Oamaru, New Zealand

Philippa Agnew, Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony (OBPC)

On the south-east coast of the South Island of New Zealand lies a small town called Oamaru. In the 1860s, a quarry was built on its outskirts. The rock extracted there was used to build the harbour of Oamaru. In the early 1970s, however, the quarry was closed down. Soon after, little penguins began occupying the site.

The penguins were a controversial issue in the town. The mayor and part of the borough council wanted the site to remain as an industrial area and the penguins were fenced out. Luckily, Oamaru residents eventually convinced the council to turn the former quarry into a protected breeding ground for the penguins, and in 1992 Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony was established. Since then, the population has grown to several hundred little penguins. Today it is one of New Zealand’s largest scientifically monitored little penguin colonies. Here Philippa Agnew, who is a research scientist at the Colony, has installed a camera for Triggered by Motion.

Little penguins (Eudyptula minor) are tiny: they measure just 30 cm in height. At the colony, research is being conducted into their breeding behaviour, as well as the influence of environmental and other external factors on the little animals. Triggered by Motion’s camera also captured some of their companion species. Domestic cats (Felis catus), rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and rats (Rattus norvegicus) were recorded fairly often. They were brought to New Zealand with the first European settlers many hundred years ago. The scientists try to protect the penguins from these mammals, some of which are predators, with the help of traps.

Fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) were also observed quite a lot: They like resting on the rocks at the colony, even though there are no resident/breeding populations nearby. Historically their numbers were reduced by commercial sealing, which continued until the mid-20th century.

Many native species in New Zealand are declining in numbers. Therefore there is incentive to protect biodiversity and all native species. The little penguins are classed as «least concern» by the the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of their wide distribution throughout New Zealand and southern Australia, and their numbers are thought to be stable. In New Zealand, however, it is believed the number of penguins is declining, particularly at sites where they are not protected.

This makes the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony very important – because here, the number of penguins has increased through time. When the Colony was established as a research site in the early 1990s, scientists not only replanted native grasses and trees in the former quarry, but also provided timber boxes for the penguins to nest in. The animals would naturally nest in a burrow dug into the soil or sand, or amongst the rocks; but because the nesting boxes don’t collapse or flood the way natural sites do, they have a higher breeding success there. The boxes are one of the measures taken to help the colony grow. And it has paid off: Over the years, the number went up from 33 breeding pairs in 1993 to 279 pairs in 2022.

Still, the little blue penguins of Oamaru are not safe. Climate change is a huge factor that threatens them: In the next few years, storms are expected to increase in intensity and frequency, and as stormy weather makes foraging very difficult for the penguins, their survival rates and population numbers might be impacted in the long term.

Philippa Agnew is saddened by the impacts humans are having on the planet and its climate. That’s why she values being part of projects like Triggered by Motion: projects that educate people and aim to encourage them to care more for wildlife and wild spaces.