31 January 2011

DOC helps hungry hoiho

NEW ZEALAND - It must be hard being a hungry penguin chick waiting for your parents to return with food - especially when they don't return with enough, or don't return at all.

Luckily for six underweight yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho) chicks, they were found by Department of Conservation (DOC) staff at the Long Point reserve in the Catlins as part of their "pre-fledge weigh".

"They should really weigh about 4kg and 5kg by now, so these guys are all at least a couple of kilos underweight," DOC ranger Cheryl Pullar told the Otago Daily Times.

She said she suspected the parents of two of the chicks might have been injured, and was not sure what had happened to the parents of the other four chicks. The rest of the chicks at Long Point were healthy.

So the rescued chicks will spend about three weeks in the lap of luxury, being fattened up on smolt donated by Nelson company King Salmon.

"We'll feed them up so they have a better chance of survival in their first year at sea ... It's about helping ensure there's a breeding population out there," said Mrs Pullar.

Another yellow-eyed penguin, an adult male, also got lucky when he was spotted in distress by a wildlife photographer at Dunedin's St Clair beach.

DOC officer David Agnew, who rescued the penguin, told the Otago Daily Times that the penguin was showing signs of moult and was very thin. He also had a wound under his left wing, but Mr Agnew said that it was superficial.

The penguin will be taken to Penguin Place to recuperate.

Hand-fed hoiho on diet of salmon by Nigel Benson, 22 January 2011, Otago Daily Times
Penguin rescue at St Clair beach by Fergustus, 21 January 2011, Otago Daily Times

30 January 2011

Blog stars penguins, robots and satellites

I can fly!!!!
Adelie penguins on ice.
Photo by StormPetrel1. Some rights reserved.
A blog about penguins, underwater robots and space satellites sounds more like the work of a science fiction writer than a scientist. But the University of Delaware's assistant professor of oceanography Matthew Oliver is using the university's Ocean Bytes blog to discuss those very things.

On the blog Mr Oliver shares the experiences of a team of researchers from the University of Delaware, Rutgers University, Polar Oceans Research Group and California Polytechnic State University, who are using underwater robots and satellites to understand where and how Adelie penguins feed.

The research team are based on the West Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet. Since 1950, the temperature there has risen 6°C, causing the glaciers to retreat and the extent and duration of sea-ice to significantly decrease. Adelie penguins depend on the sea-ice, so the researchers want to know how are they adapting to the warming conditions.

The scientists identify "good" penguins to be fitted with satellite-linked transmitters that allow them to map the penguins' foraging tracks. Once they know where the feeding hotspots are, they use robots (autonomous underwater vehicles - AUVs) to do additional surveys in those places and further examine the penguins' foraging habits.

Mr Oliver says on the blog, "All in all it is a pretty awesome mission to track these penguins from space and AUV's. We will all see how the season develops!" And thanks to the Ocean Bytes blog, we can.

Penguins, AUV's, satellites: Together at last by Matthew Oliver, 21 January 2011, Ocean Bytes
Penguins from space by Matthew Oliver, 14 December 2010, Ocean Bytes
Penguins, robots and satellites: New blog share Antarctic research, 24 January 2011, University of Delaware

28 January 2011

La Nina behind hundreds of little penguin deaths

Little penguins in New Zealand.
Photo by ricklibrarian. Some rights reserved.
NEW ZEALAND - Blame it on the weather. Hundreds of little penguins and other seabirds are starving to death, and conservationists say the La Nina weather pattern may be the reason behind their lack of food.

La Nina is the counterpart of El Nino in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a climate pattern that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean. Although it is a natural phenomenon, ENSO causes extreme weather such as floods and droughts. It is thought that the current La Nina weather pattern - the strongest since 1975 - is responsible for the recent floods in Queensland, Australia.

And for the little penguins, it has meant a lack of prey. MetService weather ambassador Bob McDavitt told The Northern Advocate that La Nina's northerly winds have driven a layer of warm subtropical water on to New Zealand, stopping the usual upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water around the coast.

In normal conditions, it is these cold currents that stir up the ocean and bring penguin prey such as small fish and plankton near the surface of the water.

Shireen Helps and her husband Francis have been caring for a colony of white-flippered penguins (a subspecies of little penguin) on their Banks Peninsula property for about 25 years. Mrs Helps told The Dominion Post that the unusually warm currents had made it difficult for the adult penguins to find food. They had to stay out foraging at sea for too long, which lead to their chicks starving. Most of the chicks that hatched at the colony between October and December – numbering in the hundreds - had died, she said.

