Daily checks help keep kororā safe

3 September 2020

Every morning before work begins along Cobham Drive, workers check for kororā (little blue penguins) which could have taken refuge over night.

Image of Mena and her handler searching for penguins at Cobham Drive work site

They check under and around vehicles, and in the areas where rock is going to be moved from and to – using a torch when necessary, and a special camera to help them see into the crevices between rocks.

A penguin management plan was developed with, and approved by the Department of Conservation, as part of the planning and consent process, and actions on site include daily penguin checks and reporting.

DOC senior ranger biodiversity Brent Tandy says the project has been a good example of how things should be done.

“In terms of attitude, it’s been really good right from the start, and this has flowed through to action with the team running with our guidance,” he says. “All of the construction team has been engaged, involved and aware, which is critical for the right outcome.”

Image of worker with cameras looking for penguins on Cobham Drive

Penguins tend to avoid the construction zone, but if one is spotted, which has happened on a few occasions, work in the immediate vicinity temporarily stops, and the team seek advice from Brent on the best course of action.

Wellington City Council project manager and engineer Veronica Byrne sees careful penguin management as a top priority for the project, which is transforming this previously eroding, and somewhat neglected area into a much more appealing place for people to walk, run, bike, scoot and spend time.

The project includes better quality walking and bike paths, enhancing the sculpture trail, improving two beaches, building a 430m-long rock revetment (bank) to help control erosion, and planting thousands of native plants.

“Our contractors, Downer, take penguin health and safety seriously, and bought the camera to help ensure there are no surprises,” Veronica says.

“It helps that building engineered rock seawalls like the ones going in between the roundabouts at Calabar and Troy streets is a very careful process. Our digger operators can only work in this area at low tide, and need to concentrate on small areas at a time.  

“The right-sized rocks have to be slowly and skillfully lowered into position to avoid dropping and breaking them, which means our operators are also able to keep an eye out for little blues.” 

Predator Free Wellington and Places for Penguins are helping too. Predator Free Wellington checks and maintains predator traps in the area, and volunteers from Places for Penguins will be assisting with placement and monitoring of 20 permanent nesting boxes.

The boxes, built by the construction workers, will supplement the new rock revetment which is going to provide lots of nooks and crannies that penguins will find appealing.  

Brent says it will take time for the penguins to find them, and the silt they like to settle in them, but he has no doubt some will nest between the rocks before too long. The revetment will provide safer and better habitat than the eroded sections of coast it is replacing.

He’s also pleased to see hundreds of tonnes of old concrete and brick demolition materials being removed from the foreshore and shallows as part of the project.

“It’s helping to clean up the environment, and removing things that can be potential hidden dangers for penguins like deep voids, and reinforcing wire,” he says.

The workers on site are very familiar with spots where penguins have nested and rested in the past, following regular visits by New Zealand’s only penguin detection dog Mena and her handler Alistair Judkins.

Images of penguin homes in Cobham Drive

Mena is certified by the Department of Conservation to work as a conservation dog as part of its Conservation Dogs Programme, and her visits have been timed to coincide with penguin nesting and moulting seasons.

A New Zealand-born Hungarian Vizsla, a type of pointer, she is specially trained to find places where penguins may be present, or have been regularly frequenting.

The detection experts from Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute (KORI) have carried out three searches so far, checking vegetation and rocks along the foreshore and mapping spots where special care needs to be taken.

One example is a bushy mound in the construction compound, where signs of penguins have been detected each time. The area has been fenced off, left intact, and will be incorporated into the new landscaping.

There’s also a small gap been left in the silt fence along the foreshore in this location so penguins can get between the sea and the mound if they want to.

The penguin protection work is just one of the ways Wellington City Council is working to safeguard wildlife as part of the project.

In early 2019 before work began, the Council also worked with DOC, reptile specialists from Wildland Consultants, Victoria University and local iwi Taranaki Whānui ki te Upoko o te Ika to relocate 380 native grass skinks from the area. Victoria University will be monitoring the lizards and doing follow-up research.

More information:

Penguins  

Planting

Lizards

Erosion control

Cobham Drive improvements