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Tawaki: World’s Rarest Rainforest Penguins Nest in NZ Forests

The birds return to Lake Moeraki every July to for their five-month breeding season.


Thu 03 Aug 23

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The world’s rarest rainforest penguins have arrived in Fiordland and the West Coast of New Zealand after a 2000 kilometres migration from the sub-Antarctic sea.

As reported in the NZ Herald, the penguins have returned to breeding sites in temperate forests after spending most of the previous year at sea.

According to Dr Gerry McSweeny, the birds return to Lake Moeraki coastal forests every July to begin their five-month breeding season.

The penguins were featured in the BBC documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch. Footage courtesy of @user-fr9bd5vt3f.

The tawaki crested penguins are striking because of the vivid yellow tufts that grow over their eyes. 

Even in Fiordland, they’re a rare sight.

They are the world’s third most endangered penguin species, with only 2,500 to 3,000 breeding pairs remaining in the wild. 

About 10% of the colony nest in Moeraki, making it the crested penguin capital of New Zealand and perhaps the world.

The tawaki penguins spend most of their year at sea, swimming up to 10,000 kilometres. (Photo Credit: Supplied from the Tawaki Project)

Having started the Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki in 1989, Dr McSweeney said the hotel had become an important site for monitoring the penguins.

“Penguin numbers counted at our study colonies have nearly tripled over our 33-year study period,” according to Dr McSweeny. 

The lodge has been at the centre of a Department of Conservation breeding programme that has helped them turn a corner.

Informing tourists about pest control and keeping domestic animals away from wildlife has helped bring the penguins back from the brink.

“In 2021 and 2022, we recorded more penguins than in the previous 30 years of our monitoring work,” Dr McSweeney said.

The lodge on the remote West Coast is one of the only places on earth offering guided tours to see the yellow-headed penguins. 

The Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki. (Photo Credit: Supplied)

The lodge brings small groups of visitors to their observation hide each evening so they may observe the 60-centimetre-tall penguins waddle out to sea.

The fat penguins’ first footprints have been seen on beaches near Haast. 

After a lengthy summer feeding, each penguin weighs between 3.5 and 4.5 kilogrammes, with males somewhat heavier than females. 

This is crucial since the male penguins incubate the eggs for 28 days, from early August to mid-September.

When the parents and new chicks are prepared to return to the sea in December, the birds will stay on the coast until then. 

The penguins spend the remainder of the year swimming, only pausing to rest on the ocean’s surface at night.

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