Up before dawn? Only for penguins.
It's pitch black, 5 a.m., and I'm walking briskly, but carefully, across a pasture where the daytime inhabitants have left reminders of yesterday's grassy lunch.Skip to next paragraph
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Why am I, a confirmed "night person," up before first light, climbing over fences, sliding down a sand-dune cliff, pounding across a wide beach, and clambering up another dune?
My predawn journey started at Nisbet Cottage just outside Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island. For me, the cottage's main attraction is the sunrise penguin walk that takes four visitors to a colony of rare yellow-eyed penguins.
My husband and I have taken advantage of the door-to-dune service to view the world's third-tallest breed of penguins. This early hour is the best time to see the birds as they head for their day-long food fest in the South Pacific waters off the Otago Peninsula.
The crashing surf may have been the penguin's wake-up call, but I was grateful for the phone that rang a half hour ago to propel me into jeans, hiking boots, and several shirt layers beneath my jacket.
Our guide, Eric, clad only in shorts and a shirt, shivers briefly when he opens the narrow slits of the hide, a small wooden hut that will allow us to observe these shy birds. We are nestled less than 25 yards from a cliffside colony that numbers about 35 yellow-eyed penguins.
"It's a southerly," Eric explains. "The winds come from Antarctica." Though it's February and midsummer, I pull on wool gloves before I pick up my binoculars.
Our guide gives us quiet instructions: "Listen. Look for white."
Sure enough, a trumpeting trill comes from off to my left. Each member of the colony has a unique voice, recognizable to its peers. I do a careful sweep of the grassy tussocks and see a white spot too upright to be a stone.
Yes, it's moving. I know I've spotted my first penguin when I see a chromium-yellow racing stripe that wraps around a head that is swinging back and forth. There's no way to know if it's a male or female penguin, since both sexes have the same markings. One thing is certain, however: This adult is calling for a swimming companion.
Yellow-eyed penguins, also called hoiho in Maori, are one of several species that make New Zealand their home. Most penguin groups plunge into the water en masse, but these birds, about the height of a human newborn, prefer the buddy system.
Locating a partner and deftly scaling the narrow gullies of the 200-foot cliff seems like a lot of work on an empty stomach. Once at the bottom, each bird traverses a rocky cove. Fortunately for us, it's low tide – so we can see them march across the beach before they dive into the frigid water.
This particular colony has had a disappointing breeding season. Only a few chicks have survived, and one of them appears unaware of the dangers of the leopard seals and sea lions that wait below.
Eric explains that the 3-month-old chick we see nearby would usually be left alone for the day while both parents go to feed on small fish and squid. At day's end, the adults typically return with enough leftovers to regurgitate a meal for their young one.
"Is this chick too lonely or too bold to stay at the nest?" I ask.
"Dunno," says Eric.
Whichever, the chick has tried to follow the rest of the crowd, so lately one of the parents has been staying home to contain the youngster's life-threatening enthusiasm. Land-based predators – such as stoats and ferrets – and habitat encroachment are also serious threats to New Zealand's penguins.
The sun is unable to penetrate the cloud cover, but there's plenty of light now as we watch the largest of the penguins, the colony kingpin, as he heads to the water with his sidekick for the day. Some colony members stand aside as he moves through the rocks and surf.
Several yellow-eyed brethren look down from the edge of the cliff as though they were sentries on duty.
"They don't all go in every day," Eric says.
I suggest that they may not be hungry, and he asks if I am.
Not surprisingly, the answer is yes. The combination of salt air, exercise, and the pure exhilaration of penguin watching has done its work. I'm ready to head back.
Daylight makes the return trek easier, and soon we're on Nisbet's hilltop deck with coffee mugs in hand.
As our hostess, Ursula, slides a plate of eggs and sausage my way, I spread her homemade gooseberry jam on my toast.
Warmed by the morning's memories, I'm very grateful that I don't have to dive into cold water for my breakfast.