Precision and passion at the heart of Oamaru’s penguin colony...
After working for 15 years at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, the last year for Dr Philippa Agnew has been as busy as ever. We sat down with the hard-working scientist to take a deep dive into her work, discovering why our ‘Little Blue’ has such a big role to play in the ocean, within the local community and throughout New Zealand.
There’s never a dull moment for Dr Philippa Agnew. The changing climate, evolving conservation measures and developing tourism industry all having a big impact on her daily work as the Science and Environmental Manager for the Blue Penguin Colony.
Amidst the recent challenges there has certainly been some good news too. 2020-2021 provided a record-breaking breeding season for the colony and the neighbouring Oamaru Creek Reserve, with 1206 eggs laid and 914 chicks fledged.
It has been a rewarding journey for the scientist at the heart of the colony’s work.
Beginning her career, Dr Agnew worked at the Royal Albatross Centre in Dunedin and finished her Masters studying the Little Blue Penguin there. With three years valuable experience she then made the move north to Oamaru.
The role started out as a mix of guiding, customer service and monitoring work. One year after she began a new manager started – and they “really wanted to drive the science forward.” With the funding support of the colony she was able to advance her studies further.
“I began with researching all the data that had been collected up until that point, particularly the breeding success and survival rates compared with environmental parameters like sea surface temperature and storm events,” she says. “We then began tracking the birds at sea using miniature data recorders, with GPS and depth recording devices.”
“So much of what we do on the land affects the ocean.”
This work was instrumental in identifying threats to the penguins from at-sea changes. Research highlighted the difficulties penguins face during storm events.
“From then we have been able to pinpoint what events will cause the penguins problems – we can predict when it’s going to happen from how the sea conditions look,” she says.
Off the coast of North Otago these conditions can change quickly too. Then, when storm events occur, a significant amount of debris clogs the water, both from the re-suspension of sediment on the seafloor and the arrival of new sediment that is washed into the ocean via the region’s waterways.
According to Dr Agnew at the colony “we see it immediately.”
“The sea turns an awful brown colour,” she says. “So we know the penguins are going to have trouble foraging in those kind of conditions.”
“The numbers coming ashore drop and then because of that, if they’re breeding, the penguins will abandon eggs and chicks and the breeding season will fail.”
While the penguins usually do lay eggs again the scientist says it normally takes “about six weeks to come right”. This affects the penguins because, if they start early in the season, there’s enough time for them to produce two sets of chicks.
“If they start any later than the middle of August, start of September it reduces their chance of getting a second clutch away before they have to moult, which is usually between January and April,” she says. “Which is why so much of what we do on the land affects the ocean.”
“It’s getting worse, and it’s predicted to get worse with climate change, because the storm frequency and intensity is predicted to get worse,” says Dr Agnew. “And we’re seeing that too. There have been more storm events in the last ten years than the previous ten.”
This is why riparian planting and other erosion mitigation processes are all helpful for looking after the world’s smallest penguin.
“We lose a heck of a lot of soil to erosion in this country, and it all ends up in waterways and eventually the ocean – which isn’t great,” says Dr Agnew.
Engaging and educating the general public is therefore important, especially as many may not realise all of the factors that contribute to a healthy and thriving marine ecosystem. A wide-ranging perspective of conservation measures is vital.
The changing nature of the New Zealand tourism industry is also front-of-mind during these times of lockdown and isolation. Many involved in similar lines of work will have a science and conservation background. For Dr Agnew a focus on tourism has added depth to her work.
“There are not many organisations that employ a scientist full time. But hopefully going forward this regenerative approach to tourism might be a bit more common.”
“Pre-Covid all of the funding (for the colony) was from the revenue gathered via our tourism site, and 91% of that revenue was from international visitors. So we had a massive drop in income.”
“We have seen more New Zealanders visit, which has been great, but without additional support from the strategic asset fund we would have been in a world of pain,” she says.
“Nobody wants to shut their doors and walk away, but having the penguins to look after meant that we were never ever going to be able to do that. We have a responsibility of care.”
Dr Agnew’s daily workload has also changed with the impacts of Covid. She has picked up some of the operational side of the work as well, including managing the staffing and maintenance requirements along with the monitoring, research and welfare of penguins. It’s a busy job – one that requires a wide perspective, both figurative and literally.
“When the penguins are doing well that’s a sign that everything is going ok in the wider marine environment.”
As the kororā don’t just nest in one place Dr Agnew’s scope must look beyond the immediate area of the main colony site. She was recently involved with the Waitaki District Council’s recent repair and reinforcement work on the rock walls around the harbour.
Ensuring the local penguin population could be looked after was imperative here, and Dr Agnew’s work alongside the project group has “put everybody’s minds at ease”.
“I’ve had a really good look through and identified where there has been nesting birds and helped ensure the work can be done without impacting the penguins.”
The efforts are indicative of the wider appreciation the local community has for the kororā. When asked why people love the penguin Dr Agnew says, “they’re pretty charismatic and neat little birds.”
“While all of our wildlife is important for biodiversity we do have a real connection to penguins I think,” she says. “We also tend to anthropomorphise them a bit – to see these birds as little people walking about.”
“They’re also an indicator species as well, for the health of the ecosystem,” she says. “When the penguins are doing well that’s a sign that everything is going ok in the wider marine environment.”
Success in public education has helped with safeguarding this environment, and Dr Agnew is optimistic that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the need for protective measures too.
“I see it around the harbour area with more and more people walking with their dogs on leashes, which is so important,” she says.
“The little blue penguins tend to only do really well when they’re protected from predation and disturbance and when they’ve got plenty of nesting habitat available. Outside of our established colonies they are hanging in there – but in some places they’re disappearing.”
Many people still assume it’s safe to take their dogs into potential penguin habitats because of the lack of signage however, and the amount of people needed to monitor trap lines is significant too. Despite the ongoing challenges Dr Agnew believes some great steps have been made.
“…the little penguin is one of those species that people can forget about, as there are so many larger or more endangered birds that take over…”
“There are some really great initiatives, like Predator Free 2050, and all the efforts where there are a lot of community groups working in different spaces to protect their areas and ecosystems, and definitely the little penguins will benefit from that.”
The New Zealand Penguin Initiative has been very helpful in coordinating and resourcing the various conservation groups around New Zealand. So too is the significance of Bird of the Year vital to raising the profile of the kororā.
“I feel like the little penguin is one of those species that people can forget about, as there are so many larger or more endangered birds that take over,” says Dr Agnew. “It will be nice to see our little bird do a little better.”
“That messaging around what people can do on a day to day basis on the little things they can do to help protect the species – like keeping their dog on a leash for instance. It’s a good opportunity to remind people why this competition actually exists – to protect and grow the populations of our important birds.”