31 July 2011

Penguin houses installed to help improve numbers

Granite Island little penguin pair.
Photo credit: Natalie Gilbert
AUSTRALIA - The local housing situation for little penguins on Granite Island, South Australia, is looking much better after the installation of nest boxes as part of a penguin habitat planting day on 27 July.

The island's penguin population has declined significantly; 10 years ago there were more than 2000 penguins and last year there were only 146.

The planting day was organised by Friends of Encounter Seabirds and Granite Island Recreation and Nature Park. As well as installing around 50 nesting boxes, students from Investigator College and other volunteers planted 300 local native plants provided by the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board in the south-west corner of the island.

The penguins have not been nesting in this part of the island for some time now, which could have contributed to the population decline.

“The planting day and installation of nest boxes aims to improve the nesting habitat in these areas to encourage penguins to return,” says Annelise Wiebkin, Friends of Encounter Seabirds penguin ecologist.

Tony Flaherty, Manager Coast and Marine for the Board said, "Little penguins are under pressure from predators and disturbance from people."

He told ABC News that historically penguins had nested in the south-west area of the island but some of the habitat had been degraded.

"There's been some erosion issues and other things so we're hoping by providing more areas for penguins to nest that we can help the penguin numbers recover." 

Penguin housing helped by students, 25 July 2011, Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board
Project aims to coax Granite Island penguins back by Scott Bills, 27 July 2011, ABC News

30 July 2011

Healthy Happy Feet could be on his way home soon

NEW ZEALAND - Media darling Happy Feet the emperor penguin has been given a clean bill of health and could be on his way home in late August.

The adventurous juvenile underwent a medical checkup at Wellington Zoo on Thursday, which included blood tests, x-rays and having a tracking device inserted under his skin.

Zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker told The Dominion Post that the penguin had put on 4kg since he arrived at the Zoo. He now weighs 26kg and is "looking good".

The famous penguin's presence has lured visitors to the zoo, boosting visitor numbers by almost half, The Dominion Post reported. Thursday was the zoo's biggest day of the school holiday period and the first day Happy Feet could definitely be seen by the public as he was having some procedures done.

One lucky visitor, Irene Twist, was given the opportunity to get up close and personal with the bird after the zoo's chief executive found out she remembered seeing emperor penguins at Wellington Zoo in 1926 when she was only 4 years old.

Ms Twist told TV3 that she could hardly sleep on Wednesday night because she was so excited. After watching Happy Feet's procedures she was allowed to touch the bird.

"They let me stroke it and they opened up the feather and let me put my fingers into the body, he was so gorgeous," she said.

One News reported that Happy Feet had another unusual visitor: a special effects expert from Weta Workshop, who cast a mould of the bird's foot for future texture reference should they ever need it.

It's been a pretty big week for the penguin. Monday was Wellington's coldest day since records began, which may have caused disruption for travellers (and a shock to the system for this particular traveller arriving from Northern Hemisphere summer), but gave Happy Feet the opportunity for his first swim in the saltwater pool.

Ms Baker told The Dominion Post he was unlikely to get another dip for a while.

"If we had another really cold day we could do it, but it needs to be below 5 degrees for that to happen."

Happy Feet may be the right weight and condition for release, but the Zoo and Department of Conservation (DOC) are not rushing into anything.

Zoo veterinary science manager Lisa Argilla told the NZ Herald, "There are a lot of factors we need to consider just to keep him safe on the journey, so we just need to work through that and make sure we take him down south and have a successful release."

DOC biodiversity manager Peter Simpson said Happy Feet would travel from Wellington to Invercargill either by air or on a refrigerated truck. He would then travel from Bluff, 27 south of Invercargill, by boat to a point past Stewart Island where he would start his +3000km swim home.

The method of travel would have to be approved by Dr Argilla, based on how stressful it will be for Happy Feet.

