Join me for a Marine Discovery Talk about Little Penguins!

Next Tuesday, January 20th 2015, the Central Coast Marine Discovery Centre is hosting a talk about Little Penguins, with myself and seabird expert Nicholas Carlile as speakers.

The talk is held at Club Umina, Melbourne Ave, Umina Beach

Cost will be $5 per person (includes talk & nibbles). Drinks available from the bar.

Cheese / nibbles from 6:30pm – Speakers start at 7pm.

You can book online at http://www.ccmdc.org.au/index.php/events/marine-discovery-centre-events/marine-discovery-talk-tues-20-jan-2015

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Marine Discovery Talk about Little Penguins

Marine Discovery Talk
about Little Penguins

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Field work in 2014

Hi all,

thanks for bearing with my while I’m finishing up the work on my PhD project! I’ve not been idle, but with the last field season coinciding with the write-up of my thesis, I did not spend enough time on public outreach – so here is a quick summary of what happened during the lasts months of 2014:

October 2014

The penguins had been most numerous on both Bowen and Lion Islands, the two locations I was doing demographic surveys on, during the month of October in 2012 and 2013, so I decided to go back to both islands during that month in 2014. Lion Island was to be visited first, as we can only stay for two nights in a row on there due to its lack of facilities – which made me want to visit it twice this year.

What a surprise when we arrived on Lion Island and noticed that a path had been cleared to the (previously inaccessible) top part of the island, which afforded us a whole new perspective on the penguin colony. We noticed penguin tracks and signs of burrowing activity until about halfway up the hill. The top was densely vegetated, but still allowed a glimpse to the other side of the island, and the open ocean.

The weekend after, it was time to re-visit Bowen Island, where the orchids were in full bloom – although we only found two of the 4 species promised us by the National Park guys. We were again joined by Gemma Carrol from Macquarie University, who studies the foraging ecology and energetics of our Little Penguin friends in NSW. We spent a nice, not too warm, not too rainy long weekend on Bowen Island, where the penguins seemed to be doing similarly to the last two years.

We were lucky this year and the weather did not get in the way of a third and final penguin trip in October! And what a trip it was! Perfect weather, good numbers of penguins and the company of a pod of dolphins feeding nearby – we spotted them on both days! It would have been a perfect trip, if it wasn’t for the reckless driving of one of the motorboats, who seemed to head straight for the pod of dolphins at full speed, at least five times in a row, which made us fear for their safety. Please always observe the regulations for approaching whales and dolphins, most of the time curious dolphins would approach your boat on their own accord, allowing you to observe them much better than by driving over them!

September and November 2014

And finally, I was invited to join two trips to Five Islands – not to collect any more samples for my own project, but to help the “Friends of the Five Islands” with their sea bird census, including a comprehensive penguin survey. It was a nice change to just tag along for a trip someone else had organised, meet other seabird researchers and see another penguin colony in NSW that I had previously received genetic samples from through some very helpful collaborators, and to enjoy the rest of the local wildlife, which was very different to what I knew from the seabird islands I had previously visited.

Penguin project in the making

Hi everyone,

I’m now well into the last year of my PhD, writing up my thesis and thinking about what will happen ‘after’.
One interesting and worrying fact that came to light while I was investigating the Little Penguins of Lion Island is that the colony is in steep decline since the 1990s. We’re not sure what’s causing the decline, especially given that the neighbouring colony at Manly is doing fine. To facilitate monitoring while giving the penguins good nesting habitat, the Sydney Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology is setting up a penguin project, starting with a nest-box building workshop in the near future. The boxes will then be deployed on Lion Island while the bush care group gets rid of invasive vegetation.

Please e-mail info@sydneyscb.org for more information on the project if you’re keen to join the penguin working group.

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Recap of the 2013 field season

Sorry for the silence, I’ll try and sum up last year’s field season now.

After the first trips to Lion Island and Bowen Island (see here and here), I made it to Lion Island a second time before embarking on an exciting trip to South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. On KI, we met Diane and Katharina who are surveying the penguins in the Gulf St. Vincent region. We were able to help them with their surveys, exchange experience and methods and I got to take few penguin blood samples, too! Have a look at the highlights of our road trip below.

Upon our return to Sydney, the weather continued to act up. I had planned to join the UNSW Underwaterclub on their dive trip to Broughton Island in Myall Lakes National Park, currently the most northern breeding colony of Little Penguins. The trip would have allowed me to dive during the day and sample penguins at night, with plenty of keen volunteers to help me out at no extra cost. But, you guessed it, it was not meant to be. At extremely short notice, the dive club had to change their plans as camping on the island would no longer have been safe – and so my wonderful SIT intern Melissa and I had an unexpected, rainy weekend off and a week of lab work before we could finally head out, not yet to Broughton Island but to Lion Island again. The weather was not pleasant (hence the lack of photographic evidence), but Melissa and Monica, an experienced penguin handler, kept up nicely. Penguins obviously do not mind rain, so we counted only slightly lower numbers than the trip before – which was around peak breeding.

We returned on Sunday 17 November, thinking we’d have to be in Port Stephens on Monday morning, but were not too disappointed when I received a call and the plan changed again – giving us an extra day in Sydney. On Monday afternoon, we were finally off to Port Stephens, where we spent the night in the lovely YHA at Samurai Beach. Unfortunately, we did not have too much time to look for the Koala we were told lives in one of the trees nearby.

