More penguin news!

It’s a great start of the year for our penguins, at least in terms of news coverage.

Australian Geographic and the UNSW newsroom simultaneously released a story about a spotted little penguin we had encountered on Bowen Island in November. You can read the articles here:

When we came across this little fellah on my third visit to Bowen Island, we were very excited to be able to sample his DNA and were hoping to see it again on the last visit to the island, but unfortunately it had already fledged, gone out to sea, and will not return to Bowen Island for at least a year, more likely 2-3 years. I wish the piebald penguin the best of luck on its travels and hope it survives despite its unusual colouration, which makes it an easy target to birds of prey. Keep your fingers crossed we will get to see it again, alive!


The piebald penguin on Bowen Island, Jervis Bay

The piebald penguin on Bowen Island, Jervis Bay
Photo: Katie Surrey-Bergman


Tune in on Saturday!

Prick up your ears, the NSW penguins will get some more media coverage later this week:

Joel Werner of ABC Radio National will be opening the 2013 season of Off Track with our trip to Bowen Island, featuring myself and the penguins I recorded during the night!

Here’s the website for the episode:

The audio should be online late Thursday/early Friday.

The program will be broadcast on Saturday afternoon (02/02) at 1330, and repeated Sunday morning (03/02) at 0630.


Little Penguin in burrow on Bowen Island – quiet during the day, but vociferous at night

A trip to the North

First of all thanks to my awesome field assistant and intern Katie, who will leave the country soon to head back to the US. She was a great help in the field and I am looking forward to reading the paper based on her work with me. If you are keen for more personal penguin reports, head over to her blog!

Secondly, a new post about a new location: Port Stephens!

As the field season is slowly coming to an end, I was keen to increase my geographic coverage of genetic penguin samples and visit the penguins up North in Port Stephens. Luckily, the National Parks and Wildlife Service conduct regular trips to Cabbage Tree Island and Broughton Island and were happy to take me along on their trips. Unfortunately, the trip to Broughton Island, which had originally been scheduled for the 3rd week of November, had to be postponed due to bad weather and the new dates coincided with the trip to Cabbage Tree Island, so I had to make a tough decision:
Do I want to sample the most northern colony, despite its small size and unreliable penguin landings, or do I choose the safe option to ensure a good sample size? Of course I chose the latter, but am still hoping to sample Broughton Island on a later date.

So I found myself travelling to Nelson Bay by train and bus last Monday to make sure I could meet the rangers (Laurence and Richard) and volunteers (Anthony and Dean) on Tuesday morning.

Igloo, sleping three

Igloo, sleeping three

We were dropped off at Cabbage Tree Island by the boat operator and shuttled our gear and people to the rocky landing site using a small rubber boat. After moving into the Igloo and setting up the kitchen, we prepared for the first day of Gould’s Petrel burrow checks and I was quite excited to be involved in conservation work for “Australia’s rarest sea bird”.

The day passed quickly with lots of burrow checks, during which bird scratches and bites were endured by all of us.

The kitchen and dining room

The kitchen and dining room

After dinner, it was time for penguins. I am extremely grateful for the help I got catching and handling the birds. We already reached half my optimistic sample size during the first night and as many again on the next day, so I was more than happy with the total numbers. The second day saw us checking more petrel burrows in the northern gully of the island and we were done with the survey by the end of day two.

Gould's Petrel

Australia’s rarest sea bird – the Gould’s Petrel (Pterodroma leucoptera)

That allowed us to spend the third and last day on Cabbage Tree Island looking for work to do around the accommodation, packing up and leaving the island by the same way that we came. I had a great time with four seasoned birder guys and a successful penguin sampling trip!

But that’s not all!

I got to stay in Port Stephens for the weekend (mainly because we had planned a holiday up there when I still thought I was going on two island trips in a row), took the ferry to picturesque Tea Gardens and spotted lots of local wildlife during a bushwalk, highlights of which were a pod of 5 dolphins who foraged and fooled around under the Singing Bridge, two impressive Goannas, four suspicious-looking Tawny Frogmouths and a Magpie catching a Huntsman Spider in front of our faces. And all this just 3 hours drive from Sydney!

Bowen Island revisited

This is getting a bit behind because the field season is in full swing and I am basically running from island to island.