Read related posts

Hundreds flocking to see Happy Feet, 29 July 2011, The Dominion Post
Return trip beckons for heavier Happy Feet by Shabnam Dastgheib, 28 July 2011, The Dominion Post
Penguin passes physical with flying colours, 28 July 2011, One News
Second encounter in 85 years for penguin-lover, 28 July 2011, TV3
Happy Feet feels right at home, 26 July 2011, NZ Herald

21 July 2011

Lucy the penguin plots historic course

SOUTH AFRICA - On 26 June 2011, Lucy the penguin made history as she became the first ever juvenile African penguin to be fitted with a satellite transmitter. The information gained from Lucy's travels and those of other juvenile penguins may one day help scientists to establish a new African penguin colony.

The release of Lucy, who was born in the wild and then hand-reared by SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), is part of the Chick Bolstering Project (CBP), a collaborative endeavour being undertaken by SANCCOB, the Oceans and Coasts Branch of the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Animal Demography Unit (ADU), University of Cape Town.

The purpose of the project is to investigate the behaviour of juvenile birds and to answer pressing questions about the pressures that they face during early life. One of the goals is to use chicks abandoned by their parents and hand-reared to create new colonies close to areas of high prey abundance.

Over the coming months, four other juveniles will be fitted with transmitters and released. On 15 July, the next one to go, Richie, was fitted with his transmitter and will be given a few days of swimming around in SANCCOB’s pool to get used to it.

For both birds, the transmitters are expected to relay their position for about six months and regular updates will be posted on Penguin Watch. The transmitters are attached to the feathers on the penguins’ backs by a combination of a special tape and glue.

Dr Richard Sherley of ADU, who is heading the research component of the project, said, “Once the tape and glue wear off, the device will simply drop off. Hopefully, by that time we will have learnt some vital lessons about what these young birds do at sea.

“At worst case scenario, the device will drop off when the bird moults at around 18 months after deployment, but based on studies with these devices in the past, we don’t expect the attachment method to last that long.”

SANCCOB veterinarian Dr Nola Parsons, who selected Lucy and Richie for their transmitter missions said on the day of Lucy’s release, “It is wonderful to release this bird which has the potential to give us so much more valuable information about movements of African penguin fledglings. This work is essential in improving the way in which we manage this species.” 

Hand-reared penguin plots historic course by Richard Sherley and Venessa Strauss, 6 July 2011, Penguin Watch
Second chick set to follow in Lucy's wake by Richard Sherley, 18 July 2011, Penguin Watch

18 July 2011

Morgan finally gets in the swim of things

NEW ZEALAND - It took a month or so, but Morgan the reluctant swimmer has finally took the plunge and has taken to the water like ... well, like a penguin.

The white-flippered penguin who refused to get his feet wet is now fully in the swim with the others in the penguin colony at The Antarctic Attraction in Christchurch, and happy to be one of the gang.

But it has taken much coaxing, encouragement and lots of tender loving care before the little 16-year-old found the confidence to slip into the pool for the first time at the end of June.

“It was a fantastic moment and we were all very excited,” said David Ferrand, Operations Manager at The Antarctic Attraction.

“He’s a good looking penguin and he socialised and meandered about a bit at first, and then very cautiously got in the pool.

“There was only 'Bagpipes' another male penguin in the pool when he was introduced to the colony, and he obviously enjoyed all the attention. But within about five minutes of him being there he took the plunge.”

After swimming about for a couple of minutes Morgan got out and proceeded to start making friends with the other 24 penguins in the colony, including Parnia, a single white-flippered penguin that penguin keeper Mallorie Hackett hopes will befriend the newcomer.

“Morgan is a real character and he’s definitely a ladies’ man. Seeing him swimming about in the pool was just great because when he came to us he couldn’t get out of water fast enough. He used to use his beak and flippers to haul himself out,” said Mallorie.

He is now approaching Mallorie and the other keepers in the enclosure with the other penguins and has set up home in one of the burrows.

