The other day we were asked by Alan Clark, a professor from the US, to help out on his penguin research project near Christchurch, at a place called Flea Bay. We jumped at this opportunity, as Sandra has never seen a Blue Penguin up close, and I wanted to see Flea Bay, a renowned penguin colony. The Blue Penguin, Eudyptula minor, is variably named the Little Penguin, the Blue Penguin, the Little Blue Penguin, the Fairy Penguin, and the White-flippered Penguin. The species occurs along the coasts of New Zealand and South Australia.
The name White-flippered Penguin specifically refers to the albosignata race, which is deemed a distinct species by some authors, is endangered, and occurs only along the east coast of the South Island, from Christchurch to the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. Flea bay has the largest colony of White-flippered Penguins in the world! Now maybe you can see why I was keen to go down there.
Alan's project involved catching, weighing, measuring, plucking feathers for DNA anaylsis, and photographing the flippers. His research aims to assess the links between morphology, plumage colouration, and genetic structure. We were only there for one day, but the sun shone and we were able to open up boxes in which the penguins lay their eggs. Fortunately for us, the pairs were home in their boxes, which meant we could get to them easily and didn't have to chase them in the dark or swim out to net them! In all we processed 35 birds, which was all Alan's permit allowed for. They bite, they bash you with their flippers, and they kick, but I bear them no ill will - I'd do the same if someone turned on the lights, woke me up, grabbed me by the back of the neck, and pulled out some of my feathers!!!
We also spied this much larger bird, the Yellow-eyed Penguin, as it just climbed out of the water onto the rocks.