Yellow Eyed Penguin

Megadyptes antipodes. Maori Name: Hoiho

Length: 56-78 cm

Distribution: Banks Peninsula. Otago and Southland. Stewart Island, Campbell and Auckland Islands. Straggler to the North Island.

Food: Fish and cephalopods.

Voice: Various calls described as ‚loud musical trilling‘, a musical two syllable call from which the Maori name hoiho comes. Loud piercing single note. Guttural throbs or chuckles.

Breeding: Solitary nester in dense vegetation. Two eggs incubated by both adults for 40-50 days. Chicks fledge after three and a half months. Usually nest for the first time at two years of age. Mate for life.

Sometimes regarded as the world’s rarest penguin, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has a total population of six to seven thousand birds, a third of them at Campbell Island. On the South Island they are known to nest on the east coast from Banks Peninsula southward but always in small numbers. In recent years populations have fluctuated markedly with up to half or even more of the breeding pairs dying between one season and the next. Predation by cats and ferrets on chicks hatched to mainland nesters can be as high as 90% in some years. Clearly these mainland birds are endangered although elsewhere especially at Campbell Island they are faring quite well.

Yellow-eyed Penguins mate for life. They nest alone or in a loose colony and each nest is situated so it cannot be seen by its neighbours. They prefer to be well hidden in scrub but will nest on cliff ledges. Plant material is used in nest construction. One partner usually brings the material while the other arranges it.

Two year old birds usually lay one egg while older females regularly lay two. The eggs are bluish green at first but after a couple of days become white. The second egg may be laid up to five days after the first. Most eggs are laid in the latter part of September or early October. Both adults share incubation taking about two days each. Chicks hatch after 40-50 days. Adults return to the nest in the afternoon or evening and leave in the morning although a bird which has been relieved early forages during the afternoon and returns again at dusk. They are brooded for about four to six weeks and then guarded. Parents feed the chicks by regurgitation once or twice a night until after three and a half months they leave for the sea at which time they are independent. Some studies indicate these fledglings tend to move north from their nesting areas.

It is known Yellow-eyed Penguins can travel long distances quite quickly. An adult taken from Banks Peninsula to Otago Peninsula, returned to its capture area, a distance of 350 km in 17 days, an average speed of 21 km a day. Yellow-eyed Penguins are wary and secretive birds, not coming onto land if humans are in the vicinity or if there is some disturbance on the beach. They wait 200 metres or so offshore until all is quiet. Although they are solitary nesters they are gregarious in winter, congregating in groups in favoured areas. Large numbers have never been reported at sea and so they probably feed alone. Fish and cephalopods are preferred.