The keepers are excited that Morgan has settled in so well with the routine of the rest of the penguins.

It is not known why the little white-flippered penguin, who was found skinny and lost at Flea Bay, Banks Peninsula in early May, refused to swim, and Antarctic Attraction staff say they have never before seen such behaviour in a mature penguin from the wild.

Morgan spent 46 days in isolation in stringent quarantine at the Attraction before being introduced to the colony, which he can now call home.

Read related post: "Sad swimmer" Morgan trying to do a "Happy Feet"? 

Morgan's in the swim at last, 28 June 2011, Durning PR

17 July 2011

Fear-based feeding: why penguins don’t eat in the dark

Who's afraid of the dark?
Adelie penguin at Palmer Station,
Antarctica. Photo credit: Johnny Shaw.
Some rights reserved.
ANTARCTICA - Monsters under the bed may seem an irrational reason for human children to be afraid of the dark, but for penguins the monsters of the night are very real. Research published recently in the journal Polar Biology shows that penguins make choices about where and when to feed based on their fear of being eaten by the predators lurking in the dark.

The review and new analysis by researchers David Ainley of HT Harvey and Associates and Grant Ballard of PRBO Conservation Science looks at Adélie and emperor penguin feeding behaviour in the context of risk aversion or “fear of being eaten”, as opposed to simply “going where the food goes”.

The researchers found that although the penguins can find food successfully in dark conditions, such as those found deep under the Antarctic sea ice, the birds do not enter or leave the water in the dark of night. Entering and leaving the water is a time when penguins are susceptible to being eaten by leopard seals or killer whales, and doing so in the dark, when the penguins can’t assess whether or not predators are present, appears to hold more risk than penguins are willing to take.

“This could explain why we have observed both emperor and Adélie penguins making seemingly unnecessarily long trips during migration, passing by areas with large food concentrations and selecting places that have at least a couple of hours of daylight every day, even in winter,” said David Ainley.

The authors point to the recent, mysterious disappearance of an emperor penguin colony as potential corroborating evidence that predators can have severe impacts on penguin populations.

“Global climate change is forcing penguins to adjust their behaviour to avoid new predation risks while still locating enough of their own food,” said Grant Ballard.

The study’s results are important because how behavioural factors like these influence the survival of species has not yet been considered when understanding and conserving Southern Ocean food webs.

Are penguins more fearful than hungry? 23 June 2011, PRBO Conservation Science

Polar Biology citation
Non-consumptive factors affecting foraging patterns in Antarctic penguins: a review and synthesis. Ainley, D.G and Ballard, G. Polar Biology, 17 June 2011.

Tristan's last rehabilitated rockhoppers released

TRISTAN DA CUNHA - Almost three months after the MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island, the rockhopper rescue on Tristan da Cunha is over, with the last 180 oiled northern rockhopper penguins released into the sea on on 21 June. This followed the release of 57 penguins on 12 June.

According to Tina Glass's report on the Tristan da Cunha website, a total of 381 of the original 3718 birds have been safely returned so sea, which is an approximate survival rate of 10%.

Ms Glass said that the reason for the low survival rate is that when the birds were first oiled they were all at the end of their moulting cycle - hungry and thirsty and at their weakest - so, despite huge efforts by Tristan Islanders and experts from SANCCOB and the RSPB, most died.

The low survival rate may be disappointing, but at least this means that nearly 400 penguins who would have died without human intervention are alive and back in the wild where they belong. Hopefully these survivors will return to land in August to breed and bolster the population of this endangered bird.

Thank you, penguin rescuers, for your heroic efforts! 

MS Oliva Tristan-based diary, Tristan da Cunha Association: accessed 16 July 2011

11 July 2011

"Sand eater" Happy Feet to be released in the ocean

Happy Feet at Wellington Zoo.
NEW ZEALAND - It has been decided that release in the southern ocean, south east of New Zealand, is the preferred option for the emperor penguin whom New Zealand (and the world) has taken to their collective hearts as Happy Feet. This is the northern edge of the known range of juvenile emperor penguins.