Below is a guest entry from Zinnia Janif, one of the three volunteers who accompanied me during the second trip to Bowen Island:

The Penguins of Bowen Island

Driving to the Island

The drive from UNSW out to Booderee National Park in Jervis Bay took about 3 – 4 hours.  Sandra drove 3 volunteers Len, William and Zinnia all the way, with only a stop for dinner in Nowra. Upon arrival late in the evening, we were presented with a relatively luxurious house, considering we were doing ‘field work’. As it turned out, the lovely people of Booderee National Park provide the house for visiting scientists to stay free of charge.

On the Island

The Sea Eagle III, which took us to Bowen Island

On Friday morning we woke quite early around 7.30, had breakfast, packed up and bid goodbye to the house in Jervis Bay. We then headed off to the park office to pack all our gear into the boat that would take us to Bowen Island. The boat was still very new, only bought a few months ago by the national parks people.

Our main contact and boat driver was Martin, who has a clear passion for penguins (having himself worked on the Bowen Island colony for many years). He and Chico, another very nice National Parks ranger, drove us down to Murrays Beach, where we launched the boat and off we went. Thus, our adventure began and we were on our way to Bowen Island.

Visions of Paradise on Bowen Island

Upon our arrival, we spotted a few dolphins cruising around the island. On land, we arrived to what looked like paradise, white sand surrounded by crystal blue water with the sun smiling overhead.

We were all extremely excited to be on Bowen Island and could already see hundreds of penguin footprints winding trails in the sand. However, there was not a penguin in sight, which is not surprising given that they only come ashore at night or hide in their burrows during the day.

Penguin footprints on the beach

We unloaded our gear, carried it to the house and had a bit of a rest. We then went to check the penguin burrows from a list Sandra regularly monitors. The burrows were littered as mounds across the landscape, dug out by the penguins.

William, Len and Zinnia were extremely excited and could not contain their enthusiasm to finally see a wild penguin.

Sandra looking inside a burrow with Len and William recording data

Sandra peered into each of the burrows with a flash light. Chubby, fluffy baby penguins of different stages stared back with the occasional adult snapping at Sandra’s fingers.

After another break and a refreshing dip in the ocean Sandra mentioned that we would have to learn how to handle the penguins properly.

Tea break with Sandra, Zinnia and Len
(Photo: William Kerridge)

We then went to an occupied burrow and Sandra pulled out a fat, young penguin that was quite docile and luckily for us did not have the sharp hook at the end of its beak yet. She put it in a box so that we could get ready for holding it under her supervision.

Penguin and microchip scanner

We all then put gloves on and learned to correctly handle them. You have to support the body and make sure the tiny wings were secured, so they don’t break.

For the night, we created a penguin corral with nettings and poles. We put our head lights and rain coats on (so we could wash off penguin poo if needed). Then we waited for the penguins to come to shore and be gently directed into the corral.

Sandra showing William how to hold a penguin properly

Just before they come ashore, a dark blob called a raft can be seen moving through the water. They would start coming to land after sunset and we would check and release them until about 10pm each night.

Sandra and William inspecting the penguin fence

The penguins were herded into an area where we could check them for microchips. We worked in 2 teams of 2 people, the herding/catching group and the microchip checking/weighing group.

Checking weights and microchips at night
(Photo: Len Martin)

Although the penguins look quite cute and cuddly they are wild animals and when you don’t hold them properly they can get a bit aggressive, with the hook on the beak being incredibly sharp too. However, when the penguins were held properly some of them tended to just sit in your hands quite calmly. Each bird had a different temperament – some were bold and aggressive while others were quiet and kind.

Penguins barely visible while coming ashore

On the way back to the house after the nightly penguin checks, we walked along what we called the Penguin Highway, and which was extremely busy. Fluffy fat penguins would emerge from their burrows as the penguin chatter intensified and they would curiously stumble about as their parents would squawk loudly. Sometimes penguins would pop out and cross your path as you walked in the dark. You had to be extra careful not to accidentally step on them.

Heading home

Fluffy penguin chick retreating to the safety of the burrow

Back in the house, we went to sleep with the loud chatter of penguins in the air. During the next two days, we repeated the penguin field work routine of burrow checks during the day and beach captures at night. In total, we checked over 40 burrows each day and captured more than 500 penguins for microchip checks over three successive nights.

