Birds NZ have found 64 little blue penguins dead on the east coast of the upper North Island, from Mangawhai to Kauri Mountain, in January.
© Birds NZ
Birds NZ have found 64 little blue penguins dead on the east coast of the upper North Island, from Mangawhai to Kauri Mountain, in January.
This year's unusually hot and stormy summer has taken a toll on Auckland and Northland's seabirds with thousands of dead and ill birds found on the regions' beaches.

Little blue penguins have been particularly hard hit, with hundreds of them washing up dead or exhausted.

Seabird experts said a combination of bad weather, a lack of food, heat and a change in the prevailing maritime wind directions had coincided with when the little blues like to come ashore to moult - putting them under great stress.

Karen Saunders, director of the National Bird Rescue on Waiheke Island - an established penguin breeding ground - said she'll remember this summer as the summer of seabird starvation.

"There has been a huge amount; it seems like every few days there is more dead little blue penguins on the beaches."

Although there is no official data on the exact amount washing up on Waiheke, Saunders said the amount of live penguins being brought into the centre in need of rehab is increasing. "We're seeing a huge amount of juveniles ... facing starvation.

"And what happens is their stomach juices are so strong, they eat their own stomachs and die. So the ones that pull through are facing malnutrition developmental and physical difficulties."

She said, if beachgoers find an ill penguin on any Waiheke beach, and it's sick enough to allow humans to approach it, just wrap it up in a towel and bring it in to see her.

Further North, Robert Webb, founder of the Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre, said hundreds of the penguins, which are the smallest in the world, have been washing up dead, injured, starving or exhausted, on upper North Island beaches this summer.

Robert Webb, of the Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre, said he regularly looks after little blue penguins while they recover
© Robert Webb
Robert Webb, of the Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre, said he regularly looks after little blue penguins while they recover
He said the birds come ashore about this time every year to preen and re-oil themselves.

"When they are swimming into shore though the rough water, quite regularly they are attacked by kahawai and kingfish who are there looking for food.

"So when they make it to shore they are absolutely worn out, they'll just flop down on the beach."

But doing that leaves them exposed to predators, such as black-backed gulls who attack them.

The centre had been advising people who come across tired little blue penguins to put them in the sand dunes or tussock, "because that is where they are trying to get to".

He said the penguins will then typically hang out on land for a couple of days to rest, preen and re-oil their feathers. "Then they will waddle back down to the water and take off again.

"What ever you do, don't pick it up and put it back it the water, it will be exhausted and it could drown.

"As soon as you touch a penguin you take the water-proofing off its feathers from the the acid on your hands - meaning it can't swim anymore - people don't seem to understand that."

Beachgoers who come across penguins that look particularly ill or injured were encouraged to call their local bird recovery centre of the Department of Conservation.

Webb said the Whangarei Bird Recovery Centre had treated about 15 penguins in the last fortnight.

Typically they stay at the centre for only a couple of days. During which time they get a medical once over, and a brush to remove sand and plenty of down time.
© Robert Webb
Typically they stay at the centre for only a couple of days. During which time they get a medical once over, and a brush to remove sand and plenty of down time.
He said he had seen cases where people had put tired penguins back in the water, wrapped them up in wet towels for transport or even put a penguin in a chilly bin full of water for transport.

"All they want is a quiet place rest, try not to stress them out any more then necessary."

But penguins weren't the only sea birds in trouble.

Thousands of other seabirds have been found dead along the east coast of the upper North Island so far this year.

Two hundred were found during a survey on one day alone, on a 6km stretch of Pakiri beach, north of Leigh.

The beach patrol, conducted by Birds NZ on January 21, found 74 dead fluttering shearwaters, 55 dead fairy prions, 20 dead grey-faced petrels and 12 little blue penguins.


Birds NZ come across hundreds of dead birds, not just penguins, in their regular surveys of New Zealand beaches.
© JEREMY PAINTING / BIRDS NZ
Birds NZ come across hundreds of dead birds, not just penguins, in their regular surveys of New Zealand beaches.
Another count a week later on Te Arai beach, further up the coast, found 133 dead seabirds, including seven little blue penguins.

January saw 64 penguins wash up dead on the east coast stretch from Mangawhai to Kauri Mountain.


Birds NZ's Auckland representative Ian McLean said major mortality events for seabirds are known as "wrecks".

"There has been a large number of seabirds dying this summer ... particularly in January and the early part of February when we had a lot of storms.

"We think that this is due to both the warmer sea temperatures resulting in a lack of food and the stormy weather which has exhausted and killed many young birds."

He said blue penguins have additional issue of being particularly vulnerable while they are moulting.

"Uncontrolled dogs in particular are a major threat to blue penguins."

On Auckland's North Shore, Sylvia Durrant known as The Bird Lady, confirms it has been a particularly bad summer for little blue penguins, and other seabirds, washing up sick and hungry in Auckland.

Durrant puts it down to unusually warm weather meaning penguins nested a second time, then headed out to sea to search for food to build up before the March moult, when they stay onshore for three weeks. They have left behind baby penguins who were forced to go to sea searching for food, before they could swim properly.

Auckland Zoo has taken in about twice as many blue penguins as they usually do annually, this year already.

As a last case resort, the sick penguins are brought to the Auckland Zoo for specialist vet care and rehabilitation.
© AUCKLAND ZOO
As a last case resort, the sick penguins are brought to the Auckland Zoo for specialist vet care and rehabilitation.
James Chatterton, Auckland Zoo head veterinarian said, of the seven they had taken in, three did not survive and of the four that did, two are due to be re-released and two will be housed at the zoo permanently.

"We are seeing a lot of penguins with injuries or that are emaciated, thanks to a lack of food. They are brought to us at 300 grams when they should be 800-900."

The zoo's blue penguins are re-released into the wild if they are strong enough
© AUCKLAND ZOO
The zoo's blue penguins are re-released into the wild if they are strong enough