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Settling in . . . Numbers of visitors to Timaru's little blue penguin colony on Marine Parade are increasing each year. PHOTO: COURIER FILES

by George Clark

The world’s smallest penguin is gaining ground in Timaru.

Forest and Bird member Fraser Ross is a longstanding environmentalist and has seen many penguin inhabitants come and go over the years, and his new report says the best is yet to come.

The total number of little penguins estimated around Forest and Bird’s four Timaru sites was 5% higher than last year, due to warming sea levels and greater food supply, Mr Ross said.

“The warming of the sea is actually providing more food habitat for penguin around the east coast of the South Island, which is working in our favour.”

Although he was unable to disclose the monitoring sites for safety and research security purposes, Mr Ross said people were welcome to head down to popular viewing spot Caroline Bay, as long as any dogs were kept on leashes.

“Dogs are still the highest threat to our korora, or little blue penguins, with summer being the most harsh . . . it’s over to individual owners to be responsible.”

The population increase finding came after Mr Ross shared annual penguin census results with Dr Chris Challies.

Dr Challies, who has been monitoring little penguins in North Canterbury since the 1970s, agreed the figures were “excellent news”.

His last three counts showed an average increase of around 5% a year, which was “good for a seabird population and about what I would have hoped for”.

He also said that a Forest and Bird counter had spotted a penguin resembling a “white-flippered bird”.

“It is highly likely to be a blue (little) penguin that has thrown back to some hybridism in its ancestry,” he said.

“This occurs in the Oamaru population, where your original birds came from . . . A small proportion of the Timaru penguins probably have some white on the leading edge of their flippers. Look out for them!”

In 2019 the Penguin First group, dedicated to protecting the little blue penguins at Caroline Bay, was established in Timaru.

Spokeswoman Marijke Bakker said anyone who wished to assist the group could keep an eye out for the flightless bird.

“It is fun to do. The penguins are always entertaining and it’s interesting to talk to all of the, often overseas, visitors who come to see them.”

Caroline Bay has a resident rookery of little blue penguins, which nest among the rocks there. At 40cm they are the smallest penguins in the world, reaching speeds of up to 6kmh underwater. They come ashore after sunset, so dress warmly and wait quietly on the footpath along Marine Parade or adjacent beach outside the barriers.