The Fiordland crested penguin, or tawaki, is one of the rarest of New Zealand’s mainland penguins. Adults stand about 60 cm and weigh up to 4 kg.
Their upper parts are coloured dark bluish grey with slightly darker feathers on the head. The sides of the face, chin and throat are dark slate-grey with a broad yellow eyebrow stripe, which splays out and droops down the neck.
Fiordland crested penguin are monogamous and often mate for life
Juvenile birds have a thinner eyebrow stripe and a white chin and throat. Most birds have between three and six grey/white cheek stripes. They have an orange bill, which is slightly larger in adult males.
Where to find them
The tawaki is one of three penguin species that breed on the New Zealand mainland. Its breeding range extends along coastlines south of Bruce Bay in South Westland, to Fiordland and the islands of Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island.
Immature Fiordland crested penguins that moult in summer and early autumn sometimes straggle around the east coast of the South Island, where the species was once common.
Some non-breeding birds and juveniles have also been recorded in the Chatham Islands, the subantarctic islands and the Australian coast from New South Wales to Western Australia.
The current population is between 2500 and 3000 breeding pairs and has been in decline since the 1950s. A slight warming of sea temperatures in the past 50 years is thought to have had an effect on the distribution of food species and a subsequent impact on several penguin species.
The Fiordland crested penguin, or tawaki, is one of the rarest of New Zealand’s mainland penguins
Viewing tawaki / Fiordland crested penguin
You can view Fiordland crested penguin at Munro Beach, near Lake Moeraki but do not approach the birds or their nests
The most accessible place to see tawaki is at Munro Beach, near Lake Moeraki 30 km north of Haast. A walking track leads from Lake Moeraki to the beach, and guided tours are conducted from the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge. Tawaki can also be seen in Milford Sound and at Jackson Bay.
The best time of year to see tawaki is during the breeding season from July to November. They may also occasionally be seen during the moulting season from mid-January to early March.
Tawaki are very timid, so do not approach birds, nests or areas of beach where penguin tracks are common. Do not bring dogs close to penguin nesting areas.
During the nesting season in South Westland and Fiordland, the tawaki’s main diet is juvenile squid, octopus, krill and small fish.
Tawaki are monogamous and often mate for life. Although the pairs separate when not breeding, females return each year to the same beach in search of their mate from the previous season.
Tawaki reach breeding maturity at about five or six years. They nest individually or in small, loose colonies between July and December. Nest sites are close to the coast in caves, under overhangs, at the base of trees or in dense vegetation.
Females lay two white eggs by the end of August. The first egg is generally smaller than the second, and both are incubated for 30–35 days. Most first eggs fail to hatch, or the chicks die of starvation within ten days of hatching. Tawaki cannot raise more than one chick per season, and the first egg is thought to be an insurance policy in case the second egg does not survive.
Chicks are brooded by the male, who goes without food for the first three weeks. The chicks then form creches and are fed by both parents until they become independent and leave the colony in late November or early December.
Like other birds, penguins do not have teeth. Tawaki and other penguins instead have fleshy, backwards pointing spines on their tongue to hold slippery prey, which is swallowed whole without chewing.
Threats to Fiordland crested penguin / tawaki include predation and human disturbance during nesting season. You can help by keeping dogs away from colonies and not disturbing their nesting sites.
Tawaki pairs separate when they're not breeding, but females return each year to the same beach in search of their mate from the previous season
Stoats and dogs pose a serious risk to tawaki colonies. Stoats prey on both chicks and sick or injured adults, while a single dog has the potential to wipe out an entire colony.
Tawaki are highly susceptible to human disturbance when nesting and there is a concern that increased nature tourism in South Westland and Fiordland may disturb breeding birds and cause nests to fail.
You can help
Please keep dogs away from penguin colonies and do not disturb nesting sites.
Do not leave old fishing line on beaches or throw it into the sea.
Report any penguin sightings to the local Department of Conservation office and gain professional advice before disturbing a bird, even if you think it is sick. In many instances, these birds are simply moulting.
For more information about the Fiordland crested penguin/tawaki contact: