Lit­tle pen­guins

De­spite crowds of city dwellers and tourists, lit­tle pen­guins are thriv­ing in the rather un­likely sur­round­ings of sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Linda Vergnani Pho­tos Doug Gimesy

We take a trip to Mel­bourne’s sea­side sub­urb of St Kilda, which is home to a colony of over 1,000 lit­tle pen­guins

Vi­brat­ing, whirring calls rise from the black vol­canic boul­ders on the break­wa­ter. In the gather­ing dark, it sounds as if the stones are com­ing alive; wail­ing and trilling. Spotting scuf­fling shapes, Zoe Hogg, a vol­un­teer re­searcher, shines her red-fil­ter torch onto a small rock plat­form. “There’s a pair of chicks!” She fo­cuses on two plump baby lit­tle pen­guins that look like fluffy toys.

“Look at that beau­ti­ful blue,” Zoe says. It is not un­til an­other vol­un­teer dis­creetly shines a torch beam that I can see the tiny flip­pers are cov­ered in sleek, steel-blue feath­ers. The un­usual mid­night col­oration of the wa­ter­proof adult plumage is the rea­son these pen­guins – small­est of the world’s 18 species – are also known as lit­tle blue pen­guins.

Zoe says most of the sum­mer chicks have fledged, so we are lucky to find these young­sters, which she es­ti­mates are five to six weeks old. Be­low us, a flotilla of a dozen birds ar­rives in the har­bour. Swim­ming in along­side the yachts, the pen­guins emit soft yaps – “mep, mep”. Then the white-breasted birds rocket in to land and bounce up from

one boul­der to the next. Some dis­ap­pear into the gnarled salt bushes, while oth­ers scuttle down the cen­tre of the break­wa­ter.

When they reach their nest­ing bur­rows, of­ten just nar­row clefts be­tween boul­ders, the adults greet their mates with bray­ing calls. Some raise their heads and beat their flip­pers up and down as they trum­pet their ex­u­ber­ant greet­ings to one an­other.

Pen­guin pa­parazzi

Just the other side of a high steel fence, hun­dreds of tourists crowd along the break­wa­ter, watch­ing the nightly re­turn of the adult birds. The rafts of pen­guins are greeted with de­light, sur­prise and lots of cam­era and phone lenses. Fans come from around the globe to see this colony of about 1,400 lit­tle pen­guins, liv­ing in Mel­bourne’s once-bo­hemian sea­side sub­urb of St Kilda.

Each night, Earth­care St Kilda vol­un­teer guides in high-vis­i­bil­ity vests pro­tect the birds from the reg­u­lar in­flux of tourists and help to ed­u­cate them. Zoe, an 83-yearold mu­si­cian, artist and re­tired an­a­lyt­i­cal chemist, is the char­ity’s dy­namic for­mer pres­i­dent. She has worked with the pen­guins for 30 years, so knows them in­ti­mately, and says they’re ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing along­side the city with its five mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. They seem un­afraid of crowds. “These are fat, lazy, city pen­guins,” she says.

In­deed, re­search has re­vealed that the St Kilda pen­guins are plumper than those of the

The rafts of pen­guins are greeted with de­light, sur­prise and lots of cam­era and phone lenses.

mega-colony at Phillip Is­land, roughly 70km away as the crow flies, which is home to about 32,000 adult birds. The for­mer find it easy to catch fish in Port Phillip Bay, whereas the lat­ter feed mainly in the tur­bu­lent seas of the Bass Strait, which lies be­tween Aus­tralia and Tas­ma­nia. They for­age by day, mostly tak­ing an­chovies and sar­dines, but also other small school­ing fish, squid and krill.

Al­most half a mil­lion lit­tle pen­guins live around the south­ern coast­line of Aus­tralia and on the shores of North and South Is­land in New Zealand. Adults stand 30–33cm tall, barely more than a wine bot­tle, and weigh just over 1kg, so their al­ter­na­tive name of fairy pen­guin is rather apt.

Away from sub­ur­ban St Kilda, lit­tle pen­guins of­ten live on is­lands or at the foot

of main­land cliffs. They nest in bur­rows in the dunes, in sea caves or un­der bushes. Birds be­gin breed­ing at two years old and choose a long-term mate, though ‘di­vorce’ can oc­cur. Par­ents take turns in­cu­bat­ing clutches of two eggs and guard­ing, brood­ing and feed­ing the newly hatched chicks. Once the young­sters de­velop their choco­late­coloured down coats, they can reg­u­late their own body tem­per­a­tures and are left on their own while both par­ents go fish­ing.

