31 March 2011

NZ fur seal population boom could spell doom for Kangaroo Island's little penguins

New Zealand fur seals on Kangaroo
Island. Photo by Mike Lehmann.
Some rights reserved.
AUSTRALIA - What is good news for Kangaroo Island's New Zealand fur seals is bad news for its little penguins. The fur seal population in South Australia is exploding, and it could spell the end of large penguin colonies on the island.

New Zealand fur seals were nearly wiped out by early colonial sealing, Simon Goldsworthy, associate professor at Flinders University's School of Biological Sciences, told The Australian, when more than 100,000 fur seals were taken from Kangaroo Island.

Since commercial sealing stopped, however, the fur seal population has been increasing for at least the last 30 years according to the IUCN Red List.

Bill Haddrill, Kangaroo Island's conservation program manager with the Department for Environment and Heritage, told The Australian there are currently about 25,000 fur seals in Kangaroo Island waters, with the population expanding at a compound rate of 10-12% a year.

South Australia's wildlife authorities see this rebuilding of the fur seal population as a natural phenomenon, and say it would be futile to intervene.

However, Simone Somerfield feels somewhat differently about what she described as the "wholesale slaughter" by these furry predators of the little penguins who nest at her Penneshaw Penguin Centre on Kangaroo Island.

Three years ago, the penguin population at the centre was 200 birds. Today it is less than half a dozen.

Ms Somerfield has seen the predatory powers of the fur seals first-hand and said she didn't know how the penguins would survive on Kangaroo Island because of the way they were being attacked.

She told The Australian that at first she saw the penguins being taken one at a time and would say, "That's amazing, it's like David Attenborough."

"But then it was more and more and more, and then mass kills in which the seals were not even eating them. It was happening within 100m and you have a complete view, it was like watching a horror movie," she said.

But Mr Haddrill said that it was likely penguin numbers and distributions on Kangaroo Island were returning to historical norms.

"It is not clear if there has been a decline in the overall population or in the distribution along the shore line," he said. Kingscote, on the northern side of the island, now had a steady population of 700 to 800 breeding birds and, although the number of penguins on Penneshaw's main beach had significantly reduced, there were higher numbers at the nearby North Shore.

According to Professor Goldsworthy, there will always be little penguin colonies breeding on Kangaroo Island, but large colonies may be a thing of the past now the fur seal population is recovering.

Fate of island penguins appears sealed as hunted become hunters by Graham Lloyd, 26 March 2011, The Australian

29 March 2011

Tristan Islanders rally to save oiled penguins

Stabilising a penguin.
Photo by Katrine Herian/The RSPB
TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Nearly 1,500 oil-soaked northern rockhopper penguins have now been put into 'rehab' by Tristan Islanders facing a race against the clock to help save the endangered species. 

But those assessing the impact of the disaster believe more than 10,000 birds could have been affected.

Local conservationists, volunteers and now experts from the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCOBB) have been working tirelessly to help the threatened birds.

So far 1,481 penguins have been brought to Tristan for rehabilitation. The rescue team have set up a rehab shed, which can hold about 1,000 penguins, and the team has begun efforts to stabilise them with fluid, vitamins and charcoal to absorb ingested oil. The penguins that are not as badly oiled as the others are being held in an outside pen.

Katrine Herian, who works for the RSPB on the island, says: “The priority is to get food into the birds as they are very hungry. We are trying locally caught fish and some are starting to take small half inch squares of the food.

“We will do all we can to clean up as many penguins as possible after this disaster.”

A local barge went out specifically to catch fish for the penguins, which was filleted and fed to the oiled birds.

Washing of the birds will be started once they are stabilised and heaters or infrared bulbs are available to keep them warm afterwards. There is a high risk of pneumonia developing if they are cold.

The swimming pool on Tristan has been closed for bathing, drained of chlorinated water and partially refilled with fresh water to be used for lightly oiled birds. The first 80 have been put in the pool and took to the water immediately - diving, splashing and later preening.

The crew of the Oliva, which is still ashore on Tristan, are helping out by building a facility for the birds.

Sarah Sanders from the RSPB’s International Division says: "We still can’t believe this has happened and suspect that the full impacts of the oil spill will still be coming to light in weeks to come.

"Unlike previous spills of this size, it didn’t happen way out to sea and gradually approach such a vital conservation area. It struck right at the heart of the penguin colony and it’s devastating to them."

It is hoped a decision will be made quickly to send a second ship from Cape Town shortly.

People around the world have been moved by the plight of Tristan's wildlife and the threat to the island's way of life caused by the incident and have asked how they can help. However, volunteers cannot be flown to Tristan da Cunha (because there is no airport and only limited passenger capacity on the infrequent sailings) and further supplies will take 4-6 days to reach the island.

There is as yet no formal appeal for funds to support the work the Tristan da Cunha community is doing, but anyone wanting to donate money to help support the community respond to the environmental disaster can join the UK-based Tristan da Cunha Association which exists to support the island.

Read related posts

Tristan Islanders rally to save oiled penguins, 25 March 2011, RSBP
Oliva Tristan Diary, Tristan da Cunha Association: accessed 29 March 2011
Tristan da Cunha MS Oliva Environmental Emergency: How you can help, Tristan da Cunha Association

25 March 2011

Nightingale Island oil spill: Update

The above video, narrated and posted on YouTube by Andrew on his WheresAndrewTV channel, gives us some idea of the extent of this disaster. WARNING: It contains disturbing images of oiled penguins.

It has now been over a week since MS Olivia ran aground on Nightingale Island. Initially it was thought that 20,000 northern rockhopper penguins would be affected by the resulting oil spill, but there is now hope that that this was an overestimate.

The salvage tug Smit Amandla from Cape Town, South Africa, carrying environmental advisor Estelle van der Merwe and equipment and supplies to support basic stabilisation for about 500 birds for about 3-5 days, arrived on Monday and a remarkable wildlife rescue operation is now underway.

The Tristan Conservation Team is carefully collecting oiled rockhopper penguins from Nightingale, Inaccessible and Middle Islands for transport to the main island of Tristan da Cunha. There, Ms van der Merwe is co-ordinating personnel and facilities to stabilise, clean up and eventually release the penguins back to the ocean.

Nearly 500 rockhoppers from Nightingale Island were brought to Tristan today and they are being kept in a cleared-out Public Works Department shed. Other oiled penguins are being penned on Inaccessible Island while they wait for transportation. Un-oiled penguins are also being penned on the islands to prevent them going back into the ocean while there is still oil present.

Unfortunately, the birds cannot be fed in captivity until another ship arrives from South Africa with a load of frozen fish, along with an experienced seabird cleaning team put together by SANCOBB, and other essential supplies. A departure date is yet to be confirmed, but for the penguins it is a race against time.
If you want to find out more news, penguin expert Dyan deNapoli is also posting regular updates on The Penguin Lady Blog

The Penguin Lady Blog: accessed 24 March 2011

Little penguin successfully released after zoo's "tender loving care"

NEW ZEALAND - Animal rescuers scored another point against the La Nina weather patterns with the successful release of a rehabilitated little penguin.

The fledgling was found, starving and malnourished, at Lyall Bay and taken to Wellington Zoo in late January. After two months of being fed on a diet of salmon, vitamin supplements and salt, the young bird made a great recovery, veterinary science manager Lisa Argilla told the Dominion Post.

"He didn't really need much medical treatment, just some worm tablets and a lot of tender loving care," she said. He also spent a lot of time in the pool to keep his fitness up.

The penguin's release at Moa Point went like clockwork, Dr Argilla said. As soon as the cage was opened the penguin "charged out and made straight for the water".

I am glad the penguin is back in the wild where he belongs, but I hope he will find enough to eat. Dr Argilla told the Dominion Post that the current La Nina weather patterns were making it hard for sea birds to find food, because the calmer seas meant fewer small fish and plankton close to the surface of the water for them to feed on.

La Nina is a formidable opponent and animal rescuers can't save every bird that is brought in. Sadly, another young little penguin brought in to Wellington Zoo around the same time in a similar condition died shortly after it arrived.

Read related post: La Nina behind hundreds of little penguin deaths

The Office Zoo patient declared seaworthy by Stacey Wood, 24 March 2011, The Dominion Post
Dying birds stir extinction fears by Kiran Chug, 22 January 2011, The Dominion Post

Penguin premiere for "Mr Popper's Penguins" trailer

SeaWorld San Diego's penguins watch
"Mr Popper's Penguins" trailer
Credit: Eric Charbonneau/WireImage.com
USA - If you're always wearing a tuxedo, you're always ready for a movie premiere - which must be why the penguins at SeaWorld San Diego seemed to take it all in their stride when they were given a special screening of the first trailer for the 20th Century Fox comedy "Mr Popper's Penguins".

The unusual movie goers were even provided with appropriate snacks - popcorn boxes filled with herrings.

Starring six gentoo penguins (oh, and a human named Jim Carrey), Mr Popper's Penguins will open in the USA on 17 June.

I wonder if the penguin's keepers will let them watch the movie when it's released - now they've seen the trailer they'll want to find out what happens!

SeaWorld San Diego’s penguins get first look at Jim Carrey’s new movie "Mr. Popper's Penguins" at premiere of film’s trailer, 23 March 2011, Business Wire

Watch the trailer below:

22 March 2011

Environmental disaster threatens rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha

TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Disaster struck on 16 March when the cargo vessel HMS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic. An oil spill now threatens wildlife, including nearly half of the world's population of northern rockhopper penguins.

The fuel oil and cargo of 1,500 tonnes of heavy crude oil is already leaking into the sea. Oil now surrounds Nightingale Island and extends to a slick 8 miles offshore from the wreck. Hundreds of oiled penguins, classified as "endangered" on the on the IUCN Red List, have been seen coming ashore.

Trevor Glass, the Tristan Conservation Officer, has been working around the clock since the incident occurred early on Wednesday morning. He said, "The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island.

"The Tristan Conservation Team are doing all they can to clean up the penguins that are currently coming ashore. It is a disaster."

Oil is not the only threat from the vessel - there is also the risk of any rats onboard coming ashore and colonising the island. Nightingale Island is one of the few alien mammal-free islands in the Southern Ocean, and the arrival and establishment of rats would potentially place its internationally important seabird colonies in immense jeopardy.
Although the HMS Oliva was reported rat-free by its captain, the Tristan Conservation Department are not taking any chances and have already placed baited rodent traps on the shore on the north-west of the island where the bulk carrier has grounded.

