Manly Observer’s curiosity into the Manly Little Penguins was first piqued in February after speaking with friend and fellow journo Angela Saurine; she had been keeping a dead one in her freezer.
The bird had been found by off duty Australian Wildlife Conservancy ecologist Alexander Watson, and Angela was keeping the bird “on ice” in her Manly home until it could be safely transported to Taronga Zoo, where an autopsy could determine its cause of death.
See, Manly is home to the only breeding colony of Little Penguins in all of mainland Australia. And it’s a colony on the brink – the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has just completed their count for the 2020-21 season and recorded just 23 breeding pairs of Little Penguins, a fraction of its former might.
For comparison, we asked for the the count from the 2013-14 and 2014-15, and there were 70 and 67 breeding pairs in each year respectively. That number was reduced significantly the following year thanks to menacing foxes, but it was slowly climbing back up in the thirties by 2019. But now just 23 pairs. In less than eights years a drop from 140 breeding penguins to just 46.
Taronga Conservation Society’s Australian Registry of Wildlife Health project officer Jane Hall confirmed her team wasn’t seeing Little Penguins as frequently they used to. “We’re not seeing them come in alive very often, and we’re not seeing them come into the registry either,” she said. “We’re not sure what’s happening.”
In February, a Little Penguin (‘Angela’s penguin’) was found washed up on the beach beside Manly Wharf. Another was found dead on Colins Flat Beach in June. Prior to that, Taronga’s previous recorded death from the colony was last November.
Dr Karrie Rose, who is veterinary pathology registrar at the ARWH, said the bird found in February died of blunt trauma, such as a boat strike, which led to a massive internal haemorrhage.
“It was most likely affected by a boat as it surfaced,” she said.
“Otherwise, it was in excellent condition. It was most likely feeding at the time as it had undigested food.” The Little Penguin, which wasn’t microchipped, was an adult female, and as such an important part of the breeding colony.
Ms Hall said that of the more than 300 recorded Little Penguin autopsies over the past two decades, around half of deaths were the result of anthropogenic activities, meaning they were caused by us.
This was followed by predation, other trauma and disease. A small percentage died as a result of being tangled in discarded fishing lines, hooks and plastic.
“In 2015, 28 penguins died over a matter of days from a fox at Manly,” she said. “Off leash dogs have also been a threat.”
But she said the cause of death for nearly a third of Little Penguins was unknown. “They could be a young animal whose parent had died out in the world,” she said.
A spokesperson from the National Parks and Wildlife Service said the Manly colony was the last breeding colony on the NSW mainland, and over the years diligent penguin wardens and volunteers have worked with NPWS to protect the fragile population from a range of threats, including foxes and cats.
“Unfortunately, the population has not fully recovered from previous oceanic events that limited their food source and devastating fox predation in 2015,” they said. “Four penguins were also believed to have been taken by a fox late last year. NPWS conducts a year-round fox management program at North Head as a frontline defence in protecting the penguins and this program was ramped up late last year to limit the number of birds lost.”
When the recent count of the breeding colony came through there was talk that this, our last remaining colony, was now unviable. We asked NPWS if this was true:
“While the population is still considered viable, small population does mean that there is little buffer against other impacts such as changes in oceanic conditions, which could impact individual breeding seasons for the long-term Manly population.”
Little Penguins have been sighted frequently at Manly Cove this breeding season. However, the penguins are not currently nesting at Manly wharf as they have in previous years.
Though, in a delicious moment of serendipity last week, just hours after pooling all of this information together and wondering if we will ever find cause to paint over those “look out penguin about” signs along the walk from the wharf to Fairlight, a local spied this on their evening walk in Manly Cove (you can also click for video):
Fight on, little friends, fight on.
How can you help the penguins?
- The community can help to further protect the Little Penguins by keeping their cats inside, not bringing dogs into the National Park (or onto the beach at Little Manly) and respecting night- time beach closures at North Head to allow the penguins to come ashore.
- Boaties can help protect Little Penguins by keeping an eye out for penguins, not toileting their dogs on North Head beaches and not anchoring or mooring their vessel beyond the provided buoys during the breeding season. And please turn down that God-awful music.
If you are concerned about the welfare of a penguin, Contact Parks on 1300 072 757 or the National Parks and Wildlife Service Duty Officer on (02) 9457 9577 (available 24 hours, 7 days).
Injured or dead little penguins should be taken to Taronga Wildlife Hospital at the end of Whiting Beach Road, Mosman, between 8am and 3pm, all year around. Call (02) 9969 2777.
Otherwise, contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service Duty Officer.
Keep the injured penguins in a lidded box, cool, quiet and away from pets. Do not offer any food or water.
Should you ever find yourself in custody of a dead penguin, it should be placed in a secure plastic bag and refrigerated if possible. This helps with the collection of tissue material to find out the cause of death
This article was an investigation by Angela Saurine, with Kim Smee.