My seventh species: the little penguin

By Midge Raymond,

Happy World Penguin Day!

One thing I’m celebrating today is having met my seventh species of penguin: the little penguin. Ever since meeting four species of penguins in Antarctica, I’ve become a little obsessed: Next I went to Argentina to volunteer with the University of Washington’s Penguin Sentinels, counting the Magellanic penguins of Punto Tombo. On more recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to see the elusive and endangered Galápagos penguin. And last year, one of the best things about visiting Australia as part of the My Last Continent tour was meeting my seventh species.

The little penguin is also called the “fairy penguin” in Australia, and in New Zealand it’s known as the “blue penguin” or “white-flippered penguin.”

All names fit this little bird, as it is no more than a foot tall, and its feathers are a lovely bluish-gray and white. These penguins appear in several places in Australia, one of them being Manly, where you can see signs like this on the sidewalks, alongside indicators for bikes and pedestrians:

little-penguin

The little penguins forage at sea all day and come ashore when darkness falls. One of the best places to see them is the (terribly touristy) Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, which is a two-hour journey from Melbourne and completely worth it, especially if you can ignore the other tourists (some of whom are respectful, far too many of whom are noisy, take photos (which aren’t allowed), and otherwise flaunt the rules of the park and disturb the birds).

Once it gets dark, no photos or videos are allowed, but on a daylight walk we glimpsed this little penguin, near the natural and man-made burrows created to provide nesting opportunities for them.

Years ago, the little penguins’ numbers here on Phillip Island decreased dramatically when a bridge was built and humans began inhabiting and vacationing on the island, bringing foxes, dogs, and other predators, including traffic; even now, many penguins are run over by cars. Foxes have now been eliminated, and while the birds’ numbers are still down in Australia, we can hope the conservation efforts pay off. One effort is the building of nests for them; below, you can just barely see a little penguin inside one of these man-made burrows.

The little penguins are adorable to watch. After the sun sets, they come in from the water in “rafts” — groups from five to ten penguins to dozens — because there is safety in numbers, and they shake off the water and waddle up the sand to the scrubby brush where they have their nests. Perhaps because they’re so small, they always look as though they’re walking in a huge hurry, as if being chased; it’s particularly cute to watch, as they’ll often take a tumble or bump into one another in their rush. Fortunately, being so small, they don’t have far to fall. If you focus your eyes on the burrows, you’ll see dirt and sand flying out as the penguins dig out their nests.

Sometimes the penguins will stop or turn back to pick up pebbles and seashells for their nests. (If you do visit Phillip Island, sit tight and wait until the crowds disperse and until the rangers tell you at least three times that it’s time to go. This is when it gets quiet and peaceful, and you can hear nothing but the sounds of the penguins scuttling to their nests and calling to their mates. The rangers will, eventually, escort you off the premises; they turn off the lights at the same time every day to give the penguins consistency and peace. Even as you leave, you’ll be able to hear the birds’ “ecstatic cries” from the darkness as they reunite with their mates.) The next day around dawn, they will head out to sea again, then return home for the same nightly ritual.

Another place to see the little penguins is much closer to Melbourne is the breakwater at St. Kilda, where the penguins come to shore every night after sunset. Guides are there to enforce similar rules (no photography, no approaching the penguins), and it’s about a half-hour away from downtown Melbourne by bus or light rail.

To celebrate World Penguin Day, here are a few links where you can learn more and support conservation efforts for penguins around the world:

UW Penguin Sentinels

Oceanites

The Penguin Counters

Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!