Kiwi scientists test health of yellow-eyed penguin population

On a small island hundreds of kilometres south of Bluff, Kiwi scientists are carrying out a census of sorts. They're trying to work out the population of our endangered yellow-eyed penguin. But the birds don't make it easy.

Get rid of the books and lecture theatres - this is what wildlife biology is really like - on your hands and knees bashing through 400 metres of bush every day in the hunt for yellow-eyed penguin nests.

"They nest in this sort of habitat but are hidden under bushes, so a large part of our work is finding the nests so we can monitor them through the season," says masters researcher Rebecca French.

A team of penguin researchers are stationed on Enderby Island in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic for four months over summer, arduously counting the yellow-eyeds one-by-one for the first complete population count since 1990.

"This is the most endangered penguin species in the world, and it's found only in New Zealand waters," says Massey PhD researcher Chris Muller.

Once found, the team will tag the penguins and monitor their nests, keeping an eye on feeding and breeding. That means long walks. While most penguin species nest in massive colonies, yellow-eyeds spread out and nest alone.

Enderby Island is the insurance policy for the yellow-eyed penguin. While there's small pockets on the New Zealand mainland, it's thought roughly 1000, or half of those currently known to be in existence, are on this tiny island, making the most of its pest-free status.

Their work will prove whether the species is recovering after decades of work to stave off extinction.

"We've lost enough species already, and as a biologist I feel quite strongly that I don't really want to see any more go extinct on my watch," says Mr Muller.

It's a species teetering on extinction, finding a safe haven in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic.