One of the world’s rarest penguins has reappeared in Milford Sound for the annual moulting season. This is one of only two times each year when the tawaki, or Fiordland crested penguin, may be seen on shore; the other time being the breeding season from July to November.
While it is exciting for both visitors and locals to spot the tawaki moving to and from their nests to moult, it is a very stressful time for the threatened birds. Throughout the moult the penguins are low in energy and at risk of starvation, dehydration and predators.
Unlike with most other seabirds, the penguins moult all of their feathers at once. Without their feather coat to keep them warm and dry, the penguins’ body is poorly insulated and they cannot go to sea to feed. Confined to shore until their new feathers grow, the penguins can lose around half of their body weight.
The best way of seeing the tawaki in Milford Sound is by the Southern Discoveries kayak or small boat cruise, where a safe viewing distance is maintained and guides can educate guests about the moulting phenomenon. People should never touch or approach the penguins and even if they start walking towards you, you should move away from them. Camera flashes should also be turned off when taking photos.
The moulting season normally takes places between late January and early March, and lasts around three weeks. Moulting is a naturally occurring process in which the penguin replaces its worn feathers with new ones each year.
The penguins can look particularly scruffy or even sick during the moult. If you are worried about a bird, please contact the Department of Conservation helpline by phone on: P: 0800 DOCHOT (0800 362 468).
The rare Fiordland Crested Penguin at home in Milford Sound