Some hope is on the way: a salvage tug, Smit Amandla, is currently en-route from Cape Town and due to arrive at the island today. On board the tug is environmental specialist Estelle van der Merwe, who played a key role at SANCCOB at the time of the MV Treasure oil spill which affected South African seabirds. As the MS Oliva has already broken in two, it is no longer a salvage operation, and the Tristan authorities understand that the vessel’s operators and insurers are investigating chartering a second vessel to assist with cleaning up the pollution and oiled seabirds.

RSPB research biologist Richard Cuthbert, who has visited Nightingale Island, said, "The consequences of this wreck could be potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands.

"The Tristan da Cunha islands, especially Nightingale and adjacent Middle Island, hold million of nesting seabirds as well as four out of every ten of the world population of the globally endangered northern rockhopper penguin. Over 200,000 penguins are currently on the islands and these birds will be heavily impacted by leaking oil.

"If the vessel happens to be harbouring rats and they get ashore, then a twin environmental catastrophe could arise."

For the latest news on this environmental disaster, visit:
The Tristan da Cunha website: News MS Oliva
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels: News MS Oliva

UK penguins in peril as grounded ship threatens twin environmental disaster, 21 March 2011, RSPB
The Tristan da Cunha website: News MS Oliva: accessed 21 March 2011
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels: News MS Oliva: accessed 21 March 2011

21 March 2011

Record-breaking breeding season for Middle Island penguins

AUSTRALIA - It's been another record-breaking breeding season for the little penguins on Warrnambool's Middle Island.

The latest surveys have recorded 180 adult penguins on the island, more than triple the 51 penguins recorded in 2008.

The colony's success has been credited to their canine bodyguards. The penguins have been under the protection of Maremma sheepdogs since 2006. The dogs' presence deters foxes and other dogs from the island.

"We can deduce from our data that the island is now providing a more secure breeding habitat for around 180 adult penguins - a substantial increase on the handful of birds recorded in 2005 before the Maremmas were in place," Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group leader Kristie King told The Standard.

"We recorded 104 birds in December during a second peak of breeding, which supports our suspicion that some pairs have laid two clutches of eggs this season, known as double-brooding.

"This phenomenon, which is uncommon in penguins, suggests that the colony is recovering well after many years of severe fox predation."

Ms King told The Standard that the survey deductions were backed up by results from the breeding monitoring program, which showed there had been an increase in numbers of chicks fledging from the island.

The monitoring team now has five years' worth of information about the colony, and will begin a detailed analysis of the data, Ms King said.

Read related post: Canine graduates ready to protect penguins

Penguins hatch a record chick count by Tina Liptai, 21 March 2011, The Warrnambool Standard

Thieves steal little penguins under cover of darkness

AUSTRALIA - Some very upsetting news from South Australia this week as Granite Island Penguin Centre told the Sunday Mail that vandals have climbed fences to abduct little penguins and destroy their habitat.

"We've had six penguins stolen, it's dreadful," Penguin Centre co-ordinator Dorothy Longden told the Sunday Mail.

The Penguin Centre cares for sick and injured penguins before releasing them back into the wild. To steal the penguins, the thieves had to scale a six-foot-high concrete fence. As if stealing the birds wasn't horrible enought, the perpetrators also destroyed the penguins' burrows.

Mrs Longden said that she thought the thieves either released the stolen birds elsewhere, where they are unlikely to survive, or tried to keep them as pets.

To make matters worse, the penguins are being taken from an already dwindling population. Ten years ago, the island's penguin population was 1,500; last August's census showed there were only 146 birds left.

Environment Department Kangaroo Island regional manager Bill Haddrill told the Sunday Mail that humans were part of the reason penguin numbers had dropped, along with dogs, cats, rats and New Zealand fur seals.

"Human disturbances in the form of habitat loss and habitat modification play a significant role in determining sustainability of little penguin colonies, as do human visitation impacts," he said.

The centre has security measures such as the fences and cameras in place, but Mrs Longden says more needs to be done. She would like the causeway that connects that island to the mainland closed off at night, which is when all the problems, including bottles being thrown into the penguins' burrows, have occurred.

"We have to be serious about the penguins we have left. If we close the causeway off we might stand a chance. We started a petition in January and have more than 1,000 signatures, we want about 2,000 altogether," she said.

Fears for penguins being pinched from Granite Island by Sarah Mennie, 20 March 2011, Sunday Mail (SA)

17 March 2011

SeaWorld's flying penguins go viral

USA - While it may not have quite as much action as the 2006 movie "Snakes on a Plane", a Southwest Airlines passenger's YouTube video "Penguins on a Plane" has become an internet sensation.

The Magellanic penguins flew from San Francisco, where they had attended a national science convention, to SeaWorld in San Diego on 12 March.

A passenger videoed Pete, one of the feathery flight attendants, as he roamed freely down the aisle.

On the video a SeaWorld staff member can be heard educating the passengers about the birds over the tannoy. It would have made a nice change from listening to the emergency exit procedures!

