Thursday, 12 December 2019

Penguin Walks - kororā count

On a couple of spring days every year, volunteers from Kāpiti Biodiversity Project get up very early. It's still dark outside as they make their way to a meeting point at Paekakariki Beach. It's chilly and they are rugged up in coats and hats. As the sky begins to brighten, they make their way slowly along the beach scanning the sand for footprints.
A trail of footprints being examined by volunteers
The tide is out, the sand has been washed clean of yesterday's footprints, so any new prints on the beach have been made since the last high tide. The volunteers are looking for prints like these:
A set of little penguin or kororā footprints.
Kororā little penguins nest in the dunes and scrub behind the beach, they nest under houses too. At night after dark some come ashore and in the morning head back out to sea. If they have eggs or chicks, the parents might be swapping over, with one coming ashore in the morning to take over the day-time duty. Their tracks head straight out to sea, no dithering around for them, they want to get to sea as quickly as possible. Little penguins are also called blue penguins, little blue penguins or fairy penguins. Can you see the tracks in the photo below?
A kororā little penguin left these tracks
A single footprint showing deep claw marks
Kororā have strong claws for digging burrows and climbing up rocks and cliffs, their footprint shows distinctive marks where the claws have gone deep into the sand.
Kororā from my book "Whose Feet are These?"
illustrated by Fraser Williamson
By counting the number of penguin tracks we find as we walk along the beach, we can tell how many penguins crossed the sand that morning. We can compare this information with last year's data and next year's to try to understand whether the population of penguins is growing or declining. On one of our walks this year we found 20 sets of tracks, 19 going out and 1 coming in.
Citizen scientists at work, that's me in front!
Things that make a difference to the kororā population can include, not having enough places to nest safely, being attacked by dogs or other mammals while in their nests or on the beach, and also whether there is enough fish for them in the sea nearby. In the photo above, the wall is a barrier to penguins reaching nest sites, although they do use the steps! The sea wall made of tyres in the photo below is better for penguins, as they can climb between the tyres to the hill behind.

Tyre sea wall on Paekakariki Beach
Nesting kororā 

Finding other footprints
Finding animal footprints on the beach, in a muddy estuary or along a tramping track can be fascinating. I've been excited finding kiwi foot prints (and beak marks) on Rakiura Stewart Island, hoping that I might find a kiwi around the corner.

On a sandy beach or estuary there can be quite a muddle of different footprints, and it can be fun to work out whose prints are whose. See the link to NZ Tracker below.

Sometimes footprints are those of predators or other pests. A tracking tunnel might reveal geckos or mice are in the area. Or a muddy tramping track could show that deer or pigs are around. Check out Pest Detective for help with pest identification.

Citizen scientists can use footprints to learn about wildlife, for example, using tracking tunnels to find out what animals live in a particular habitat, or counting footprints to estimate the population size. See more citizen science ideas in "New Zealand Nature Heroes".

Citizen scientists are volunteers who collect data and information which scientists can use. 

Help with identifying footprints:
Pest detective for pest and predator prints
Identification of tracks found on sand, birds, mammals and other tracks
Or use iNaturalist to report footprint sightings and get help with identification

Here are some other tracks we found near the penguin tracks.
Can you tell whose tracks these might be using Pest Detective or NZ Tracker? 

Tips for looking after kororā and other sea birds
If you have pets, keep your dog on a lead when at the beach and keep your cat inside at night.
Join a group that builds penguin boxes, monitors pest traps or helps publicise the plight of penguins.

Acknowledgements: Photos by Sue Blaikie and Gillian Candler

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