"There were chicks dying in their burrows, in the hillside, and heaps dying on the water."

Department of Conservation vet Kate McInnes told The Northern Advocate the seabird deaths were sad but the result of a natural event. She advised that even if starving birds were rescued, releasing them back into the wild in these lean times was risky.

"Even if we ran around and fed every baby chick we could find, when they fledge they won't be able to find food."

Lisa Argilla, Wellington Zoo’s veterinary science manager, said she was concerned about what would happen to species such as penguins if extreme weather events happened more frequently.

She told The Dominion Post, "They're natural occurrences that always happen, but now they're happening more regularly and it's playing havoc with wildlife populations."

Penguins needed five or six years of good conditions for populations to regenerate, she said.

Scientists are not sure whether ENSO events will be more frequent in the future. But if they are, it could mean little penguin populations are in big trouble.

Dying birds stir extinction fears by Kiran Chug, 22 January 2011, The Dominion Post

22 January 2011

"Happy" little penguin makes Steamer Basin its home

NEW ZEALAND - A little penguin has taken up residence in Dunedin's Steamer Basin and seems to be happily defying the norms of the behaviour of its species.

Little penguins generally do not come ashore before dusk and will usually leave land before dawn, spending their day foraging out at sea. But this one hangs out at the wharf during the day, and even takes fish from the local fishermen.

Its sleeping habits are a puzzle too. Little penguins usually spend the night nesting in burrows, but Department of Conservation (DOC) marine manager Jim Fyfe told the Otago Daily Times, "We're not sure where this one goes. There are lots of places under the wharves where it could go to hop out of the water. That may be where it goes at night."

The penguin's presence at the wharf seems to have divided the locals; some fishermen said it had been hooked a couple of times and should be moved on, while others enjoyed it being there and called it a "local harbour identity".

Mr Fyfe believed the penguin had made Steamer Basin its home because the food supply was good. He said the fishermen shouldn't feed the penguin as he hoped it would return to its natural habitat.

DOC had been notified about the penguin by concerned members of the public who said that some fishermen were attempting to catch it in their nets. But Mr Fyfe said that the penguin seemed quite happy and was not causing any problems, so DOC would continue to monitor the situation rather than relocate the penguin.

"If it proves to be an ongoing problem, we'll consider moving it, but it could come straight back," he said.

And why wouldn't it? With a good food supply, a secret hidey-hole to sleep in and status as a local celebrity, I would probably come back too.

Little blue penguin attracted to appealing menu at wharf by John Lewis and Rebecca Fox, 14 January 2011, Otago Daily Times
Little penguin, Lloyd Spencer Davis, PenguinWorld

Tragedy for aquarium as three rescued penguins die in one week

NEW ZEALAND - They say bad luck comes in threes, and it certainly did for Ecoworld Aquarium in Picton, after three injured little penguins brought into the aquarium in the same week died within hours of arrival.

One of the penguins appeared to have been hit by a boat and suffered extensive internal bleeding, another had injuries to its head and leg and the third was a chick weighing less than 400 grams.

Ecoworld manager Regan Russell told The Marlborough Express that the aquarium has been working with penguins for only two years. During this time they have received about 20 penguins, and this was the first time any had died.

Thankfully Ecoworld's run of bad luck seems to be turning with Flipper, the fourth penguin to arrive in that week. Although Flipper's flipper was bitten off in what appeared to be a dog attack, the penguin, named by aquarium staff, is making a good recovery.

Call to watch for penguins by Tania Butterfield, 11 January 2011, The Marlborough Express

Is band practice bad practice?

King penguins on Possession Island.
Photo by ¡WOUW!. Some rights reserved.

A study published in the 13 January issue of Nature that shows flipper banding has a significant impact on the breeding success and survival rate of king penguins has reignited a long-standing debate among penguin scientists.

Flipper bands have been used for decades because they can be read at a distance by researchers using binoculars. This means that the penguins do not have to be recaptured, which would be stressful for the birds. But some scientists have questioned whether the bands harm the penguins' health, perhaps by damaging their flippers, or causing a drag effect on the flippers that means the penguins have to use more energy when swimming and fishing.

To look at the long-term effects of flipper banding, scientists from French and Norwegian universities conducted a decade-long study of king penguins on the subantarctic Possession Island in the Southern Ocean. They implanted tiny electronic tags under the skin of 100 penguins, and then fitted half of those birds with flipper bands. Antennas buried along the penguins' pathways between the colony and the sea allowed the scientists to identify the individual birds by radio frequencies and monitor them as they left and returned to the colony.

