Penguin Place At Last!

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I saw my first Yellow-eyed penguin from the hide at Bushy Point, but I was at least a hundred meters above the beach and even with binoculars it was hard to appreciate their unique size and markings. Several times I tried going on a Penguin Place tour and couldn’t fit it in with the Little Blue Penguin experience at the Royal Albatross Centre. I was determined to make it work this time!

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Two Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho recovering from injury at Penguin Place. Hoiho do not do well in captivity and these two males will be released when ready.

Located on a private sheep farm on the Dunedin peninsula, Penguin Place is dedicated to the conservation and welfare of Yellow-eyed penguins/hoiho. Their efforts to restablish habitat and educate the public also benefits Little Blue penguins. I went in the winter months (April-September) so they only offer one tour a day at 3:45 p.m. In the summer months (October-March) there are 90 minute tours running from 10:15 a.m. to 6:16 p.m.

One advantage of going in the winter is the tour group is more likely to be small. There were just a half dozen of us as we bumped in the bus, through the sheep ranch, and toward the trails that lead to the network of hides.

We had plenty of time to ask our questions as we waited in the hide and looked out at the beach waiting for a Yellow-eyed penguin to return. A large sea lion was hanging out on the beach probably sending “stay away” vibes to penguins. We were not disappointed though. There were two Yellow-eyed penguins who stayed on land all day. One was just a few feet from the hide and another was some distance below the hide but away from the beach and visible to us. We also saw several single and pairs of Little Blue Penguins in their wooden hutches along the trail.

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Female hoiho stayed home to prepare her nest.

All of the money from the penguin tourism goes back into rehabilitating penguins in the hospital and conserving the breeding grounds. In spite of the extensive efforts by people and the NZ Department of Conservation, the numbers are shrinking. When I first took an interest in hoiho there were 400-600 breeding pairs on the NZ mainland, and now there are just 266 breeding pairs. There is also a sex imbalance with three males for every female. It is hard to state with certainty what is causing the decline but it is likely warming oceans and changing food supply. Participating in this guided tour is a small way to do your part for the species. And we need to all make changes to address the climate crisis.

Little Blue Penguins Arrive Nightly

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Oamaru Little Blue in parking lot (always check under your car after dusk)

It has been several years since I watched the little blue penguins arrive home just after sunset to the Little Blue Penguin Colony in Oamaru, New Zealand. In my two previous experiences I delighted in seeing the penguins up close. On my second visit I paid extra to be in the VIP seats (recently added), and on this visit I decided to go with the basic rate. This was the first time I felt a little let down, and then I went into the parking lot and a little blue penguin charmed me completely and unexpectedly.

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Doesn’t anyone read? There is a sign that says stay far from the NZ fur seals and yet they stood 2 feet away. Yes, there was a fence but it is also about habituating them to humans and sharing germs. True confessions though–I took this picture (without a flash) in spite of the sign.

I planned my trip to time with the Little Blue Penguins breeding season. They spend four to five months at sea eating, returning to their breeding colony for mating and rearing young. The penguins are beginning to return, and yet I braced for smaller numbers because last year many Little Blue Penguins starved due to the ocean food conditions.

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Only 16 penguins came ashore in the first raft. About as many had spent the day on shore and waddled down past the viewing platforms to get a drink of water. The crowd waiting for an hour past sunset and then the cold made waiting longer intolerable. The numbers were low and the announcer sounded so bored. Plus they’ve added announcements in Mandarin–perfectly understandable given the makeup of the guests–but adds to the general sense of boredom.

If you do pay extra for the VIP seats, you get a better shore view and you get to see the nests as you walk back to the visitor centre from a boardwalk, but you have to stay in the cold longer.

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The next day I scooted to the Otago Peninsula for more birding. The Royal Albatross Centre has penguin viewing in the evening and a colony of Little Blue Penguins.

I found this interesting book by Ken Stepnell (see above) and this lovely knitted Little Blue Penguin.

Back in Oamaru, a very accessible place to see penguins, I left worrying about the population numbers and without being able to see the penguins very closely or for very long.  And then I walked into the parking lot and saw a couple of penguins, with this one penguin hanging out longest and allowing me to film him (sans flash) doing his penguin thing. Delightful! (Listen at the end for the penguin calls!)