The penguin, who was confirmed as a male by DNA tests, turned up on Kapiti’s Peka Peka Beach, thousands of kilometres from Antarctica. He then had to be taken to The Nest, Wellington Zoo’s hospital, after eating too much sand and too many sticks.

Since his arrival at The Nest, Happy Feet has undergone a series of procedures to remove the sand and sticks from his digestive system. After his latest procedure, on Saturday 2 July, the Zoo tweeted that he was “doing well”.

“It looks like most of the sand is out and he is moving on to whole pieces of fish.”

Wellington Zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker told the media on 11 July, “He now weighs 23kg and has gained 1kg since the sand was removed.”

Happy Feet is doing so well there is now talk of moving him to the Zoo’s pool house; Zoo staff are working on cooling the saltwater pool down to a suitable temperature for the penguin. He is currently residing in an air-conditioned room, where he is kept in darkness to stimulate current conditions in Antarctica (where is it constant night in winter) and to minimise his stress. While Zoo staff are doing their best for him, his accommodation still has its downsides.

“You can compare him in his enclosure to someone in hospital in terms of boredom,” Ms Baker said.

The move to the pool house would make his life a bit more exciting. Ms Baker said it might also give the public a chance to see the plucky penguin.

"If he would swim in the saltwater pool the public will be able to watch.”

The wayward bird has not been on display apart from during medical procedures, but the public has been able keep an eye on him via a liveweb cam set up by TV3 – “All penguin, all day”. So far I've seen some delightful tail-waggling, scratching sessions, and a lot of sleeping. Those Southern Hemisphere-side will be able to watch fresh snow deliveries and feeding times. 

Happy Feet will not be released until he is deemed well enough to have a reasonable chance of survival, and he will reside at the Zoo until this time. The Zoo’s veterinary science manager Lisa Argilla told the media that it was difficult to estimate how long this would be, but it was likely he would remain at the Zoo for a month.

Eventual release

The penguin’s eventual fate was decided by a special advisory group made of up representatives from the Department of Conservation (DOC), Wellington Zoo, Massey University and national museum Te Papa.

"The reason for not returning the penguin directly to Antarctica is that emperor penguins of this age are usually found north of Antarctica on pack ice and in the open ocean," said DOC biodiversity spokesperson Peter Simpson.

Massey University Associate Professor John Cockrem said, “Taking it back to Antarctica would be an issue on several levels. The weeks it could take to get there would put a lot of stress on the bird.”

Dr Cockrem spent three weeks camping and working with emperor penguins at a large colony at Cape Washington in Antarctica in 2004 studying stress responses in the birds.

He has discussed some of the issues with staff at Antarctica New Zealand, who agree that the issue is not as simple as just taking the penguin back to Antarctica. There are international protocols in place to protect Antarctic wildlife, and these protocols are important. The risks are real - there are multiple examples of Antarctic penguin colonies experiencing significant deaths due to suspected viruses. Another issue is finding the penguin's home colony as there is no way to be sure which of the several emperor penguin colonies this bird has originated from.

Antarctica New Zealand science manager Ed Butler told The Dominion Post, "Even if we screened Happy Feet, we still couldn't be sure that he wouldn't be carrying something that would turn up in blisters and sores in six months' time and kill all his mates."

"There are 150,000 breeding pairs in some colonies, and 65 per cent of that is a big number. That's a lot of dead penguins for one penguin."

Plans to return Happy Feet to the ocean are still in the early stages, however, and more research is required into the logistics and practicalities of this option, including costs. Sirtrack have offered to provide a transmitting device to be fitted to him before his release that will allow his movements to be tracked remotely via a satellite.

But wherever he is released, Lisa Argilla told The Dominion Post that it has to be some distance from land. “We don't want to have visibility of the land mass. He's a bit of a sand eater."

