The main hands-on project for Southland Branch is the restoration of the 67 hectare Te Rere yellow-eyed penguin reserve in the Catlins.
The Te Rere Reserve was purchased by Forest & Bird in 1989 while native forest logging was threatening the penguin population. The site has now been managed by the Southland Branch for over 25 years.
This work has largely involves planting up to 1000 locally sourced native species every year, fencing, track making, weed and animal pest control, penguin monitoring and research. It is a remote and windswept coastal site and access is through private farmland.
The yellow-eyed penguin is a nationally rare species. At the time of purchasing the reserve the Te Rere site was the largest single population of yellow-eyed penguins known on the mainland of New Zealand. However, whilst enthusiastic, branch members were on a steep learning curve! Little was known about nesting habits of the penguin and while a small nesting area was initially fenced by volunteers it soon became evident that the penguins required a much larger area as it was discovered that they did not nest within sight of another bird.
As well as recently cleared forest the Te Rere reserve also contains large areas of native forest as well regenerating gullys and previously windrows of cleared trees. The area also contains the Falls Creek after which the Te Rere reserve is named and on this stream an impressive waterfall. The stream goes through bush out to sea over a large rocky platform which many of the penguins use to access nesting sites further inland.
In 1995 a disaster stuck Te Rere – a major fire escaped from adjoining farmland and many of the penguins were killed or subsequently died from their injuries. Much of the work done over the previous 15 years was destroyed. However, this setback made volunteers even more determined to save this nationally threatened species and its coastal habitat and effort was forthcoming from volunteers and supporters. More planting, more pest control, track making, fence building and the establishment of the Te Rere Advisory Committee – drawing on expertise from all over the Southland/Otago regions.
Since the fire penguin numbers have slowly increased to around 25 nests – about 70 penguins. Branch volunteers go to Te rere at least 4 times a year – for major planting effort and penguin monitoring. Part time caretaker Fergus Sutherland has been involved from the very beginning and now oversees the practical work being done at the reserve – animal pest and weed control, supervising volunteers, checking and repairing fences, plant maintenance, overseeing contracts and any other tasks that need to be done. Most recent activity (2013/4) has been the contract planting of a 10 hectare “gifted” area and the use of “trail cameras” which have recorded the comings and goings of not only yellow-eyed penguins, but also little blue penguins and sooty shearwaters – now visiting the site in increasing numbers.
Te Rere Reserve is not easily accessible and is not open to the public as practical access is through private farm land. However, visitors are encouraged to attend one of the Southland Branch working days when supporters go down to the reserve each year in July, August, October and December. Over the course of a year volunteer hours account for over 600 hours at Te Rere and the part time caretaker works over 200 hours pa at Te Rere.
Accessible yellow-eyed penguin viewing sites nearby include Nugget Point and to the south Curio Bay.