clothing has been washed and stowed, photos downloaded and the team has dispersed the length of the country, life is back to normal and we can look back on what we achieved during our 4 weeks away.
The sub-antarctic populations of yellow-eyed penguin have long been considered the mainstay of the population, but while there are reliable estimates for the Campbell Island birds the estimates for the Auckland Islands are more like guesstimates that are based on some partial surveys carried out 20 years ago. For a number of years DOC and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust have wanted to improve on this by carrying out a full and proper census of the Auckland Islands. The logistics, and corresponding price tag, of surveying close to 500km of sub-antarctic coastline are huge so this expedition was run as a scoping exercise and distribution survey rather than a full census. We already knew that penguins inhabit places like Enderby Island in the north of the group, which is frequently visited by researchers, but most of the inlets and harbours on the eastern coastline of the main island and on the southern coast of Adams Island are rarely visited and these places were considered the priority areas for us to check out.
After a rough and uncomfortable 51 hour trip from Bluff we arrived and anchored in Haskell Bay for the evening. From then on we took advantage of every possible hour of the 21 days we had to complete the task. We searched as much of the coast as we could, looking for evidence that penguins were present and recording each site. Tell-tale signs included well used tracks which indicate the route to a nest, scratch marks on rock or in soil made by the claws on their feet, faeces, and of course the birds themselves! We anchored in a different place most nights, and took turns at getting up at first light to watch for birds entering the water which was another way of recording their presence. This also gave us a very crude count of the number of birds in that particular area - it ranged from zero to 70+. In total we walked almost 200km of coast line, the remainder being either sheer cliff and therefore inaccessible to us and the penguins, or inaccessible to us due to sea conditions at the time. We identified 301 sites that penguins are using, which we regard as a minimum because we weren't able to search all the coast that was accessible to penguins.
We were also able to contribute to other work programmes, and took time out whenever possible to record sightings of weed species, tagged NZ sealions, fur seal colonies, other bird species of interest; to search for data loggers on white-capped albatross and band a cohort of Gibson's wandering albatross chicks. Our ramblings along the coast uncovered several previously unrecorded sites of historical interest, and provided numerous encounters with sealions - some more amusing than others!
As a result of this trip we are in a much better position to efficiently plan a detailed census, knowing which sites to concentrate on and with a better understanding of the terrain and working conditions which can prevail in the sub-antarctic. We had an exceptionally windy trip, even by sub-antarctic standards, evidenced by some figures from the weather reports; there was 1 day with winds 20 knots (37 km/h) and below, and another 7 days with 30 knots (55 km/h) and below. 13 days had winds of more than 30 knots, of these 10 days had gusts of 50 knots (93 km/h) and more, with 2 days experiencing 70-75 knot (130-139 km/h) gusts.
Was it rough, cold and uncomfortable at times? Yes.
Was the wildlife amazing and scenery spectacular? Yes.
Would we go again? Yes!