13 March 2011

Hospital patient penguins now free as birds

Yellow-eyed penguin at Penguin Place.
Photo by Andy Griffiths. Some rights reserved.
NEW ZEALAND - They've spent nearly a month as hospital patients, but now six yellow-eyed penguins are ready to be released back into the wild, Otago Daily Times reported.

After spending an initial fortnight with Department of Conservation Owaka ranger Cheryl Pullar, the underweight birds were kept at Penguin Place hospital on the Otago Peninsula until they put on enough weight to help ensure their survival in the wild. They are now four months old and weigh up to 5.5kg.

Glen Reily of Penguin Place told Otago Daily Times that some penguins were struggling to find enough food for their chicks, possibly because of the La Nina weather pattern.

It has been a busy summer for the hospital, with up to 50 injured or underweight birds staying at a time.

Read related post: DOC helps hungry hoiho

Better after hospital stay by Eileen Goodwin, 12 March 2011, Otago Daily Times

Adelie penguins' underwater life caught on video

Adelie penguins. Photo by Martha de
. Some rights reserved.
ANTARCTICA - Back in 2004, the emperor penguins at "Penguin Ranch" on McMurdo Sound became underwater reporters when, with cameras strapped to their backs, they revealed for the first time a penguin's-eye view of their watery world. Now Adelie penguins are sharing their secret life under the ice as part of a scientific investigation conducted by the National Institute of Polar Research, Japan.

An institute spokesman, Hiroyasu Kumagae, told Reuters, "Fundamentally, Adelie penguins spend much of their lives during the summer under the sea ice, so it's hard for humans to observe them in their natural habitat. ... So the researchers got the idea of putting cameras on the penguins and getting them to act as 'cameramen'."

The Japanese researchers attached tiny (21mm x 80mm) video cameras to the backs of 15 Adelie penguins with special tape. The cameras were set to automatically switch on when the penguins entered the water. Video footage was successfully retrieved from 10 of the "penguin-cams" and it is believed that the footage, which will be available when the researchers return to Japan later in March, will be a world first.

The institute said the images of life under the ice were captured with surprising clarity.

Kumagae assured Reuters that the cameras did not harm the birds. "I think they probably didn't like having the cameras attached very much, though course I don't know how a penguin thinks. It would have felt that it was carrying something but otherwise there was no stress on its body, and its movements were unlimited." 

"Penguin-cam" reveals secrets of life below the ice by Elaine Lies, 8 March 2011, Reuters
"Penguin Ranch" reveals hunting, swimming secrets by James Owen, 30 January 2004, National Geographic News

12 March 2011

The scientists and the mystery of the vanishing emperor penguin colony

Emperor penguins. Photo by StormPetrel1.
Some rights reserved.
ANTARCTICA - A small colony of emperor penguins has disappeared from Emperor Island off the West Antarctic Peninsula. The finding (or loss) was published in the February edition of the journal PLoS One, where the researchers said it was the first time the disappearance of an emperor colony has been documented. So where did the penguins go and why?

Where they went is a mystery. Lead author Phil Trathan from British Antarctic Survey said, "It is not clear whether the colony died out or relocated. Emperor penguins are thought to return each year to the sites where they hatched, but the colonies must sometimes relocate because of changes in the sea ice."

As to why, it looks like the effects of climate change have struck again. The colony's disappearance has been attributed to a reduction in sea ice, which the emperors need for breeding and foraging.

The colony was found in 1948 when scientists observed 150 breeding pairs gathering on the island. The number of penguins in the colony has been declining steadily since 1970, and in 2009 a high resolution aerial survey showed no trace of the colony. This decline in numbers relates closely to a rise in local air temperature and seasonal changes in ice duration, which are associated with - you guessed it - climate change.

"It is clear that emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in sea ice and the one site in Antarctica where we have seen really big changes in ice is the West Antarctic Peninsula. For much of the 20th century, this region has warmed at an unprecedented rate, particularly in recent decades," said Dr Trathan.

He added, "Continued climate change is likely to impact on future breeding success."

The paper also looked at alternative reasons behind the colony's disappearance. The authors discounted competition from fisheries and the impacts of tourism, and said there was no data to support the ideas that disease or unusual weather conditions were responsible. However, they stressed the need for similar studies elsewhere in the Antarctic to reduce uncertainty about risks to emperor penguins.

First recorded loss of an emperor penguin colony, 10 March 2011, British Antarctic Survey

PLoS One citation
First recorded loss of an emperor penguin colony in the recent period of Antarctic regional warming: implications for other colonies. Trathan P.N., Fretwell P.T., Stonehouse B. PLoS One 6(2). 28 February 2011.

Positive breeding season for yellow-eyed penguins

Yellow-eyed penguin. Photo by
mat79. Some rights reseved.
NEW ZEALAND - There's some good news for yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago coast: the Department of Conservation (DOC) has recently finished its pre-fledge nest checks and told the Otago Daily Times that overall it's been a very positive breeding season.

This good result comes despite an outbreak of avian diptheria that hit the Otago Peninsula and caused the death of about half the chicks at Boulder Beach and Sandfly Bay, leaving only 70 chicks to fledge.

DOC ranger Mel Young told the Otago Daily Times that there were about 485 nests along the coast, which was similar to the previous breeding season. Even better, most of the eggs hatched and the majority of chicks survived to the pre-fledge check and have since fledged slightly earlier than normal.