Feel the love

Meanwhile, help is pouring in for “NZ’s favourite penguin”, who made no. 3 on NZ news site Stuff’s “Top 10 list of animals that have captured our hearts”.

Wellington Zoo has created  a Happy Feet appeal, with all donations going towards ensuring his care and safe passage and will also support the other work that the Zoo does with penguins.

Businessman Gareth Morgan, who previously offered Happy Feet a place on a Russian icebreaker back to Antarctica, offered to match donations to the appeal dollar for dollar. His generosity meant money for the penguin’s NZ$10,000 food bill was raised within 24 hours. The Dominion Post reported that Dr Morgan got to meet Happy Feet after his operation last weekend.

Bluebird Foods has committed to donating 5 cents from every packet of “Kiwi As” potato chips sold to “The Happy Feet Appeal” and other penguin-related initiatives. Conservatively, this could mean at least $20,000 for the appeal.

Perhaps closer to Happy Feet’s heart than money is food, which Marlborough-based New Zealand King Salmon has donated in the form of 100kg of salmon smolt. Since the penguin moved on to solids after his sand-eating fiasco, he is eating up to 2kg of salmon per day.

Restless pioneer

So why did Happy Feet end up in New Zealand in the first place? Richard Sadleir, former director of science and research for DOC and former director ecology division of DSIR who has published research on the movements of Adelie penguins, speculates that “Happy Feet is a sort of pioneer, looking for a new place to live.”

In an opinion piece in The Dominion Post, Mr Sadlier wrote:

“Happy Feet is the second emperor penguin in 40 years to reach New Zealand shores since naturalists started keeping records. It is very likely that many emperors made it to New Zealand in the past 1000 years and many more would have travelled north and probably died before they could return home.”

“Ecologists think that the evolutionary reason for roaming animals, often called stragglers, is that, by chance they may arrive at a suitable place to live, then settle down and start a new colony, therefore extending the range.”

“The penguin seems to have travelled too far in its quest but its relatives back in Antarctica will continue the process of travelling far from home to see if new homes are available.”

Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly, who identified Happy Feet as an emperor on Peka Peka Beach and is a member of the special advisory committee, has written a very interesting entry on Te Papa's blog about why Happy Feet may have ended up in New Zealand, and the reasoning behind the committee’s decision: No latitude for error: a young emperor penguin a long way from home.

International condemnation

In other Happy Feet related news, The Dominion Post reported that DOC received angry emails from animal lovers around the world when it made its initial decision to leave Happy Feet to fend for himself on Peka Peka Beach.

The Dominion Post said the emails also revealed how close the penguin was to being euthanased.

Read related posts

@Wellington Zoo on Twitter, accessed at 8:49 PM on 11 July 2011 (NZ time)
New playground for Happy Feet, NZPA, 11 July 2011, Stuff.co.nz
Donations keep penguin’s salmon rolling in, 8 July 2011, The Dominion Post
Bluebird chips in to help Happy Feet, 5 July 2011, Bluebird Foods
King salmon feed emperor penguin, 5 July 2011, Wellington Zoo
Happy Feet may be setting up a colony by Richard Sadleir, 5 July 2011, The Dominion Post
Further operation for Happy Feet by Kiran Chug, 1 July 2011, The Dominion Post with NZPA
Condemnation over Happy Feet delay by Kiran Chug, 30 June 2011, The Dominion Post
Release in southern ocean preferred option for emperor penguin, 29 June 2011, Department of Conservation
No passage to Antarctica for Happy Feet by Michelle Duff and Janine Bennetts, 29 June 2011, The Dominion Post
Sea release best option, says penguin researcher, 28 June 2011, Massey University
Stuff’s top 10 animal heart-warmers, 28 June 2011, Stuff.co.nz
Help Wellington Zoo treat the emperor penguin “Happy Feet”, 26 June 2011, Wellington Zoo