Monday, January 26

Paula: Learning about the wildlife on the peninsula was our goal for today, and the resources available here made it quite easy and enjoyable. Both the Westpac Royal Albatross Centre and Yellow Eyed Penguin Reserve offer opportunities for people to see these animals in their natural habitat where naturalists work to understand their behaviors and enhance their survival.

The Westpac Royal Albatross Centre is located right on the head of the peninsula and hosts the world's only mainland colony of albatross. This site, now called Taiaroa Head, was also the location of a fortified Maori village and later Fort Taiaroa. This European fort was built to protect New Zealand from Russian invasion in the late 1800s. The infamous Treaty of Waitangi was also signed here. This treaty was signed between the British and Maori leaders in 1840 and remains controversial today. The treaty guaranteed the Maori protection and citizenship from Britain; in return the Maori could only sell their land to England. Albatross began nesting on the head in the early 1900s and in 1938 efforts to protect this area were established.

During our visit at the centre we learned a great deal about the albatross. They are very large birds with a wing span of about three yards! When standing they are over half the height of an average man. These birds spend 80% of their life at sea and only come to land to breed once every two years. They eat squid and other food which float to the top of the ocean. Because they spend so much time a sea and don't have access to fresh water, they have a special gland in their forehead which extracts salt. These birds spend most of their time circling the South Pole in the strong westerly wind currents and at times fly for days without landing. Most albatross nest in isolated islands making their observation quite difficult. Taiaroa Head is the only location in the world where they have settled on the mainland and appear to have done this because of the head's natural wind tunnel. The birds mate for life and the males and females share responsibility for the nest and caring for the chicks. The birds live 30-40 years and the oldest bird in the colony lived to be 62 years old.

After learning about the birds, we spent time in the observatory high on the peninsula's head. From here we could observe several of the birds sitting on their nests and caught glimpses of the baby chicks which had only hatched over the previous week. Each of the birds has been named and the guides are able to identify them and share stories about each. For example, we had fun learning about Harold, the colony bachelor who finally took a partner this year but is a nervous first time father. We were fortunate to see several of these beautiful birds fly during our time in the observatory. They are spectacular and their size was apparent when we saw them flying beside the many gulls in the area.

Our next stop was The Yellow Eyed Penguin Reserve. This reserve is the largest colony of this species which is found only in New Zealand. The reserve has worked hard to protect this low-land coastal area for the birds which are threatened by loss of habitat. Their efforts have been rewarded as the colony has slowly grown from 8 to 70 penguins. The reserve has an extremely unique viewing opportunity. We were bused about ten minutes from the entrance of the reserve to the beginning of a series of underground trenches that curled down the through the reserve and to the beach. The tunnels had viewing areas which allowed us to observe the penguins up close. The staff suggested that the penguins were not afraid of us because we looked quite small when seen through the hides.

Again the guides knew each of the penguins by name and were actively tracking their patterns and behaviors. Our guide became quite excited at one point when two penguins arrived on the beach. As they wobbled up the path, he was able to identify one of them as "Tensing" a penguin they had not seen for over two weeks and had taken for lost (dead).

The penguins (of which only 4,000 are left) stand 1-2 feet high and are one of the largest species. They have a distinct yellow strip across their eye and head. They mate for life and usually lay two eggs a year. Like the albatross, the parents share responsibility for the chicks. They nest under trees and bushes in the same general location year after year. This makes them quite territorial and the guides have actually been able to develop a map indicating each pair's land and tracks. So we not only saw nests and ponds but specifically, "Paul's Pond" and Jack and Jill's homestead. Apparently, there are frequent fights over these territories which always include noisy arguments and occasionally physical violence. We witnessed one such incident, when Tensing decided to check out a pond which was not on his property and got an earful from the owner!

One of our most exciting moments was witnessing a father returning home to his hungry chick. The chick, already almost as large as his father, followed him relentlessly begging to be fed. We followed the two through the trenches and at one point were close enough we could have actually reached out and touched them. It was quite an experience and neat to observe these penguins up close in full daylight.

The reserves here have given us an opportunity to learn about these interesting animals while also supporting efforts to preserve their habitat. Our wildlife experiences here have been wonderful and are wetting our appetite for more - fortunately we have the Galapagos Islands and Africa ahead!

Tomorrow we plan to hike on the peninsula, and to also take a 4-wheel drive tour to explore some more of the natural beauty of the area.












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