During the pre-fledge check, chicks that were found to be significantly lighter than the ideal fledge weight of 5kg were transferred to Penguin Place's penguin hospital to be "fattened up".

There was also good news from Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust field manager Dave McFarlane, who said it had been a "pretty positive" season for the trust's reserves. He told the Otago Daily Times that average chick weights were slightly up on last year and nest numbers were similar to other years. 

Breeding season very positive: DOC by Rebecca Fox, 5 March 2011, Otago Daily Times

"Intensive" program to protect Manly's penguins

AUSTRALIA - Following a devastating dog attack on Manly's little penguin colony in December last year, the NSW Department of Environment Climate Change and Water (DECCW) and Manly Council have announced a new action plan to protect the endangered birds in the upcoming breeding season.

"Manly's little penguin population is the subject of one of the most intensive threatened species programs in the country," DECCW Deputy Director and National Parks head Sally Barnes said.

The new action plan aims to reduce the chance of dog attacks - the biggest threat to birds in the area - by introducing a policy of zero tolerance for people ignoring leash-only areas at Manly Cove, including Federation Point where the December attack occurred.

The plan, which is to be in place before the beginning of the breeding season in July, also includes expanding Manly Council’s existing Wildlife Protection Area, upgrading fencing on the Federation Point boardwalk, using CCTV to monitor the Federation Point nesting area, research and tailored education campaigns to improve community education, and discussions with fisheries and maritime authorities about boating strategies that may reduce disturbance to the penguins.

"A key part of the plan is an investigation into extending declared critical habitat to Federation Point. This process is well underway, with a formal request having been made to the NSW Scientific Committee seeking their advice on the matter," Ms Barnes said.

Manly's endangered population is estimated at about 60 breeding pairs, most of whom nest within critical habitat areas in Sydney Harbour National Park. About five pairs breed either under Manly Wharf or at Federation Point.

"The population does appear to be fragile but stable, with our monitoring showing a trend upwards since 2002 and evidence the birds are looking at areas outside their core breeding habitat," Ms Barnes said.

While DECCW and the Little Penguin Recovery Team are still finalising a monitoring report for the 2010/11 breeding season, Ms Barnes said preliminary monitoring data showed the population had experienced a strong breeding success (76%) this season.

"However there were fewer breeding pairs and therefore fewer eggs and fewer fledglings, which seabird scientists suggest was due to the poor shape the birds were in when they arrived," she said.

"Our threatened species team believes this is most likely due to oceanic conditions and a lack of small fish for adult breeding birds."

Zero tolerance for dog owners next penguin breeding season, 4 March 2011, Department of Environment Climate Change and Water

On-the-spot dry cleaning for oiled penguins

Little penguin on Phillip Island.
Photo by Marcus Frieze.
Some rights reserved.
AUSTRALIA - Humans often get their tuxedos dry cleaned and now penguins can too! Researchers John Orbell from Victoria University and Peter Dann from Phillip Island Nature Parks have found a way of "dry cleaning" oiled penguins which they have been successfully testing on little penguins on Phillip Island, Victoria.

Oil is a major problem for penguins worldwide and cleaning oiled birds is a tricky business. The problem, Dr Dann told The Sydney Morning Herald, is that rubbing the detergent through the feathers disrupts the feather structure, which is actually what makes them waterproof. "It can take weeks or months until they can get their feathers back to a condition where they are waterproof.''

The new technique, on the other hand, leaves the feather structure intact. It involves sprinkling the penguin with an iron powder that absorbs the oil. The powder is then removed from the bird with a magnet. What makes it even better is that the oil and the iron powder can be separated and the powder reused.

Dr Dann said the aim was to clean the penguins on the spot as they returned to shore, since moving the birds to another location to clean them was more disruptive.

The method can be used on seals and sea otters as well as seabirds.

Phillip Island Nature Parks has declared March "Penguin Month" in celebration of its famous penguin parade's 80th anniversary. There will be special Penguin Month activities, tours and events, so if you are in Victoria this month I suggest you make your way to Phillip Island!

Science dusts of penguins for 80th birthday by Bridie Smith, 4 March 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald

10 March 2011

Earthcare St Kilda celebrates 25 years of penguin research

Little penguin at St Kilda: overweight
and ready to moult.
Photo © Earthcare St Kilda Inc.
AUSTRALIA - They may be blue rather than the traditional 25th anniversary gift of silver, but for Earthcare St Kilda the presence of the 1000-odd little penguins is the perfect gift to celebrate 25 years of penguin research in St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria.

Monitoring of the St Kilda penguins began in 1986 with the St Kilda Council's proposal to substantially redevelop the harbour. As part of the proposal, the Council asked Professor Mike Cullen of Monash University to provide a report about the local penguins. Professor Cullen declined the commission, and instead embarked on an independent long-term study of the colony.

Since then, the St Kilda Penguin Study Group, a small band of dedicated research volunteers, have been making fortnightly visits to the breakwater to collect data on the colony. The study group was the catalyst for the formation of Earthcare St Kilda, which now co-ordinates the study as well as other conservation projects.

Technology has certainly changed since the group started monitoring the penguins a quarter of a century ago; now the Earthcare members and volunteers catch the little penguins to scan microchips planted under their skin.

