Local groups look out for the wellbeing of little Penguins

Dr Eric Woehler
Dr Eric Woehler
Dr Eric Woehler talks to the group about the little penguins at Low Head. (PHOTO: Zac Lockhart)

Local group, Tamar NRM (Tamar Natural Resource Management) hosted their Tamar Discovery Series featuring the little Penguins that reside in the Low Head area.

The little penguins, scientif­ically known as Eudyptula minor, are the smallest of their kind and can dive approximately 30 metres be­low sea level for about 1-1 ½ minutes. The adult penguin’s weigh around 1kg and grow to approximately 40cm high and have an average lifespan of 6 years.

The penguins have large eyes with retinas which are specifically adapted to de­tect movement in low light, and they can also see clearly both above and under water.

Penguins are cleverly coloured, allowing them to blend in with their sur­roundings providing them with the ultimate cam­ouflage from prey above and below the water. The silvery-white underside of a penguin makes it hard­er for seals and sharks to spot them from beneath the ocean’s surface, while the dark shading on their back blends in with the sea making it hard for preda­tory birds to see them from above.

Penguins catch their prey by rapidly jabbing with their beaks and swallowing it whole. To maintain their condition, they must eat 25% of their body weight each day. When penguins are feeding young or build­ing up fat to moult, they need to eat more food.

Penguins are thought to attract mates by singing, but they also use this song to frighten off intruders and strengthen the bond between a mated pair. The song begins with a bass rumble followed by a trum­pet-like cry accompanied by flipper, beak, and body movements.

BirdLife Tasmania Con­venor and Ornithologist, Dr Eric Woehler described the penguins as generalists when it came to their diet. “They eat fish, squid, crus­taceans, anything that they come across they will eat because they can’t afford to swim past something, hop­ing that something better will be beyond that.”

“Like all birds, they regur­gitate their food, feed the chick and then sometimes the same bird that’s just come out of the water will stay with the chick and then the partner will go out, they’ll alternate.”

Little Penguins are only found in Australia and New Zealand and are believed to stretch around the Austra­lian coastline from Perth, Western Australia via the Great Australian Bight, through to Kangaroo Island, South Australia, Victoria and as far north as Sydney, but Tasmania is believed to be the stronghold for the species.

“We do have them all around New Zealand and the interesting thing is that they’re similar but not iden­tical. There’s a suggestion that New Zealand little pen­guins might be a different species to the little penguins here in Tasmania.”

Historically, a typical year for penguins would see them come ashore during Springtime (September – November), breed during the Summer (December – February), moult in the Autumn (March – May) and then spend the Winter (June – August) at sea, how­ever there is new evidence to suggest that the birds are changing their yearly regime.

“When I was up here (in Low Head) in August, we had birds on eggs, birds with chicks and birds get­ting ready to breed.”

Data has revealed that there are four areas in the world, including South-East Australia, Patagonia and two patches of water up in the Arctic Ocean, North of Russia where oceans are warming four times faster than the rest of the world’s oceans. At this stage, experts are unclear on the reasoning behind this, however the change has increased the re­cords for warmer water, fish, turtles and other species off the East Coast of Tasma­nia. Which Dr Woehler suggested may be why the penguins are changing their behaviour to.

“There is change hap­pening and the birds are responding, the penguins are responding by breeding more over a greater span of time. The only thing that is still fixed is the moult, every bird in the world as to moult its feathers at least once a year. Some birds do it twice a year, the penguins do it once a year and they do it after their breeding season.”

“At the moment we’re getting moult sometime between the first week in January through to about the end of March, that 3-month window, the birds will moult somewhere in that, and it takes them about 20-25 days to moult and then they’ll go out to sea.”

Based on the size of the chicks in the colony back in August, Dr Woehler said he did some calculations and believed the birds were lay­ing eggs in early June while the days were still getting shorter before the winter solstice.

“They’ve completely changed their breeding cy­cle and it’s simply a function of water temperatures and increased food availability for the birds.” He said.

“We’re getting sometimes 10-15% of birds breeding in the winter months, when 20 years ago it wasn’t happen­ing at all.”

Dr Woehler stated that there were consequences associat­ed with the birds’ tendency to stay ashore longer and it makes them more vulnera­ble to pray. “We’ve seen an increase not here but state-wide, we’ve had an increase in dog attacks on penguins in the last say, 10 years compared to previous years because the birds are ashore more often.”

“They’re spending more time breeding, so with one side of the equation they come ashore for breeding and producing more young­sters, but that also has a negative to it in that they are more susceptible to preda­tion and being attacked by dogs.”

Sometimes as 60 penguins can be killed in a single night by loose dogs and as many as 200 have been killed in the Low Head area across 4-5 dog attacks. “The colony will take decades to recover because they are only producing 2 eggs when they breed, and typically if they’re lucky they get one chick out of 2 eggs. If they’re breeding 2 or 3 times a year or at least twice, it reduces the time that it takes the colony to recover but it will still take decades.”

The Friends of Low Head Penguin Colony Group is one of many volun­teer-based organisations that aim to protect the penguins and record more data about them. One measure they have taken to help protect the penguins is the installation of nest boxes which the penguins use when they are breeding or moulting.

“There’s been various people that have put in concrete ig­loos, nest boxes of different designs, but there’s been no real effort made to map or register where all those are so in all of my walks, I think we’ve now mapped about 60 – 70 old nest boxes and igloos in the landscape that people had no idea where they were.”

Earlier in the year, local schools were engaged to help make the nest boxes which were then placed out in the area for the penguins. Dr Woehler noted that when he surveyed the boxes last month, only about six or seven nest boxes hadn’t been used in some way. “It’s a remarkably successful effort by the community and by the Friends of Low Head Group and the schools to have produced.”

“I think we’ve still got another 10-15 boxes to put out, but certainly it’s very clear that it’s very easy for a community group to make a significant difference in terms of getting the kids involved so there’s a bit of local ownership, the kids got their names on the nest boxes. We’ve got that in­formation so there’s a bit of ownership. It’s also building onto getting involvement in the next generation.”

Previous publications have stated that there are over 1,000,000 little penguins in Australia, however Dr Woehler does not believe this number to be accurate stating it was based on a false belief.

Research conducted over the last 10 or so years by the Philip Island Nature Parks organisation now has experts estimating colony sizes of between 250,000 and 500,000 birds.

“It’s much more accurate and so the concern will be that when those numbers start getting published, peo­ple are going to say, oh but this one said a million, now you’re saying half a million. Oh my God, we’ve lost half a million Penguins, that’s not the way that it works, it was never a million birds to begin with.”

“Slowly we’re building up the picture of what the real populations are for Pen­guins in Tasmania but it’s going to take a long time.”

Penguin viewing is typically good year-round, though the number of penguins seen varies with the season.

Because penguins are nocturnal creatures with sensitive eyes, they should be observed only with sub­dued lighting.

“It’s really important that when you go to a colony be it Low Head or Bicheno wherever, that you use red lights. Don’t use the flash on your phone, don’t use the white lights, the torch on your phone. Their eyes are really sensitive to white light and so by putting a red cellophane or using a red filter on your torch or phone means that you can see the birds and you don’t disturb the birds.”

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