Nature is conspiring against the little blue penguin like it hasn't done in many years.
The birds are dying en masse and local wildlife workers have been left feeling stressed, demoralised and saddened.
“A combination of events has led to the biggest penguin die-off in years,” says Western Bay Wildlife Trust's Julia Graham. “Fifty-eight call-outs in two weeks. All the penguins were dead or died within a short time of arriving on land.”
By the time the birds wash up, they're so far gone, little can be done to help them.
The mass die-off is widespread – all the way up the east coast, including Coromandel, Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island and other offshore Islands. And as far north as Russell in the Bay of Islands.
There are several factors at play – lack of food, rough weather and moulting. And together those factors are having a deadly impact.
“I have personally been involved in many of the penguin call-outs,” says Julia. “They all died of starvation and exhaustion. No one penguin stood out more than the other – they're all equally special.”
It's a measure of the wildlife workers' commitment and passion for their job and the little blues.
“Yes, it does feel like a losing battle sometimes but we just have to carry on and hope there are enough penguins that make it through to have a viable and sustainable breeding population.”
But right now the little blues are at the mercy of climate change. “Warm waters mean less fish and other available food for the penguins,” says Julia. Cyclones and offshore storms make it much harder for the penguins to hunt and find food. “And an already weak penguin stands no chance against these odds.”
Moulting is another issue for the blues. Between February and April they change feathers. And for the two or three weeks of the moulting process they need to double their body weight to see them through the time they're not waterproof and can't go to sea to hunt.
If they are not a decent weight before moulting, it's unlikely they'll survive. A food shortage has meant many are starving and anaemic, and wash up to die.
It's all about timing – fledglings face tough odds on a good day. Add this combination of events and they stand little chance of making it through their first year at sea.
And there's this heart-rending story of a little blue which suggests we can add people to the naturally occurring conspiracy against the penguins.
“One exhausted little penguin was huddling under a rock on Moturiki a couple of weeks ago. Groups of people were gathered and poking it with sticks,” says Julia. She was forced to remove it from its hiding place because people wouldn't leave it alone. “The penguin died a couple of hours later. The extreme stress that it was put under in its already weakened state was just too much.”
However the wildlife worker has appealed to people's commonsense and goodwill by issuing penguin protocols – what to do and what not to do if you find a penguin.
A dead penguin should be buried. Call 0800SICKPEnguin and leave details of the location. Do not try to put a live penguin back in the water. They have left the water for a reason and putting them back in the water will more than likely kill them.
Place it in the sand dunes or under a rock away from the water's edge and out of sight of people and dogs. They need to rest and be left alone.
If the penguin has visible wounds, call 0800SICKPEnguin, or contact ARRC Wildlife Trust on 07 579 9115.
The trust also pleads with dog owners to keep their pets away from the beach or under full control at all times during the next few weeks. Keep dogs out of the sand dunes at all times.
Give the penguins space. It is probably dying and should be left in peace. Touch it only if moving it to a safer area in the dunes.
“There is very little we can do to help these birds apart from offering them peace and quiet.”