The house on Bowen Island
(Photo: Len Martin)

The Island Scenery

The old, now dismantled wharf has been amiably re-named ‘bird-shit Island’ by William. The rocks are covered in white guano from different sea birds, mainly cormorants and pelicans.

The dismantled wharf

Bowen Island is protected and access is completely restricted except by permit. We felt quite special about being in such a beautiful place, even more to after seeing the sign located on the island.

Access restrictions to Bowen Island

The Scenery of the Island completely changes from one side to the other. The western side has beautiful white sand and stunning beaches, while the other side is covered in dense vegetation and ends in sheer cliffs. Here we are all enjoying the views from one of the cliffs.

All four of us (William, Zinnia, Len and Sandra) sitting on the cliff
(Photo: Len Martin)

The Island is one of the most beautiful places I ever set foot on. However, the island’s most captivating secret emerges only after dusk. The little penguins with their curiosity and enchanting beauty definitely found a place in my heart.

(Photo: Len Martin)

Lion Island: A Contrast

The weekend after our first big sampling trip (and again last weekend), we went out to Lion Island in Broken Bay to get some penguin samples from further up the coast of NSW. Lion Island is very different from Bowen Island, not only geographically but also ecologically. Whereas Bowen Island is home to a colony of at least 3000 pairs of Little Penguins, Lion Island only hosts about 300 pairs. The main non-indigenous weed threatening penguin habitat on Bowen Island is Kikuyu grass, whereas Lion Island is infested with Lantana (Lantana camara) and Bitou Bush (Chrysanthemoides monilifera). Unlike Bowen Island, Lion Island also has mammalian predators, i.e. water rats, which we spotted running along the water’s edge at night.

View on the beach from the southern end

View on the beach from the southern end

Bowen Island is also about 4 times as big as Lion Island and maintained by the Booderee National Park staff, which means that there are paths leading to the house and the north of the island, which allows visitors to move around and explore the island. This is not possible on Lion Island, where the dense vegetation restricted our movements to the beach and rocky shore. There is just enough space for 1-2 tents behind some big boulders on the back of the beach, and I would not be surprised to see this area flooded by waves when the swell is high.

David and me holding two sibling chicks before putting them back to their burrow

Catching penguins at Lion Island was also a different kettle of fish. The majority of the penguins seem to land on the rocks and only a few (about 10-15 per night) are using the beach to come ashore. We also observed that their feeding trips are much longer than on Bowen Island, where parents taking turns during incubation and chick rearing swap duties every night. It therefore took us much longer to get 50 DNA samples and microchip the penguins for the mark-recapture part of my study. We also took samples from penguin families in their burrows for my study on immune genes.

Despite all these challenges, Lion Island is a beautiful place and we witnessed some beautiful sunsets while waiting for the penguins. Shortly after dark, a bright moon started illuminating the beach and the penguins might have seen us from a great distance. We are lucky they still walked into our corral!


A bright moon over Lion Island

A weekend on Bowen Island

Bowen Island is a tear-shaped sandstone island, about 1.1 km long and 0.6 km wide. It is home to nesting colonies of a number of sea birds, including the Sooty Oystercatcher (Haematopus fuliginosus) and three species of shearwater as well as several thousand breeding pairs of Little Penguins. The latter burrow in Basket Grass (Lomandra longifolia) tussocks or find shelter in dense vegetation or under rocks.

The island belongs to the Jervis Bay Territory, which is administered by the Australian Federal Government, and part of Booderee National Park. The Park is owned by the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community and jointly managed with Parks Australia. The National Park staff are extremely helpful and supportive of my research.

Last Thursday evening, David and I drove to Jervis Bay to make sure we could get an early start to Bowen Island. Especially during spring, the weather and sea can be quite rough and mornings are generally a better time to get to the landing beach by boat. We were lucky and the wind had changed to a Southerly, which is a safer wind for landing on Bowen Island. Ranger Stewie and Park Services Manager Martin got the Sea Eagle III ready for us and brought us to the island (which is only 250m off the mainland) in a jiffy.