“These pen­guins spend only about 20 per cent of their life-cy­cle on land,” says An­dre Chiara­dia, a marine bi­ol­o­gist at Phillip Is­land Na­ture Parks. Since they rely on their eye­sight to catch prey, they need to for­age in day­light, and come to land to feed their hun­gry brood af­ter dark, when it is cooler. An­dre is a pro­lific re­searcher, who is also on the steer­ing com­mit­tee of the IUCN Pen­guin Spe­cial­ist Group, and uses high­tech equip­ment to study how these pen­guins in­ter­act with their prey and re­act to changes in the en­vi­ron­ment. He says that, on av­er­age, they dive 1,300 times a day.

Keep­ing tabs

In 1994, An­dre be­gan mi­crochip­ping the pen­guins of Phillip Is­land. The tags are in­serted be­tween their shoul­der blades. “The idea was to col­lect re­li­able in­for­ma­tion with­out dis­turb­ing the birds,” he says. An­dre in­stalled a weigh­ing ma­chine “like a toll gate for pen­guins”, which al­lows him to au­to­mat­i­cally record the time each pen­guin comes or goes, as well as its weight. From this he is then able to cal­cu­late the amount of food gath­ered by in­di­vid­u­als and brought back to the chicks. “To give you an idea of the vol­ume of data,” An­dre says, “I col­lect 20 mil­lion data points a year.”

Us­ing time-depth recorders to see where in the wa­ter col­umn the pen­guins catch their prey, An­dre found one bird dived to an as­ton­ish­ing 72m in the open sea. By con­trast, the St Kilda birds fish en­tirely in the shal­lower waters of Port Phillip Bay, which has a max­i­mum depth of just 14m. “The St Kilda’s pen­guins can trap their prey at the bot­tom,” An­dre says. “It has nowhere to swim, so is much eas­ier to catch.”

The St Kilda pen­guins travel, on av­er­age, just 14km a day on their for­ag­ing ex­pe­di­tions. As a re­sult, An­dre says these pen­guins are “heav­ier and big­ger, pro­duce larger chicks and have up to three clutches a year”. On the other hand, the Phillip Is­land pen­guins swim dou­ble the dis­tance – an av­er­age of 30km – and dive deeper to fish. They can spend up to three days out at sea. Usu­ally these is­land birds rear just one chick per cou­ple, per year.

An­dre ex­plains that the two colonies are af­fected by cli­mate change in dif­fer­ent ways. Droughts that are wors­ened by cli­mate change af­fect the flow of the Yarra River, which re­sults in fewer fish spawn­ing in the bay and less food for the St Kilda pen­guins. At Phillip Is­land, the pen­guins have been im­pacted by an av­er­age 2°C rise in sea tem­per­a­ture along the south-east coast of Aus­tralia. This drives their prey out into the colder waters fur­ther off­shore, so the birds need to go on longer fish­ing ex­pe­di­tions.

I meet the Port Phillip bay­keeper, Neil Blake, at a cafe over­look­ing the windy beach and break­wa­ter. He is found­ing direc­tor of the Port Phillip EcoCen­tre, and tells me that the break­wa­ter was built to pro­tect vis­it­ing yachts that came to the 1956 Sum­mer

Olympics. By the time a pro­posal went to the lo­cal coun­cil in 1985 to re­de­velop St Kilda har­bour, in­clud­ing the crum­bling break­wa­ter, a few pen­guins had al­ready moved in and made it their home.

At that stage, Neil was a young park ranger for the coun­cil. He was one of sev­eral vol­un­teers as­sist­ing the late Pro­fes­sor Mike Cullen of Monash Uni­ver­sity with a study of the pen­guins, find­ing out more about the colony and the likely im­pact con­struc­tion work would have. They ringed and weighed more than 100 adults and 38 chicks over three years. “I was par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by their bite!” says Neil rue­fully. “Ev­ery fort­night we went out and got bit­ten.”

