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Found only in the wild southwest corner of New Zealand, Tawaki (also known as the Fiordland Crested Penguin) are unique among penguins because they choose to build their nests deep beneath lush rainforest. Usually we think of penguins surrounded by icebergs and snow but tawaki have chosen to ignore this penguin stereotype in favour of a more temperate climate. Luckily for visiting penguin enthusiasts this means tawaki can be spotted without having to cross the wild Southern Ocean to Antarctica.
Tawaki live around Stewart Island and on the coasts of Fiordland and South Westland. The most accessible and reliable place to see these wonderful birds is around Haast and Lake Moeraki. Here well maintained Department of Conservation trails lead to stunning beaches where tawaki can be spotted crossing the sand as they make their way between the Tasman Sea and their rainforest nests. As well as searching for tawaki on your own you can to visit isolated colonies not advertised to the public.
The tawaki breeding season lasts from July until December. During this time adult penguins are busy raising their young in nests beneath boulders and rainforest tree stumps. Tawaki mate for life and return to the same nest every year. After mating the eggs are incubated by the male until they hatch. Penguin chicks have an enormous appetite and grow incredibly fast during their first months. By the time they are 2 months old they are almost the same size as their parents. Through the breeding season naturalists from Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki monitor a number of tawaki nests. You can see regular 'penguin progress reports' though the breeding season on the Wilderness Lodge's facebook page.
By the second week of December tawaki chicks are ready to leave the coast and head out to sea. Over the space of a couple of days all tawaki will leave the shore to spend the next 6 months navigating the ocean, only briefly returning to land in February or March to moult (when they can occasionally be spotted).
It is very important to remember a few simple rules when watching tawaki penguins.
- They are very shy and by watching quietly from a distance you will have the best chance to see their natural behaviour.
- Staying still and sitting rather than standing further improves you chance of seeing a penguin.
- The number one threat these penguins face is domestic dogs, so remember to leave your dog at home and respect any 'no dogs' signs that you see.
With their 'rockstar' appearance and comic antics, Tawaki must be among New Zealand's most endearing wildlife. To see them in their natural habitat is a truly special experience and a must do for any traveller visiting New Zealand.