 

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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I saw the trailer a few months ago and made a mental note to see the film. Cate Blanchett is completely believable as a genius architect who has become a social menace. I was rooting for her the whole way. All of the actors were excellent. Although you have to wonder, when Billy Crudup plays another self-absorbed man, if in fact he’s playing himself.

I had not read the book, by the same name. book

My mom and I like to go to the movies together. We generally like the same kind of films: No violence! This takes out 80 percent or more of the options. We prefer lively plots involving well-developed characters. Good acting is a plus. Even with such liberal requirements we can go months without a movie worthy of our entertainment dollars. We thoroughly enjoyed this film.

I also loved the penguins! The film begins with Bernadette in a kayak in Antarctica, so I don’t need to worry about creating a spoiler. I enjoyed the details about the science focused cruises they book, the reality of seasickness on Drake’s Passage, and the new design for the South Pole research center (shown during the credits).

Screen Shot 2019-08-24 at 8.21.53 PMI got to thinking about my own goal to visit Antarctica with my grandson when he is old enough (must be over 8 for most cruises). How do we visit responsibly? The climate crisis is hitting some parts of the world more than others. And we watched this movie while the news of the Amazon rainforest fires broke. I appreciate how Afar travel magazine tackles these hard issues. Should we travel at all, and especially climate-impacted places, if our travel might hasten the crisis (excerpt of 8-23-2019 article by Michelle Baran above)?

First, you might choose to go because the areas where Amazon eco-tourism is available is not threatened by fire; however, as a Californian with experience dealing with megafire smoke, I have to warn anyone with lung issues that the smoke can be a serious health threat. The photo of Sao Paolo in darkness at 2 p.m. must be taken seriously by anyone with asthma. Smoke also creates a really depressing environment for a vacation.

Second, there is a case that Afar makes to go ahead and visit the more sustainable ecotourism providers to strengthen the case to local governments that the rainforest is worth more as a tourist and environmental resource than it is for its short-lived timber or cattle production. Other ethical suggestions include: 1) Look for carbon neutral travel providers; 2) Eat only locally produced grassfed beef; 3) Do not use tropical hardwoods in building and furniture. My initial reaction is this is insufficient.

At the same time, I am not traveling just to increase my status as a someone who goes to the hard to reach places, and I am willing to share why these places need to be managed differently on this blog and other places. If I am willing to grapple with the accompanying socio-economic issues, and educate my network of family and friends, then maybe I can justify the impact.

I will write more on ethical travel…

 

Swooning Over the Saint Louis Zoo

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There is no admission fee for visiting the Saint Louis Zoo. There are extra fees for experiences such as feeding the Galapagos tortoises. Even though I did not pay to feed them, I got to watch from very close by.

I found watching the people visiting the Saint Louis Zoo almost as fascinating as the animals. There were Amish families in their traditional garb, families with multiple strollers, and lots of different parenting styles. This zoo is ranked in the top five zoos in America, and rightfully so. It really is a marvel.

There is so much to see and do at this zoo. It doesn’t advertise itself as a botanical garden, but it is also beautifully landscaped. There is plenty of signage and I still found myself getting lost looking for giraffes. I thought I’d spend an hour walking around and several hours later I was hiking back up to the south entrance without seeing it all. I so wished I had my grandson with me.

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They have enough space to house Asian elephants.

I enjoyed my visit to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden so much that I decided to also visit the Saint Louis Zoo. It won out over other options in part because it had good reviews on Trip Advisor and because it was so close to my Hampton Inn in Forest Park.

IMG_8519One of the features of the Saint Louis Zoo is how close you can experience many of the zoo residents. This hyena was just one of the animals that I felt I could reach out and touch. This experience was most thrilling with my favorite penguins. By the way, if you do break the rules and try to pet the penguins, remember they bite with their VERY sharp beaks. And even more harmful than feeding them our food, is sharing our germs.

There is no admission fee for the zoo thanks to the taxpayers of St. Louis; however, the closest parking lots do charge $15 a car. While a family can divide that by 4 or 6, I was driving alone. I also needed to save time because I had a long day of driving to Pella, IA via Hannibal, MO, so I decided to make the donation for convenient parking. They have various options for saving money, especially with kids. For example the Adventure Pass for $12.95 includes the Zooline Railroad, the Children’s Zoo, Conservation Carousel and more. If you are a traveling with children and you park on the street, and bring your own sandwiches, you can make a big day of it for little more than the cost of the Adventure Pass.

