Little Penguin outing

By Fam Charko

We are received by Zoe Hogg, who has been coordinating the research activities for the last 26 years. As we walk along the pier and pass the public boardwalk, she tells me about the enormous datasets she has obtained with the help of her many volunteers. This year, she has had PhD students run tests on the data with surprising results; Zoe estimated the St Kilda pier population to consist of around 1500 animals, but in-depth analysis showed a possible population of close to 3000.

One of the reasons why the birds are doing well in this not very peaceful spot is their stress-resistant nature. As we walk along the pier in the dark, we can hear their social calls and see them scramble over the rocks, looking for their burrows. Even drunk Irish backpackers don’t deter them, which is a feat not many humans can boast of. Bravely they waddle between the boulders, occasionally jumping from rock to rock, setting off squeals of laugher and excitement among the tourists. The only thing really harmful to them is a camera flash, one of the volunteers explains. “Their eyes are very photosensitive,” she tells me. “Being flashed in the face by a bright white light will blind them for such a long amount of time, they can’t find their burrows to feed their chicks. Red light, on the other hand, is safe to use as they can’t see the red light spectrum like we do.”

As we leave the boardwalk and Zoe opens the padlock to the big fence on the breakwater, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the two patient volunteers that patrol the area and keep an eye on the tourists. “No flash please,” I can hear them say every few minutes, as they try to educate the visitors and protect the penguins from a light-overdose. If that were me, I don’t think I could be that patient for long. After the third warning I would most likely be ready to push people off the boardwalk into the water. I have great respect for their dedication.

Beyond the fence all is quiet. The monitoring will take place in this restricted area of the pier. We split up in groups, each of which will sweep a part of the breakwater for penguins.

“I have hidden 10 Easter eggs last night,” Zoe announces, “if you don’t find all of them, I’ll know you’re slacking it.” Grinning, she unpacks her backpack and gets her monitoring tools ready. It doesn’t take long for a volunteer to catch the first penguin. He is on his belly, sticking his arm as far down a burrow as he can manage. Squawking loudly in protest, the little penguin tries to wriggle itself out of his grasp as he pulls it out from between the rocks. When that doesn’t work, it resorts to a vicious pecking into the volunteer’s fingers. Watching the dagger-like beak tearing through the cloth, it is instantly clear to me why they are all wearing gloves. I used to wonder what would happen to the poor little things when somebody grabbed them, but my fears were unfounded; between the wriggling, screaming and pecking, they seem to be able to take care of themselves.

The volunteer carefully drops the penguin head-first into a little cloth bag and Zoe weighs it with a hand-held scale. Around this time of year, they are supposed to weigh about 1.5 kilos. The penguin’s catch location is recorded, and the width of its beak, which determines its sex (males have slightly broader beaks). All penguins are checked for PIT-tags, the little chips that are also used to tag dogs and cats, and the identification number is noted. This way, the researchers can follow the individual penguins throughout their lifetime.

One volunteer catches two chicks in the same burrow. They look funny, with their dazed expressions and plucky down nesting feathers all over the place, like a bad haircut. Their parents have not returned from hunting yet, so we quickly weigh them and insert PIT-tags before putting them back into their burrow.

“It’s a shame,” the volunteer tells me, “these chicks are probably not going to make it through the winter. It’s too late in the season, they should have already been self-sufficient by now.” I ask Zoe if this happens a lot. She shakes her head. “We’ve had a very good year for penguins,” she says, “because last year was terrible. There were very few nests. But this year, the penguins that did not have nests last year seemed to make up for it by having two nests this breeding season. They started breeding much earlier than usual.

These chicks probably come from a second nest and they won’t make it before the weather gets bad. But as their siblings are already out there, it shouldn’t matter for the population size.” It’s harsh for the two little ones, but that’s life.

We catch plenty of penguins that night. One is a massive fatty, weighing a whopping 2.4 kilos. I learn that this one is about to moult. When moulting, the penguins change all of their feathers over in the space of 2-3 weeks. During that time they can’t go out into the water to hunt and stay in their burrows. So they stock up on energy and fat-reserves beforehand to last them until their new water-resistant plumage is ready. All the newly moulted penguins we catch are beautiful. Their feathers are sleek and shiny, with the unmistakable metallic blue hue that this species is known for. By the time we are finished, our little group has a few dozen sightings under its belt (including penguins that were recorded as ‘audible’ and ‘unreachable’ when we could hear them but not get to them). We pack up and walk back to the gate. “Here, take these home,” Zoe says and hands out chocolate Easter eggs, some of which have suspicious peckmarks on them. “Good job, you’ve found them all.”

Want to learn more about Little Penguins? Visit the webpage of Earthcare St Kilda: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~earthcar