First stop was the Yellow Eyed Penguin nesting grounds on the far end of the Peninsula. The only way to go see them was by booked tour. So our adventures on the beach were carefully timed to have us at the Penguin centre for 7:30pm sharp. This was amusing as between me and Shannon we had arranged for 45 minutes of leeway. On my part to counter "Craig time" and on Shannon's was belief in covering ones backside. When this was realized in the car (50 minutes early for our tour) a good laugh was had at our teacher like attention to temporal issues.
Arriving at the Penguin centre it was something of a pleasant and amusing discovery to find that the nature preserve was located on a Sheep Station (stations are the New Zealand equivalent of Ranches). Making the whole operation a pleasant mom and pop kind of affair. In addition to a quaint little visitor building (a refitted farm house by the looks of it) was a huge open air sheep feed storage shed in the middle of the parking lot.
The arrangement was very Tyrrell like with a bus drive out to the site. On the drive out we saw a pair of New Zealand Hawks which were quite elegant birds (I'd just bought a bird guide for the Dunedin area). The bus parks on the top of an escarpment overlooking the beach. A quick 5 minute hike down a series of stairs is needed to get to the viewing area. Though initially we didn't know what that meant. Before we could discover what this area would entail we had a interesting encounter on the walk down the stairs...
This baby Yellow Eye Penguin was at the bottom of the last set of stairs. We would end up seeing a lot of this little fellow and its sibling over the next hour. However seeing us he ducked back into the bush on the right in the picture, but he'd come back... They always come back LOL
So on our decent down the stairs this was our view of the flatlands around the beach. Across the plain was an intricate network of tunnels, trenches, and huts. Procedure for watching the Penguins to prevent from disturbing them was to walk through the covered trenches that snaked along the landscape till you got to a viewing hut close to Penguins. This gave it a very "in the field" feeling, and was immense fun.
Inside the trench view. We ended up running through various tunnels and trenches like this to pursue or "cutoff" birds during their return to their nests. The fun part was the hunting kinda of feel yet the fact the Penguin never even knew you were there (after a fashion... They seemed fairly used to low key human interaction... but it was demonstrated later on that direct human contact still upset them).
The view of the beach from the foremost viewing hut. On the beach you can see two Penguins landing from a day of hunting for prey. In the sky is what I THINK was a Otago Shag, but I couldn't tell exactly. Earlier in the day they'd had a Southern Right Whale just off the shore visible for a group. Sadly there was no repeat performance for us.
One of the landing Penguins began its trip up to its nest while we were watching the beach front. It would turn out we'd see this particular bird a lot over our visit.
We ran to another viewing hut to get us closer to that Penguins walking path. Allowing this nice closeup shot.
When we tried to switch to a different circuit of tunnels exiting our junction we discovered where the bird had been heading to. This Penguin was the parent of the little guy we'd run into at the bottom of the stairs. The problem was that the parent chick and chick's sibling cut us off, and trapped us in the tunnel entrance.
Soon after this picture was taken another group would exit another tunnel and clearly freak the parent out. However the 3 birds held their ground (more out waiting to see what the humans were going to do then actual disconcern) as that group walked around them fairly close to get back to the bus path.
We then snuck around them to get into the other tunnel series.
Here we saw several other Penguin groups (from something of a distance so most of my pictures didn't turn out so well). Including a few firsts for some of the chicks. This little guy as of this photo had just exited from his first swim. Its sibling and parent were also swimming around the pond in a little cute display (sadly my pics didn't turn out so good for that though).
At the end of the tour we then proceeded to head to the very end of the Peninsula to Pilot's Beach located just down the hill from the Albatross Colony. I'd visited this beach before in the daytime, and seen both Seals and Sea Lions on the shore. However at around Dusk, conveniently the time we arrived at, one of the beaches more interesting occupants came in from the sea.
On the tour we befriended a German traveller named Trosten (I probably misspelled that). He reminded me of a European Jody. Both in his appearance, but also Bird watching gusto. When he saw me looking at my bird book he excitedly asked if he could share the book.
These were the tiny little Blue Penguins who are at most 45 cm tall. The way to view them is to watch from a small hill above the beach. After a day of fishing these birds then come ashore in mass groups for protection, and all walk up the hill, and then disperse to go and find their little nooks and burrows to find their young.
Watching the birds come ashore was very cool as they fought their way through a crowd of sea gulls (the Gulls being the same size if not bigger then the Penguins) of both the Red Bill and Black Winged varieties. With the Penguins having landed the volunteers from the Department of Conservation had the 100 or so watchers spread out on the field at the top of the hill.
At this point the plan was to sit still, and the Penguins would just run through the gauntlet of still sitting humans. Everything worked according to this plan. If not better. I picked a really GOOD spot. Three Penguins walked right past my leg. One of them was less then 10cm from bumping into me!!! Was way TOO cool!!!!!!!
Anyways everyone saw the little guys. In fact just as the volunteers had warned we ran into a couple of them on our way back to the car. Here we bid Trosten farewell (he was off to Christchurch the next morning), and set off for home as we had our first class the next day. On the trip back home we not only had to stop for a Blue Penguin crossing the road, but we also got a spectacular view of the comet that has been in the news a lot as of late.
All in all I'd give this day a 15 out of 10!