Thursday, 18 February 2016

Hunting for Penguins in Taranaki

Last week on a clear Taranaki day, I set off to the coast to hunt for penguins with Elise Smith, a local scientist. Elise has wealth of knowledge on many different subjects relating to biodiversity and marine science,  and now contracts her skills out to different organisations, providing them with GIS mapping services. I was lucky enough to meet Elise at Rotokare the previous day, and she kindly offered to let me tag along with her excursion. Elise is also hosting two other Taranaki teachers on the STLP programme.

One of Elise's current projects is monitoring the Blue Penguins that come to nest around the Taranaki Coast line. Blue Penguins are the most common penguin in New Zealand, and the only penguin to breed along the coast of the North Island. The penguins spend most of their time at sea, but between December and March each year, they come to shore to moult. During the time they are replacing their feathers (about 2 weeks), they are unable to swim or eat.

When I arrived at our destination, I met Andrew Hornblow. Andrew is a Taranaki engineer who has developed devices using solderless- breadboards to monitor local ecology. The amazing thing about his devices is they consume miniscule amounts of power and data; the aa batteries can last for a year, and they have the ability to transmit data to wifi up to 18 kilometers away. This makes them ideal for isolated locations. Andrew has also deliberately made his devices simple enough for a child to build, programme and monitor, as he is passionate about getting more children actively involved in science in their community. They have the ability to connect humidity, temperature and light sensors, among many others. The possibilities are endless!

The main objective of the trip was to change over the batteries of the devices in the burrows, but we thought it would be interesting to have a look inside while we were there. When we reached the man-made penguin burrows, we carefully lowered an endoscope (made by Elise with some kiwi ingenuity!)  into the holes. This was connected to her computer, displaying the video footage from the end of the endoscope. We were looking for feathers outside the burrow, which might mean there was a penguin moulting inside. While we did find some feathers, and plenty of poo, there were no penguins home that day. But remember "evidence of absence is not absence of evidence!".

Me using the endoscope in the burrow

Brent (STLP teacher) looking for a lost monitoring device

We headed back to a cafe and Andrew showed us some of the graphs that were being automatically created on his website from the data that was coming in from the burrows. Looking at the graphs we could see what time of day the penguins returned to their burrows (mostly in the evening), because the temperature in the burrow would tend to spike at this time each day. We could also tell which burrows were regularly being occupied, and at which times of the year. Over time, they will be able get an idea of whether the Taranaki penguin population is increasing or declining.

A penguin in the burrow that Elise found last week. 
Before we headed back to work, I discussed the possibilities of using these monitoring systems back at school. What would you like to find out about that you could monitor at school? At your house? On the farm? Let me know in the comments and we'll see if we can make it happen!


  1. Monitoring and recording daily temp, rainfall and humidity would be a great beginner project for young kids

  2. What a wonderful experience you are having, meeting so many people who are unsung heroes, working to protect our environment. Your blog is very detailed and absorbing. I might do Explanatory Writing with my Literacy Extension Classes on either the fish, penguins or Rotokare itself, based on what you have written on your blog.


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