"We can track where they've been, who they've been with, if they have any eggs or chicks and we know how old they are," Tiana Preston, who recently completed a PhD on the St Kilda colony, told Melbourne Weekly.

They also remove any fishing lines or rubbish that the penguins have been caught up in - an unfortunate experience for about 12 penguins a year. "That doesn't sound like a lot but it really isn't good for them," Ms Preston said.

The 2011 Melbourne Penguin Symposium, held on 6 March, celebrated the 25-year milestone and provided an opportunity for attendees to learn about the latest little penguin research, with speakers from Earthcare St Kilda, Phillip Island Nature Parks, Monash University and Deakin University sharing their findings. There were also presentations from local wildlife carer Mandy Hall and The Arctic Circle cartoonist Alex Hallatt.

Ms Hallat said on her blog that she had learned a lot more about penguins at the symposium. She also said that Earthcare St Kilda was looking for committed volunteers to look after the penguins on the breakwater, and highly recommended becoming a volunteer to those in the St Kilda area.

Earthcare and penguins by Alex Hallat, 7 March 2011, Arctic Circle Blog
History, St Kilda Penguins
St Kilda penguin protection a happy feat for carers by Rebecca Thistleton, 28 February 2011, Melbourne Weekly
St Kilda penguin study by Neil Blake, Earthcare St Kilda

Endangered Species Act protection for southern rockhoppers

A southern rockhopper penguin in the
Falkland Islands.
Photo © Larry Master/masterimages.org.
USA - Their spiky hairstyle makes them look anti-establishment, but the punk rockers of the penguin world now have protection from the US government. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that the New Zealand/Australia distinct population segment of southern rockhopper penguins will join the list of threatened species protected under the US Endangered Species Act. The listing follows a legal settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) over delays in protecting the penguin.

Listing under the Act will raise awareness of the penguins' plight and increase research and conservation funds. It will also mean that federal agencies are required to ensure that any action carried out, authorised, or funded by the US government will not jeopardise the continued existence of the penguin species. This includes compelling federal agencies to look at the impact of the emissions generated by their activities on listed species and to adopt solutions to reduce them.

"These hardy penguins survive on remote, stormy, sub-Antarctic islands in the Southern Ocean, practically at the edge of the world, and yet they may not survive climate change. Endangered Species Act protections can begin to address this threat," said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center.

The New Zealand/Australia distinct population segment of southern rockhopper penguin is found in the subantarctic region south of these two countries. The population size of this species, which breeds on the Macquarie, Campbell, Auckland and Antipodes Island groups, has declined by approximately 90% since the 1940s and continues to shrink. They are classified as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List.

"These penguins have adapted to an inhospitable environment over hundreds of years, but the combination of ocean warming and commercial fishing may prove to be too much," said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of TIRN. "Through this listing, the government is acknowledging that our oceans are sick and taking a first step to protect penguins and their watery world."

The Center first petitioned to protect southern rockhoppers in 2006, along with 11 other penguin species. In 2008, it sued the Department of Interior for its delay in providing protection for the penguins, and since then the African, Humboldt, yellow-eyed, white-flippered, Fiordland and erect-crested penguin species have been listed as threatened under the Act.

ESA protection provided to rare penguin species, 22 February 2011, US Fish and Wildlife Service
Southern rockhopper penguins listed as threatened species; climate change protections needed, 22 February 2011, Center for Biological Diversity

A novel experience for first-time penguin carer

NEW ZEALAND - Not many of us can say we've taken home a penguin, but now Animal Care veterninary nurse Kirsty Brewer is one of the lucky few who can. On the flip(per) side, Wallace, the little penguin in question, is one of a relatively small number of penguins who has been inside a human's house.

According to Hawke's Bay Today, Wallace - underweight, anaemic and dehydrated - was brought to Animal Care in early February by a group of young girls who found him on Ocean Beach .

Mrs Brewer has worked at the Havelock North veterinary centre for 10 years, but this is her first time caring for a penguin. The pampered Wallace goes home with her so he can be fed regularly and he has almost doubled his body weight. Following advice from penguin experts at Massey University and the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, his diet is mostly salmon.

Animal Care is hoping Wallace will recover fully so that he can be released back into the wild. Otherwise, there may be a home of him at Auckland Zoo.

Haven from out of the blue by Caitlin Nobes, 19 February 2011, Hawke's Bay Today

High levels of mercury in Perth's penguins

Little penguins on Penguin Island,
near Perth. Photo by John Lindie.
Some rights reserved.
AUSTRALIA - A Conservation Council of Western Australia study of little penguins has shown that marine life off Perth is contaminated with almost three times more of the toxic metal mercury than marine life in other parts of the state.

Penguins are a key indicator species of marine health because they eat a variety of fish. By analysing feather samples from adult and juvenile birds, the three-year study found that penguins on Penguin Island, 40km from Perth, had 1.7 milligrams of mercury per kilogram of feathers, compared to 0.6mg/kg in penguins on Woody Island, where mercury pollution is minimal.

"Our results show that the Perth site is contaminated with three times more mercury, mainly because you've got a lot more potential sources for mercury in the metropolitan area," lead researcher Nic Dunlop told The Sunday Times.