The team found that the St Kilda chicks were heav­ier – at about 1,050–1,300g – than Phillip Is­land chicks, which weighed about 800–950g. “This pat­tern of well-fed ‘bubs’ seems to be the key to the St Kilda suc­cess,” Neil says. Plans for re­de­vel­op­ing the har­bour were dropped, but the break­wa­ter was strength­ened us­ing 22,000 tonnes of vol­canic rock. Grad­u­ally, the birds oc­cu­pied the whole break­wa­ter, con­nected to the main­land by a wooden pier. The pier kept out in­tro­duced foxes and other preda­tors, but a mi­nor­ity of peo­ple were a threat.

Sadly, Neil re­veals that they had to keep quiet about the St Kilda pen­guins at first, be­cause of con­cern about drunks and “peo­ple who were off their brain and wanted to take out their bad feel­ings on small things”. But about 15 years ago, a boat op­er­a­tor be­gan of­fer­ing pen­guin tours and then the me­dia re­ported on the colony. “The whole world

Some pen­guins were us­ing plas­tic bags as nest­ing ma­te­rial.

knows about it now,” smiles Neil. Roughly 60,000 to 100,000 visi­tors come each year, with as many as 600 on sum­mer nights.

Neil’s col­league, marine bi­ol­o­gist Fam Charko, says the St Kilda’s pen­guins are not only sur­viv­ing, but thriv­ing. “I find it amaz­ing how re­silient they are,” she notes, “be­cause they are shar­ing this space with five mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing right on their doorstep.”

Among the re­search projects in which Fam is in­volved is a study into mi­croplas­tic pol­lu­tion from the Yarra and Maribyrnon­g rivers. Based on monthly mi­croplas­tics trawls, Fam says they es­ti­mate 828 mil­lion pieces of plas­tic en­ter the bay each year. They sus­pect the mi­croplas­tics are eaten by fish, which are then caught by the pen­guins. The ef­fect on the birds is still un­known. Sci­en­tist Flossy Sper­ring, re­search co­or­di­na­tor for Earth­Care St Kilda, is also con­cerned about how plas­tic pol­lu­tion and rub­bish from the Yarra River is af­fect­ing the pen­guins. She has found some pen­guins us­ing plas­tic bags, muesli bar wrap­pers and lol­lipop sticks as nest­ing ma­te­rial, in­stead of us­ing nat­u­ral veg­e­ta­tion.

Hands on, hands off

Flossy man­ages about 30 trained vol­un­teers who go out fort­nightly to catch and weigh pen­guins – a tricky task as the feisty birds some­times have to be hauled out of their nests be­tween the boul­ders. Each bird is put in a bag and weighed with a spring scale. Chicks of about four weeks old, that are larger than 750g, are mi­crochipped.

“Our main goal is to mon­i­tor the pop­u­la­tion’s health,” Flossy says. For this rea­son, the vol­un­teers do not res­cue aban­doned or weak chicks, as that would be in­ter­ven­ing in nat­u­ral selec­tion, though if the pen­guin pop­u­la­tion were to de­cline or the over­all weight of the birds dropped, then they might con­sider in­ter­ven­ing. But, as Flossy says: “We are not here to in­ter­fere – we’re here to look af­ter them.”

LINDA VERGNANI is a nat­u­ral­his­tory and en­vi­ron­ment jour­nal­ist based in Aus­tralia.

DOUG GIMESY is a con­ser­va­tion and wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher. See more of his work at

Small pen­guin, big peo­ple. Per­spec­tive makes it look as if these tourists are al­most on top of the bird, but vol­un­teer guides en­sure they are not as close as they seem to be.

Above: Zoe Hogg ( left) and fel­low vol­un­teer Kate Bulling ( right) check a lit­tle pen­guin chick for fleas and ticks – par­a­sites that can se­ri­ously harm a young pen­guin.

Clock­wise from above: a pair of lit­tle pen­guins look out at Mel­bourne’s city lights; vol­un­teer Kirsty Wil­son clears the colony’s nest­ing area of rub­bish, pulling cigarette butts, cof­fee cups and fish­ing lines from be­tween the boul­ders; a raft of lit­tle pen­guins make their way back to St Kilda’s break­wa­ter; an in­di­vid­ual at its bur­row en­trance.

Clock­wise from above: af­ter sun­set, two lit­tle pen­guins walk along the top of the break­wa­ter, hav­ing re­turned from a day’s fish­ing in the waters of Port Phillip Bay; vol­un­teer Vicky Lee pre­pares to care­fully weigh a young chick be­fore record­ing its sex and mi­crochip­ping it; it takes par­ents about 35 days to in­cu­bate their two eggs.

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