At 8am sharp on Tuesday morning, we were to meet at the Nelson Bay Marina to get on the boat to Broughton Island. This was also where we met the five NPWS officers who would share the camp with us – and being as bad with names as I am, I cannot remember a single one of them. Despite their namelessness, the guys were an interesting bunch to talk to (and have a beer with) and a great help. They had lots of gear that made the trip one of the most comfortable ones I had been on. Camping shower? Yes, please!
But the true reason Melissa and I went to Broughton Island was to catch some penguins and take a tiny blood sample. This proved easier said than done, as we did find one burrow during day 1, but not a single penguin made it into our custom-built penguin fence. We did hear the occasional “arrival squak”, but the penguins were obviously not coming ashore at the spot we had identified as the landing site. So we spent the second day trying as hard as we could to find more burrows, came across a pair of chicks and one more adult, but if it had not been for the second night, which we spent among the rocks on the far end of the beach, we would never have reached our decent sample size of 11.

I still had not been back to Bowen Island after the initial trip in October, so I was really keen to get there the following weekend. We therefore had to be picked up from Broughton Island before the NPSW guys were done with building the hut and maintenance work. Thanks to Peta, the ranger for the area, we were picked up by a Marine Parks boat around noon on Thursday, so we were back in Sydney in the afternoon and ready to drive down to Jervis Bay the next day. But guess what? The wind picked up again and we had to cancel once more. Definitely not a lucky field season this year!

We tried again the following Monday, which was still too rough, and so was Tuesday, but on Wednesday, 27th November, we finally made it to Bowen Island for the second time in 2013. This time, there were three of us, Melissa, Toki and myself. We found some delicous-looking physalis on the island and it became a routine to have one or two each during our rounds of checking the penguin burrows. We also noticed some amazing-looking spiders next to the path and were extra careful not to destroy their nets.
Due to our sub-optimal timing, we were only able to stay for two days, until Friday, but a short trip is much better than none at all!

I should probably mention that a big plus of the latest round of trip cancellation and rescheduling was that I was able to pick up my gorgeous sister from the airport and spend a few days with here while she was getting over her jetlag and ready to start her clerkship in the neurology department of a big Sydney hospital.

In December, we received the great news that my grant application to include more research on parasitism in Little Penguins was successful, and so I tried to enable some people from a collaborating group at ANU to join me on the last remaining field trips for the year, while Melissa was writing up her report about mitochondrial DNA sequences in the penguins she had got to know.

Another funny coincident occurred during the following weekend, when we were out hiking in Berowra Valley NP but my sister did not feel up to walking the whole way and we ended up hitching a ride with a guy who turned out to work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and who, after we’d started talking about penguins, told me he’d just received a text message asking whether he’d want to volunteer for a penguin survey on Lion Island. I did not know National Parks were conducting surveys on the island, and neither did the responsible ranger know I was doing research there. Small world, but communication is key!

Unfortunately, I was too late to join National Parks on their surveys, but ended up going to Lion Island again with Laura from Germany and Katie from ANU on Saturday, 14th December. We spent two beautiful days, but did not see many penguins, as most of them had already left to fatten up before moult. At least I got to introduce my sister and natural penguin handling talent to my study animals!

You might think that’s it, because Christmas was approaching fast and most penguins had already left Lion Island by the time we conducted our fourth and last survey there – but don’t forget about Bowen Island! I’d only made it to Bowen twice this season, and so we planned the last trip for the weekend right before Christmas. But it would not be 2013 without a bit of drama, and the weather forecast indeed showed a strong wind warning on Thursday afternoon, while we were getting ready to drive to Jervis Bay. Luckily, I checked again in the evening and the forecast had been downgraded, it looked like there might be a small window of opportunity in the early morning and our amazing supporter Martin at Booderee National Park did not hesitate to drive us up to the beach on the morning of Friday, December 20th, and pick us up on the 23rd, when most others were already on their summer vacation.

So to sum up, this year was much more stressful in terms of planning and rescheduling field work, but I did end up getting some great samples and good data. Stay tuned for a sneak peek at my survey results soon, and enjoy some nice pictures from Bowen Island!

Escaping the Royal Fleet Review

Last weekend, and just after the tall and military ships had left Jervis Bay to sail up to Sydney, we finally managed to get to Bowen Island for the first time this year. We also had company from Gemma, a PhD student at Macquarie University, who studies the little penguin’s foraging behaviour using GPS tracking and accelerometers. The volunteers helping Gemma and me were David (veteran penguin volunteer), Simone (first-timer and PhD student in my school) and Dominic (engineer and great photographer, check out his blog entry!).

After four successful nights (we used the long weekend efficiently) on the island, we left when the weather was turning bad. To reward ourselves, we stopped in the candy town Berry and bought some sweets, including yummy little blue chicken penguin feet!

"penguin foot"

Spring fever

This year, I started the field season a bit earlier to allow time for a field trip to South Australia and adverse conditions that might get in the way of some of the trips. I had planned to leave for Bowen Island on Thursday, but the weather did not agree and I had to reschedule. It so came that David and I found ourselves on Lion Island for the September (spring) equinox. For the penguins, this means it’s time to breed, and so we found a lot of eggs in the burrows and two chicks as well.

The island looked much as I remembered it from last year, only a bit more driftwood and washed-up garbage. So we set to work and cleaned a patch just big enough to pitch our tent, then built the fence and corral and checked the marked burrows for occupants.

In the evening, it took a while until just two single penguins came ashore and we did not even use the corral. A while later, a pair came up together, and that was it for the night – a mere 4 penguins.

Day 2 was slightly more rewarding, with ten little waddlers coming ashore, with eight of them arriving at once. I wonder if they noticed us and waited until they were numerous enough to face the perceived enemy?

All in all, it looks like the breeding season is only just setting in, and I hope to find many more penguins when I return to Lion Island in a few weeks time!