Penguins from a third colony on Mistaken Island near Albany were also tested and found to have mercury levels of 1.3mg/kg. This relatively high reading has been blamed on a phosphate plant in Albany that dumped waste into the harbour for almost 30 years.

Although the mercury level found in Perth's marine life was signficantly higher than elsewhere, Professor Dunlop said, "In our more industrialised areas, as far as we can tell, consuming fish is safe at the moment."

He added, however, that the oceans were Earth's biggest "mercury sink" and "it was going to get more and more difficult to get healthy seafood because the background levels of mercury are increasing quite rapidly".

High mercury levels in Perth waters spark seafood concerns by Trevor Paddenburg, 19 February 2011, The Sunday Times

When the going gets tough, the tough keep breeding

It looks determined, but is this Adelie
penguin at Palmer Station a super-
breeder? Photo by Johnny Shaw.
Some rights reserved.
ANTARCTICA - Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a super-breeder! Actually, the answer to the first question is yes, it is a bird - an Adelie penguin, in fact. But what makes a penguin a super-breeder? Grant Ballard, David Ainley and Katie Dugger are co-principal investigators in a study looking at what makes some individual penguins better at foraging and breeding than others. What they find out will help them predict how penguins as a species will cope with climate change.

Ainley told the Antarctic Sun that while more penguins breed in "easy" years, during the "tough" years - when the sea ice extends and the journey to the open sea for food causes many penguin parents to fail - there are "super-breeders" that manage to raise their chicks to adulthood. These super-breeders, which sustain the population consistently, make up about 20% of a given colony.

The scientists have a large pool of banded, known-age birds they can track. They randomly select some super-breeders and normal penguins from the pool to wear time-depth recorders and monitor how long and deep each penguin dives on its foraging trips.

"We found these super-breeders are much better foragers. They dive deeper; they have a shorter recovery period at the surface between dives. They bring back more food," said Ainley.

Because the super-breeders forage more efficiently, it means their chicks get more food more often, as well as more parental protection for predators like skuas.

Ballard said that it is probably a combination of age and experience as well as genetics - being faster and stronger - that makes a penguin a super-breeder. Being older doesn't necessarily equate to breeding success.

One of the questions the researchers eventually hope to answer is to what extent super-breeder characteristics are hereditary. As Ballard told the Antarctic Sun, "There's still a huge amount of mystery when it comes down to it."

Super breeders by Peter Rejcek, 18 February 2011, The Antarctic Sun

09 March 2011

Penguin population shifts due to fishy factors?

ANTARCTICA - There's something fishy going on with the Adelie penguin populations in the Ross Sea region. Ecologist David Ainley, principal investigator for a long-term project trying to understand penguin population response to climate and ecosystem change, told the Antarctic Sun he is concerned that a toothfish fishery that operates in the Ross Sea may skew data collected by climate change researchers.

With the exception of the Cape Royds colony, which suffered a population crash after icebergs carved off the Ross Ice Shelf in 2000 and massively extended the penguins' journeys to the open sea, Adelie penguin colonies in the Ross Sea region have grown tremendously. Cape Crozier, possibly the largest Adelie penguin colony in the world, now has an estimated 230,000 breeding pairs; that's an increase of nearly 50,000 breeding pairs in the last decade. The nearby Beaufort Island colony has expanded from 40,000 to 55,000 breeding pairs.

While population increases like these should be good news, a possible explanation for them is not good: industrial fishing. In the 1996-97 austral summer, an Antarctic toothfish fishery began operating in the region. In less than a decade, scientists who had been successfully capturing and releasing Antarctic toothfish, known to consumers as "Chilean seabass", in McMurdo Sound for research since the 1970s could no longer find any. Research has shown that, at the same time, Ross Sea killer whales, which prey on toothfish, have decreased in occurence frequency. And there have been these increases in the populations of Adelie penguins, which compete with toothfish for food.

Ainley and others have argued that too little is known about toothfish, and Ainley said it was unwise to allow the fishery to operate without learning more about them. He told the Antarctic Sun that he believes the fishery may be taking too big a bite out of the toothfish population, and that although a lot of people would want to discount it, the fishery may be behind the apparent shift in populations of toothfish, penguins and whales.

While there are other environmental factors involved in the penguin population increases, such as the immigration of Cape Royds penguins who abandoned their colony in the "tough iceberg years" to neighbouring colonies, Ainley said immigration from Cape Royds cannot explain the rapid expansion of the other Ross Sea colonies.

"Just as when thousands of food-competing Antarctic minke whales were removed from the wintering area of Ross Sea penguins during the 1970s, Adelies are exhibiting a spurt of colony growth not easily explained by climate change," he told the Antarctic Sun.

Ainley is concerned that researchers like himself who are studying the effects of climate change on the marine ecosystem may have their data skewed by the fishery. He asked, "You're either studying climate change or you’re studying fish depletion, so what are you going to study?"

Population pressures by Peter Rejcek, 18 February 2011, The Antarctic Sun

04 March 2011

Dippy the penguin back on Facebook

UK - Dippy the penguin is back on Facebook after a two-week absence, following an outcry from his loyal friends.

The 17-year-old Humboldt penguin from the Isle of Wight's Seaview Wildlife Encounter became the first penguin to have a Facebook account when his keepers launched his profile page back in November 2009. Since then, nearly 3,000 Facebook users (not all human!) from around the world had added Dippy as a friend.

