Dusk landing . . . Little penguins come ashore at Oamaru as night falls. PHOTO: SUPPLIED/OAMARU BLUE PENGUIN COLONY

If the latest little penguin numbers are anything to go by, there are plenty of fish in the sea off Oamaru’s coast.

Penguins have been coming ashore in record numbers this month, the 390 on June 8 being the highest number in one night since counting began in 1993, Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony science and environmental manager Philippa Agnew said.

“So normally, our peak in penguin numbers would be around November, when the majority of the adults have chicks that are quite big, and they’re needing to come and go every day. So that’s when we would see those numbers around the 300 mark,” Dr Agnew said.

“The average for June so far is 270 penguins per night, which is just phenomenal.”

The surge in numbers was due to an earlier breeding season, thanks to higher marine productivity from January to April, Dr Agnew said.

“When those months are higher than other years, it is then likely that the penguins will lay early.

“So there’s this critical period leading up to the breeding season, when all these factors combine. So high marine productivity, which is probably driving lots of food for the fish they eat, and then therefore there are lots of fish for the penguins to eat.

“The high numbers [of fish] mean that they’re able to forage really close to the colony and get plenty of food, so that they can come and go on a really regular basis.”

A knock-on effect of the fish supply is the penguins have good body condition, so lay eggs early.

“So the long-term average for the initiation of egg laying – or the onset – is in the middle of July, and for the last three seasons in a row we’ve had eggs laid in May,” Dr Agnew said.

“What it means, these birds that lay in the next few months, they’ll hatch their eggs, they’ll raise their chicks and then they’ll have a week or two break, where they regain a bit of body condition, and then they’ll lay another two eggs and raise two more chicks.

“The potential for them, is that they’ll be able to have four chicks in a season, instead of just the two. So it really is a key driver in increases in breeding success in those years.”

The first chick hatched last week.

Little penguins usually started breeding at two, so there should be a noticeable increase in the number of breeding birds in the next two years, she said.

This was positive for the future of the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.

The birds were not just breeding here, they would breed elsewhere too, and lately the Oamaru and Taiaroa Head colonies had been picking up each other’s penguins.

Dr Agnew said this year’s little penguin numbers were tracking slightly behind the record numbers of last year.

“But it’s still a very good year compared to the long-term averages.”

As for visitor numbers at the colony, support from domestic tourists had been strong, post-Covid lockdown.

“We’ve dropped in numbers this last six weeks, but that was expected, because April was a really good month, because we had Easter and school holidays.

“We are still having visitors come, it just means that there are fewer people, so they get a more intimate experience, I suppose.”

The colony would continue to remain open all year round, and more visitors were expected again in the July school holidays.