Ursula Ellenberg

Co-Director Tawaki Project

Tawaki Project

Ursula Ellenberg

Ursula Ellenberg feels naked without her binoculars (photo © Alan Dove)

New Zealand Representative of the Global Penguin Society (https://www.globalpenguinsociety.org/)

Co-director Tawaki Project (https://www.tawaki-project.org/the-team/)

I have a passion for seabirds. New Zealand is the undisputed seabird capital of the world. More than one third of the world’s seabirds occur here and we have the highest number of breeding seabird endemics in the world (36 species). We also have more than twice as many threated species of seabirds than any other country. We have a lot of work ahead!


A brief break in the hailstorm battering Whenua Hou’s southern seabird cliffs (photo © Ursula Ellenberg)

Our team is just back from tracking the endangered Hoiho/ yellow-eyed penguin on Whenua Hou/ Codfish Island for the Conservation Services Programme (https://www.doc.govt.nz/our-work/conservation-services-programme/) that monitors (and hopes to reduce) direct and indirect fisheries impacts on protected species. Unfortunately, yellow-eyed penguins on the New Zealand mainland are currently declining faster than even our most pessimistic population models predicted (https://peerj.com/articles/3272/). Bycatch mortality, particularly in gillnets is one of the problems (https://theconversation.com/penguins-under-threat-from-drowning-in-fishing-nets-88308).


Surviving Hoiho/ yellow-eyed penguins are in good shape as they are preparing for another breeding season in southern New Zealand (photo © Alan Dove)

New Zealand is the cradle for penguins with six species breeding here (nine when including the Ross Dependency), four of them endemic, which means they only occur here and nowhere else in the world and they are facing many threats! Even well-meaning visitors may have negative impacts (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320295737_Impacts_of_Penguin_Tourism) but compared to many other threats these can be managed and will yield local rewards.

Following their epic annual winter migration, Tawaki/ Fiordland penguins are now returning to their breeding sites along the rugged and inaccessible shores of south-west New Zealand. Soon we will be heading into Fiordland for another season researching this enigmatic forest penguin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WBGP8Am19s). Compared to many other penguin species, Tawaki currently do surprisingly well. We try to understand what it is that makes them so successful.

I am excited by recent technological advances that enable us to study the marine ecology of seabirds and have been involved in the development of animal borne cameras that enable us to look over a penguin’s shoulder to document diet preferences and foraging strategies. Last season we were able to get the first footage of a Tawaki on her foraging trip. We hope to deploy more cameras on Tawaki this season. So watch this space! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9b7Wg8XUKUk&t=71s).


Inquisitive Tawaki, New Zealand’s enigmatic forest penguin (photo © Ursula Ellenberg)

PS: We run the Tawaki Project on the smell of an oily rag. If you are curious about New Zealand penguins and want to spend a coffee’s worth, while reading about what we are up to, you are always welcome to become our Patreon! (https://www.patreon.com/TawakiProject).