Instead of eating from the Hampton Inn breakfast buffet, I walked next door to Comet Coffee to enjoy one of the tastiest bear claw pastries I’ve eaten in a while. Little did I know that I was going to see real bear claws on two grizzly bears later that same morning.

 

Crazy for Hippos at the Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo is delightful. It is one of the top 10 zoos in the USA and so much bigger than my hometown zoo. It is also a botanical garden and attracts lots of butterflies. I drove directly from Louisville to the Zoo and began my wondering and wandering with a big smile plastered on my face.

I learned a group of hippos in a pile is a bloat. It has a been a long time since the Sacramento Zoo hosted Jewel the hippo. I was delighted to meet baby Fiona and her mom. I watched them while listening to the keeper tell us about hippo habits.

A big motivation for my #MiddleAmericaTour is to visit states I’ve yet to visit to reach all 50 states in 2020. I stayed in Louisville, KY because Google maps said Cincinnati, Ohio was close (1.5 hours away). It all sounds so doable when you are at your kitchen table researching options. And it would have been much easier if it hadn’t rained cats and dogs while I was driving home. I pulled off the freeway to a McDonalds to get a diet coke and wait it out.

I revived enough when I got back to Louisville to research a place for desert, pie specifically. I drove to Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen. It was yummy, yummy ice cream and the pie was above average.

 

 

Celebrate Penguins!

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Art from a greeting card; originally in London Tube advertisement to entice you to ride subway to the London Zoo.

April 25th is World Penguin Day! People in Australia and New Zealand may already be celebrating!

I adore penguins. I will extend my celebration until Saturday when Mom and I are going to see the new film, Penguins.

Celebrating Penguin Awareness with Dr. Michelle LaRue

 

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Estimating populations of penguins is a challenge given the ice even in summer. Can you tell the difference between Adelie and Emperor penguins? Photo from https://emperorpenguinchange.blogspot.com/

Dr. Michelle LaRue is an ecologist and science communicator who specializes in using Geographic Information Systems, satellite imaging and other tools to count penguin, seal and mountain lion populations. I follow @drmichellelarue on Twitter—I especially enjoy her #Cougarornot game. She recently moved from the University of Minnesota to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ. This new adventure includes research opportunities in Antarctica.

The USA and New Zealand have a history of collaboration in Antarctica. The McMurdo research station is just down the road from the Kiwi Scott base, and both are supported from Christchurch. Dr. LaRue agreed to answer questions about this new opportunity.

Q: You’ve done research in Antarctica whilst maintaining your University home base at University of Minnesota. What prompted the move to New Zealand?

A: A faculty position with Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury! Here I will continue my research on the ecology of Southern Ocean predators and look forward to building a lab in the next few years.

Q: From your new position, what do you hope you’ll be able to contribute to our understanding of penguins and the endangered polar habitats?

A: My goal is to effectively fill in the pieces of the puzzle that are missing – we’ve got several baseline population estimates now for Adélie and emperor penguins and we’re doing the same for Weddell seals and crabeater seals. Once those pieces are filled in, we get to start asking: why? Why are these populations in certain spots and not others? How do these species interact with each other across space and time? How might climate change impact their populations and habitats? To ask these questions we first need to know how many animals there are and where they live, so that’s my focus at the moment.

Q: Have you experienced an earthquake yet in Christchurch? And what is your favorite discovery about living in New Zealand?

A: For the first time, I felt a 3.2 earthquake back in December, though I will say the people around me didn’t even notice! I think my favorite discovery or realization is just how unbelievably beautiful it is – I mean this is something I knew before but now that I live here it’s remarkable to me how much diversity there is in the landscape in just a short distance. It’s an incredibly beautiful place to be an outdoor enthusiast!

Recall that it is currently summer in Antarctica, so she was in the field this past November. You can follow her team’s current research at https://emperorpenguinchange.blogspot.com/. Dr. LaRue also has links to a number of her video presentations and written papers on her website.

Dr. LaRue works on teams gauging the status of Adélie and Emperor penguin populations in Antarctica. There are things we can do to reduce human impacts on penguins and their habitat. First, more efficient fishing vessels are harvesting the krill that makes up the food supply of penguins and whales. It is important that we stop using krill oil (I didn’t realize this was a thing; however, a quick Google search and apparently lots of people are taking it as supplements). Second, the ice is shrinking in both polar regions due to rising ocean temperatures from rising CO2. We can all reduce our use of fossil fuels by riding a bike, walking, or carpooling.