Dippy's profile page was "a really fun platform for many different types of communications with a diverse audience" and "a way to enjoy some light-hearted banter as well as sharing information on wildlife conservation in a fun, informative and engaging way".

Then, without warning or explanation, Dippy's account was closed on 7 February, leaving his keepers confused and upset. As they said on the Seaview Wildlife Encounter blog:

"There are so many crooked, underhand people in the world today; we all know of the daily reports of criminals and political activists in our midst who falsely represent themselves through various means including social media platforms like Facebook. Dippy the Penguin has been open about his innocent identity from the start - so why now? Why him? Why silence Dippy?"

Once his Facebook friends found out, Dippy and his keepers were "overwhelmed" with emails and enquiries of support. One, Liam Thistlewood, set up a "Get Dippy Back on Facebook" campaign. Another, Fiona Strange, wrote:

"Peter and I were shocked to hear about Dippy's Facebook page. All our friends in Scotland, England and Australia love having Dippy as a friend ... It's upsetting that your site can be closed down without giving you any reason. ...  I have learned more in the last year from Dippy about penguins, than I have from anywhere else in my life ... let's hope it won't be too long before we can all be reunited with our much loved and respected Dippy."

Thankfully, a solution was found. Dippy's account was closed because he isn't a "real person". Now, instead of a personal profile page, he has a Dippy Seaview fan page and "is looking forward to an exciting new chapter of communication ... engaging on topics ranging from fun, frivolous flutters to conservational messages and educational insights".

His keepers are concerned that they lost contact with many of Dippy's old friends when his original account was closed. Hopefully old friends will become new fans - and also those who previously weren't Dippy's friends will get on board. I have!

Dippy's new fan page, 18 February 2011, Seaview Wildlife Encounter blog
Dippy returns to Facebook, 15 February 2011, Seaview Wildlife Encounter blog
Letters of the week - support for Dippy the penguin, 13 February 2011, Seaview Wildlife Encounter blog
Facebook gives penguin the bird by Jason Kay, 10 February 2011, The Isle of Wight Gazette
Dippy the penguin - crestfallen after closure of Facebook account, 8 February 2011, Seaview Wildlife Encounter blog

Rising temperatures spell trouble for Ross Sea penguins

Adelie colony at Cape Bird South,
Ross Island. Photo (c) Landcare
Research New Zealand Limited.
ANTARCTICA - The results for this year's census of the Adelie penguin population in the Ross Sea region shows it's not likely to be a good breeding season. And there's worse news to come for the region's Adelies and their emperor brethren if temperature in the region increases as predicted.

Dr Phil Lyver of Landcare Research and his fellow scientists monitor the penguin population annually both on the ground and using a low-flying plane. This year the aerial census suffered from ongoing technical and weather issues, so only four penguin colonies were photographed.

Photos of the four sites were analysed using a computer program, and results did not bode well for a good breeding season, Dr Lyver told the Otago Daily Times from Scott Base.

"The colonies of Franklin Island, Inexpressible Island and Terra Nova appeared to be quite snow covered, which meant the penguins would have struggled to find their nesting sites and stones to build their nests this year at those sites."

Research by Dr Lyver and his colleagues indicate that the long-term future for the populations of Adelie and emperor penguins in the Ross Sea is looking even more dire if temperature in the region increases within the next 40 years as predicted.

"For this region, we're looking at a 2°C increase in the troposphere occurring around 2025-50," Dr Lyver told the Otago Daily Times.

The temperature increase would cause melting of the sea ice on which both Adelie and emperor penguins depended for foraging for krill and fish.

"We are looking at losing potentially 70% of our Adelie penguin colonies north of 70° south, and that's basically a 75% loss of the entire population of Adelie penguins in Antarctica."

The rising temperature could be even more devastating for the emperor penguin population, with some research modelling predicting that emperors may be functionally extinct by the end of the century.

So this may be a tough year for the penguins, but there are even tougher times to come.

Warming sends chills down penguins' spines by Joe Dodgshun, 17 February 2011, Otago Daily Times

Ecological Monographs citation
Antarctic penguin response to habitat change as Earth’s troposphere reaches 2°C above preindustrial levels. D.G. Ainley, J. Russell, S. Jenouvrier, E. Woehler, P.O'B. Lyver, W.R. Fraser, G.L. Kooyman. Ecological Mongraphs 80(1), 2010.

02 March 2011

"Survivor" penguins sent from Brazil to US

Magellanic penguins in Patagonia.
Photo by * hiro008.
Some rights reserved.
Brazilian scientists have sent a group of around 20 rescued Magellanic penguins to the US for an exhibition on climate change at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

The birds are the survivors from hundreds of penguins that washed up last year on beaches near Rio de Janeiro after migrating from southern Argentina.

Scientists told AFP that the penguins have been migrating further north in recent years, possibly because of climate change, and the longer journeys are taking their toll on the penguin population. These changing migration patterns are currently being studied by Brazilian environmental authorities.

The penguins arrived safely in Los Angeles, where they will be quarantined before being sent to the aquarium.

Hopefully, since the penguins are poster children for climate change, their carers tried to minimise the carbon footprint of their journey from South America to the States.

Beached penguins sent by Brazil to US, 15 February 2011, AFP