Over the 10-year period, the banded birds had a 16% lower survival rate and produced 39% fewer chicks than non-banded birds. Not only that, but the banded birds arrived later at their breeding sites, and continued to have a delayed breeding cycle on account of their longer food foraging trips, refuting the theory that penguins get accustomed to their bands after a certain time.

Given that many scientists view penguins as "sentinel species" that are likely to show the first effects of climate change, another important result was that the banded penguins did not react in the same way as the non-banded birds to changes in sea temperature.

"In favourable periods, when the sea temperature is low and food resources are abundant, there is virtually no difference between banded and non-banded animals," said Claire Saraux of Université de Strasbourg, one of the authors of the study.

"On the other hand, when the sea temperature is higher, the penguins need to forage further to find their food and banded birds then stay longer at sea."

Not everyone agrees that these results can be generalised to all penguin species and all flipper bands, however. World-renowned University of Washington penguin biologist Dee Boersma, who has used bands to study Magellanic penguins in Argentina, told NPR that she has no doubt the Possession Island study "shows that the bands that they used on king penguins harmed the king penguins ... But all bands are not created equal. It depends on what material that they are made of, it depends on how they are shaped, it depends on how they are fitted to the individual penguin. It depends on what penguin species it is."

University of Bristol's Peter Barham is the lead scientist on an Earthwatch project studying African penguins on Robben Island in South Africa. Commenting on the Possession Island study, he said, "There have been several studies on the effect of banding on African penguins and Magellanic penguins which have been unable to find any significant differences between banded and unbanded penguins when it comes to breeding success.

"There are, however, other impacts of banding which is one reason why we want to introduce [a] recognition system to replace banding where possible. From time to time, for example, we find African penguins trapped by their bands."

This is an important point: if the use of bands is to be discontinued, alternatives must be found. The electronic tags used in the king penguin study have the disadvantage that they cannot be read at a distance; the penguins must come into close proximity with the antenna that "reads" the bird's identity. Barham and the Earthwatch project team are testing and refining an automatic recognition system that will recognise the patterns of spots on individual adult African penguins' chests, allowing them to monitor the penguins remotely. A remarkable system, but it will only work for penguin species that have individual markings - and not all do.

In the meantime it is likely many penguin scientists will keep using flipper banding. And as current knowledge of the effect of climate change on penguin populations is based to a large extent on data from banded birds, the Possession Island study's authors say such information should be viewed with caution. 

Band of Bothers by Daniel Cressey, 12 January 2011, Nature News
Flipper bands can harm king penguin population by Christopher Joyce, 12 January 2011, NPR
New technology will help to protect South African penguins, Bristol University press release, 14 January 2011, University of Bristol
Southern hemisphere territories: flipper bands hinder king penguins, CRNS news release, 14 January 2011, AlphaGalileo
Unethical flipper bands are damaging to penguins by Richard Black, 12 January 2011, BBC News

Nature article citation
Reliability of flipper-banded penguins as indicators of climate change. Claire Saraux, Céline Le Bohec, Joël M. Durant, Vincent A. Viblanc, Michel Gauthier-Clerc, David Beaune, Young-Hyang Park, Nigel G. Yoccoz, Nils C. Stenseth & Yvon Le Maho. Nature. 13 January 2011

15 January 2011

Manly penguin wardens quit after alleged assault

AUSTRALIA - Two of Manly Cove's penguin wardens have left the volunteer patrol programme, fearing for their safety after one of their number was allegedly assaulted on duty.

Johnyth Burton resigned after she was allegedly splashed and pushed over by James Oatley on New Year's Day. She and head warden Angela Treichler were protecting the little penguins from a dog which had arrived on a boat with group of people that included Mr Oatley.

The incident has understandably affected the volunteers, and a second warden has now resigned. Head warden Angela Treichler, who started the patrols six years ago, told The Manly Daily, "They are just scared." And who can blame them?

Ms Treichler said that they had excellent support from the local police, but would like two extra council rangers to back up their nightly patrols and "to be there for the protection of people and animals".

Henry Wong, Manly Council general manager, said the council would do "whatever it takes" to protect the penguin colony, which as risen from one to five pairs since Ms Treichler started the patrols.

I have great admiration for Mrs Burton who, despite the alleged assault, has not given up on trying to protecting the endangered birds. Ms Treichler told The Sydney Morning Herald that the 72-year-old will continue helping with "the penguin politics".

