(wiinterrr's note: This is a great story!)
Penguin parade has tourists in flap
Article from: escape
December 09, 2008 12:00am
THE waddling little fairy penguins still hold pride of place on Phillip Island, writes Peter Sweeney.
They are as regular as clockwork. In fact, they are more accurate than the tick-tock.
Every night just after sunset, the fairy penguins appear from the cold waters of Bass Strait and waddle up the beach like drunken sailors from a nightspot.
And every morning, at least an hour before the sun considers rising, they are back in the ocean.
It has been like that for many years on Phillip Island, a beautiful part of the world 135km southeast of Melbourne. Pray it continues for many more years.
After all, they are the lifeblood of the island's economy. Other tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels and everything else, exist because of the public pulling power of the penguins.
The penguins are the No.1 wildlife attraction in Australia. Japanese visitors find them magnetic, and it's easy to see why.
They emerge on Summerland Beach on the Summerland Peninsula like soldiers in little platoons.
They yap, preen and peer, and when all are assembled, they again look like soldiers as, with eyes to the front and wings slightly raised, they advance up the sand and somehow find their home – a burrow full of hungry chicks.
These days, the penguins are closely protected from people (in early 1967, deliberately lit fires killed hundreds and in late 1971, 15 penguins were killed by cars in one night) and predators (foxes and dogs have been cleaned out), but seagulls give them a torrid time upon reaching the shore.
Imagine the cheap feed a gull could get if a penguin "brings up" a day's take of anchovies, pilchards and squid, before he or she regurgitates it to babies in the nest.
Five lighting towers spread over 400m of beach enable the thousands of nightly visitors to admire the penguins.
The lights remain on for 50 minutes from the time the first penguin hits the sand.
But the best part is staying on after the beach arrival to follow the penguins moving through sand hills and scrub, trying to find home, and to hear the almost deafening sounds of squawking offspring calling mum and dad.
The penguin parade – on the sand and in the scrub – is one you have to see first hand. Penguins can handle whatever weather conditions Mother Nature dishes up, but they are camera shy and can't be photographed.
The numbers coming home to Phillip Island, where there was once 10 penguin colonies but now is just the one, vary immensely each night.
On four consecutive evenings in late November, the figures ranged from 1100 to 1700. The number of arrivals is somehow counted each evening. Penguins – whose homes are supported by tussock grass or the leafy bower spinach plant – are well researched and scrutinized by environmental and wildlife authorities.
When monitoring programs began on penguins 40 years ago, metal bands were attached to flippers, but these days electronic microchips record information, including how far penguins swim, how deep they dive and where they go.
The longest-living penguin made it to 26 years and the deepest dive has been 66.5m. The longest dive under water is 114 seconds and 100km is the longest distance swum. A penguin once stayed away from home for 45 days and the longest "sit-in" on the nest during incubation was eight days.
Even though their dark colouring on the head and back and much lighter tones on the chest and stomach make them almost impossible to see when in the water, longevity isn't something that comes to most penguins.
Violent storms at sea, predators in the ocean, exhaustion and hunger are the biggest killers.
Sadly, only 50 per cent of chicks survive to see their first birthday, which probably isn't so surprising when you consider that they are "on their own" at about eight weeks of age. That's when they hit the high seas.
Between the ages of two and three years, penguins find a mate, and after what is described as a "rowdy" courtship, have chicks of their own.
The female lays two eggs, each the size of a hen's egg, and the incubation lasts 35 days. The lifespan of penguins rarely exceeds seven years.
Penguins need to catch half their body weight in fish each day to feed their young. In the moulting season, they are out of the water for 17 days waiting for new feathers to replace old ones.
Then they are right to head back to the water and do what they do best – swim and catch fish for their little ones.
The Sunday Times/The Daily Telegraph @