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Fiordland Penguins

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Fiordland Penguins

For several years I have been searching for Fiordland Penguins (called "Tawaki" in Maori and by some New Zealanders).  I had been along the southern coast of the South Island and Stewart Island, New Zealand, where it was reported some small groups of Fiordland Penguins could be found.  I found Little Penguins but never Fiordland Penguins. Fiordland Penguins are some of the rarest of the penguins and generally restricted to the wet, mountain forests of southwestern South Island, New Zealand.  They are not found in rookeries but more like colonies.  They prefer to build a solitary nest in the forest, under roots, fallen trees or branches and live in pairs.  They are reputed to be shy, secretive and difficult to find in the forest.  However they do depend on the Tasman Sea for their food and I had been told could best be observed in their treks from the forest edge crossing the narrow beaches of their territory to the sea.  In researching the most likely way to successfully observe Fiordland Penguins I was presented with persons, Anne Saunders and Dr. Gerry McSweeney, a place, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , and a time of year, August to guarantees, but most highly recommended.  It actually turned out to be a resounding success.


Friends and I met at the Christchurch airport where we rented a car to drive over Arthur’s Pass to Lake Moeraki.  For people who are habituated to left side of cars for driving and right side of roads for traveling...New Zealand and its narrower roads was quite a challenge for us.  It was far more dangerous crossing an open road on foot because one's first instinct is to look left, then right before crossing safely.  It was easy to forget where we were and usually looked the wrong way. It was generally okay as there was very little traffic and that which was there was driven by courteous and slow drivers apparently aware that some aliens were in the country and might be found crossing, walking or driving inappropriately for New Zealand. There was never even a close call, but it always seemed like we were looking in the wrong place for road dangers.

We arrived safely at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and were met by Anne and Dr. Gerry who have operated the Lodge for many years. The Lodge turned out to be everything one could ask for in a wilderness lodge, there is too much to write about the place and I had to remember we were there to find and photograph Fiordland Penguins.  Dr. Gerry introduced us to the Fiordland Penguins.  It was clear that the natural world came first in all considerations.  The local population is very considerate of their rare and shy penguin population.  Dr. Gerry accompanied us on our expeditions to two of his favored locations for watching penguins.  He showed us several hiding spots or greenery camouflaged locations along the beaches that gave us good observation points for the Fiordland comings and goings.  Once he was convinced we were properly set he would leave and each of us got to be with our own imaginations, thoughts and wildlife that surrounded us.  This solitary observation has become my personally preferred way of coming to try and develop some understanding of what I am doing with whatever I am there to observe.  I am continually overjoyed to find that in the case of wildlife they are doing a great deal more than any casual spotting I can gather in the company of groups of people, no matter how dedicated those people may be.


If someone decides to go to see Fiordland Penguins in their own territory be prepared to battle the most vicious sand flies in the world. They attacked any bare skin and all ankles, wrists and ears constantly.  We were not prepared for this.  We all agreed our research had not commented on the blood thirst of the biting flies and in one case were probably most responsible for our early retreat.  The early retreat did not save us from multiple hundreds of scares from these flying pests.  We were better prepared the following trips but don't be naive like we were on the first outing.

Once I was settled in and had my gear prepared the first Fiordland Penguin had started coming down the rockslides and out of the forest headed for the water.  I was close enough to see the distinctive three to six white feathers on their cheeks that are unlike any other penguin.  Unlike most other penguins their behavior was not tied to that of its companions.  If I were to guess they did not seem to depend on group protection when crossing the beach, bathing or fishing in the sea together.  But like their crested relatives: Erect-Crested Penguins, Macaroni Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins, Royal Penguins and Snares Penguins, they could hop, climb and generally put most of us to shame in navigating the boulders, cliffs and steep slides to their nesting sites. If one had not seen any of the crested penguins scramble up these amazing barriers, on first observation you might question their ability.  I sat for hours watching them come and go in their solitary quest.  I knew that when they returned from the sea they probably were full of fish or whatever they were catching that day.  This food was for the chicks back at their nest.  We did not follow them to their nests.  It was also my observation that there was no particular schedule or time for these activities.  But it was always the same, even if there were ten or fifteen Fiordland Penguins; they came and went as individuals not as part of a group.  It was similar on each beach we visited.

Dr. Gerry was walking us in the forest on a narrow trail.  He stopped and because I was behind him I could see an individual Fiordland Penguin on the trail ahead of us.  It stopped dead in its tracks and looked back over its shoulder as if to wonder, "What's following me?" I had my camera out and at the ready but could hear my friend behind me preparing his camera for such an encounter.  Dr. Gerry stepped to the side and I got some expressive images of this unexpected fellow hiker.  Then comes my friend, the great photographer he is, on his belly, in the mud, sliding between Dr. Gerry and me to get upward shots of our surprised and frozen in place Fiordland Penguin.  When it was all over he was one mud puddle with a great smile as he had gotten the unexpected close-up from an impossible angle.



If I intended this to be a travel blog I would write about the wonders of Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki.  There are giant, friendly eels in the river. I would have many birds to describe that are found only in these regions, glow-worms in the trees and an unbelievable night sky. The beauty of the place could be the subject of endless sentences while the food at the lodge is worth a visit.  Meeting Anne and Dr. Gerry is an experience worthy of any place I have ever been.  I will leave them their life stories so that when you visit you will have hours of listening to your hosts.  Make no mistake about it, this is a wilderness area, a World Heritage Site, and there are no towns about. I am ready to return for trying to get chicks and their coming of age to go into the sea.



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