Checking Burrows

Checking Burrows

We landed on the beach on the sheltered western side of the island, unloaded our gear and carried it up to our accomodation for the next 3 days: a spacious house, built by Martin and Stewie some 20 years ago. With only a small boat and a lot of dedication, they brought hundreds of kilos of concrete, machinery, solar panels and whatever one needs on a remote island over, creating a place where one could easily spend months at a time (which Martin actually did). A good bottle of wine for dinner and we felt right at home. While we settled in, Stewie and Martin worked on the water supply to the house. When they were done and gone, we were left on the otherwise uninhabited island by ourselves and got to work:

Easily accessible burrows that can be monitored over several years to estimate survival rates of the penguins in the colony were what we were looking for. Once found, we marked them with plant tags. We then set up our corralling fence on the beach to intercept the penguins as they come ashore at night. Not long after late lunch/early dinner, the sun set and we walked back down to the beach, where we did not have to wait long for the first raft of penguins to arrive.

The first penguin raft arrives

The first penguin raft arrives

We were slightly overwhelmed by the number of penguins that bravely walked into our corral. The decision to shorten the fence, thereby making sure that most of the penguins were not detained from getting to their burrows, was made quickly. The resulting delay meant that during the first night, we only managed to collect 10 DNA samples and microchip five of the penguins, but we were happy that all procedures worked well. During the sampling, we were accompanied by the eery sounds of night birds, and on the way back to the house, we came across a lot of different penguin calls. After a successful first day on the island, we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep in our bunk beds!

Checking a penguin burrow for occupancy

Checking a penguin burrow for occupancy

The second day started with some more burrow searching and marking after breakfast, while a white-bellied sea eagle chased a smaller bird overhead. We also revisited the burrows we had marked the previous day. It turned out that the location of one of them was not described accurately and we never found it again. That taught us to be as precise as possible in our records and use additional landmarks for orientation. The Island had also been sprayed with herbicide to reduce the invasive Kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum), which is a threat to Little Penguin breeding habitat. Large parts of the vegetation therefore appeared dead and strawlike, while native plants hopefully reclaim the invaded area. Changes in the vegetation are therefore to be expected.

The burrow occupant

The burrow occupant

In the afternoon, it started raining. The tin roof of the house made the light rain sound like a steady downpour, so we were pleasantly surprised when we left the house for the second night of penguin capture. Despite the ongoing rain, we had a very successful run with 25 penguins marked and sampled. The only drawback was the fact that our microchip reader ran out of battery, despite being fully charged at the start of the trip. We therefore ran into the danger of marking the same bird twice, but because we released the birds on the other side of the fence we took them from, that risk was rather low during one sampling night.

Second sampling night

Me holding a penguin during the second sampling night

The second night with the steady rain was even more exhausting than the first one, so we were glad when we finally returned to the house and got out of our smelly sampling clothes – some of the birds had showed how they liked to be handled by releasing squishy bird poo onto us.

After Saturday’s rain, Sunday started sunny and we were sweating by the time we had checked all the burrows for occupancy and added some more. At the end of our tour, during which we also saw a whale lobtailing off the coast, we had marked 35 burrows and hope to find all of them when we are be back in two weeks time.

Because it was Sunday and we still had a few hours before dusk, we decided to take a dip in the cool water of Jervis Bay, but did not stay long in the alternative penguin habitat. We are lucky the penguins still come ashore, otherwise it would be impossible to catch and release them unharmed!

Sunset on Sunday

Sunset on Sunday

On our last evening on the island, we got to see a beautiful sunset while waiting for the penguins to arrive. We also watched a group of cormorants leaving their favourite rock for their nightly resting and roosting place while the shearwaters returned to the island colony.

This time, the first raft was in a great hurry and just ran our fence over, so that we only got hold of a few penguins from that group. We still managed to handle 21 individuals and got our total count to just over 50 individuals, thereby achieving our goal. Now it remains to be seen how many of the marked individuals we can recapture during our next trip to Bowen Island.

On Monday, Stewie and Martin picked us up despite the unfavourable weather and we got soaked to the skin while loading the boat, but the dolphins that passed within meters more than made up for this small discomfort!

Back on the mainland, we rinsed our gear and the stuff we had borrowed from the National Park, packed the car and were back on the road home to Sydney… for now.