"We have to fight developers and do all sorts of things and she is great at that," she said. 

Read related post: Penguin warden allegedly assaulted while on duty

Manly penguin wardens quit by Peter Bodkin, 11 January 2011, The Manly Daily
Warden quits the front line after beach dramas by Tim Barlass, 9 January 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald

09 January 2011

Plucky penguin finds herself in the lions' den

African penguins at Münster Zoo.
Photo by Lilia Efimova.
Some rights reserved.
GERMANY - The youngest African penguin at Münster Zoo took advantage of the icy conditions on New Year's Day and found her way out of her enclosure ... and into the lion's den!

After strolling around the zoo, the adventurous 3-month-old was spotted by a visitor wandering along the ice-covered moat beside the lion house.

"Luckily the family of lions didn't pose a threat because they were dozing in the warmth of their house," said the zoo. The real danger was the penguin panicking and slipping under the ice, as the moat was only partially frozen.

Zoo keeper Steffi Klann managed to lure the penguin out of the moat the next day with a trail of herrings. She is now safely back with the other penguins.

Münster Zoo usually refers to the penguins by number, but in honour of her adventure no. 459 has been appropriately named Leona.

Escaped penguin ends up in lion enclosure, 3 January 2011, Spiegel Online
'Leona' im Löwengraben: Ein kleiner Pinguin auf großer Tour im Zoo, 3 January 2011,
Münster Zoo

Penguin warden allegedly assaulted while on duty

Little penguins at Manly Beach.
Photo by meltingnoise.
Some rights reserved
AUSTRALIA - When Johnyth Burton signed up as a volunteer to protect little penguins she may have expected to cop some verbal abuse from beachgoers caught disobeying the rules. But it's unlikely she would have expected to be assaulted.

Yet 27-year-old James Oatley will appear in Manly Local Court on a charge of common assault after he allegedly pushed the 72-year-old volunteer as she tried to protect the endangered penguins at Manly Cove in NSW from a dog.

Mr Oatley was one of group of people who, along with the dog, arrived by boat at Manly Cove at 9pm. It is claimed the dog jumped from the boat and ran towards the penguins.

Head penguin warden Angelika Treichler was also on duty that night. She told The Daily Telegraph, "We just tried to set up a barrier between the penguins and the dog, because the dog was running towards the penguin."

The wardens said they told Mr Oatley and the dog's owner that they could be fined for letting the dog run on the beach and asked them to put it on a leash.

Once the dog was under control, the wardens started taking photos of the men and scene. It was then that Mr Oatley allegedly got into an argument with Mrs Burton, splashing water on her and pushing her into the sand.

Police arrived shortly afterwards and arrested Mr Oatley.

Ms Treichler said her friend had been left "quite frail" after the incident and had told her she "never wants to do the penguin duty ever again".

It's outrageous that anyone would behave like that towards someone who is kind enough to devote their own time to protecting an endangered species. The rules are there to protect the penguins, and the volunteers are there to try to make sure those rules are followed. How many people will become volunteers if they think they will be pushed around like that?

Penguin protector assault charge laid on James Oatley by Amy Dale, 3 January 2011, The Daily Telegraph
Push and a shove floors a guardian of penguins by Geesche Jacobsen, 3 January 2011, Sydney Morning Herald

04 January 2011

Penguins take gold, silver and bronze at Edinburgh Zoo

Sponsors' favourite: king penguins at
Edinburgh Zoo. Photo by Fulla T.
Some rights reserved
UNITED KINGDOM - Penguins are awesome, obviously, and it's heartening to see that the good people of Scotland recognise this. Well, Edinburgh Zoo supporters do at any rate, according to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS).

Over the past year, king penguins were the most popular choice for people sponsoring animals from the zoo, with gentoo and rockhopper penguins coming in second and third respectively.

RZSS figures show that 180 people sponsored one of the regal kings (whose popularity probably gets a boost from having Sir Nils Olav, who received a Norwegian knighthood in 2008, among their ranks), 106 people a gentoo and 99 a rockhopper.

In my opinion, it's likely that the penguins' daily walk gives them the edge over the zoo's other animals. It's not often you get to see zoo animals leave their enclosures and strut their stuff. 

Tracy Hope, RZSS Acting Development Manager, told the media, "Animal adoption is a great way to support RZSS. Our animals need care 365 days a year, and by adopting an animal you can contribute to this."

Scots rush to pick up a penguin, 2 January 2011, Press Association