Wildlife detector dog handler Jo Sim and seven-year-old Rua, a border collie-labrador-german shorthair pointer mix, brave the Cape Palliser winds. PHOTO/GIANINA SCHWANECKE
Under woolsheds and baches, along the rocks and nestled in bushes, the world’s smallest penguin species at just 25 centimetres tall – aptly named the Little Penguin – can be elusive.
The at-risk bird species evaded detection during a survey of the Cape Palliser penguin population which started on Monday and finished on Thursday.
The project was undertaken by Aorangi Restoration Trust, which aims to restore the Aorangi Forest and surrounding native wildlife by 2045.
It was the first penguin population survey since nesting boxes were put out along the Cape Palliser coast by children from Kahutara and Pirinoa schools about six years ago, manager Bob Burgess said.
“We heard from fishermen they have always been in this area and are regularly sighted out at sea,” he said.
Unfortunately, no penguins were found.
“There was strong evidence of penguins in two wool sheds and plenty of scenting,” he said.
“But all we’ve come across is the enormous fur seal population.”
Burgess had called in the help of wildlife detector dog handler Jo Sim, from DabChick New Zealand, to sniff out the penguins’ nesting areas.
Detector dogs are trained to indicate the presence of endangered bird species, like Kiwi, using their keen sense of smell to find them.
“We use the dog’s nose to find the birds,” Sim said.
“The penguins are really smelly.”
She described it as a strong ammonia smell.
When a dog scents a bird, they are trained to stop and sit while also searching out their handler.
Working in South Wairarapa’s strong winds was challenging though it was important to have some wind for the dogs to catch a scent.
Though seven-year-old dog Rua had shown plenty of signs that there were penguins around, none could be found.
“The challenge is to find the right spots,” Sim said.
She said little was known about the habits of the species on land, other than their preference for dark sheltered spots.
“They like cover and shelter. That’s why they seem to like the underside of houses.”
Human related threats such as cars and dogs were the greatest threat to the at-risk species, she said.
“Dogs can be a terrible threat to penguins because they can smell them so easily.”
Other predators like cats, ferrets and stoats were also known for killing penguins, making the trust’s trapping work an important part of protecting them.
“We want to get a feel for what is out here,” Burgess said.
Anyone with information about penguins nesting spots or sightings should email [email protected]
The trust is also keen to hear from those willing to help service trapping lines in the area.