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Flightless, Coastal, Not Uncommon… Little Penguins

By Keith Hutton on January 21, 2011 in Other

Little Penguins are rarely noticed around Sydney but they are not uncommon in coastal seas. They are seen regularly from boats on Pittwater and occasionally on Sydney Harbour; sometimes watchers see them from cliff-top lookouts and rock platforms. Surfers in the Eastern Suburbs apparently see them often, out in the surf in summer, and get right up close when they are hunting little fish that leap out of the water followed by one or two penguins, which appear only briefly. They feed in the area behind the reef at Bronte but don’t hang about for long on the surface so it’s hard to get a good look at them.

Little Penguins are the smallest of all penguins and adults are only about 30cm tall. Their upper bodies and flippers are slaty blue or blue-grey in colour and they are white underneath with white throats. They have black bills, pale pink feet and silver-grey eyes.

Although they normally breed on offshore islands now, an endangered population of about 60 pairs still nests on the mainland at Manly. The birds usually arrive and start calling about an hour after sunset when it’s too dark to see much, but if you wait during the breeding season (July to January) near the boardwalks on the western side of Manly wharf you have a good chance of hearing them there.

Little Penguins are the only penguins that breed on the Australian mainland and they range from Fremantle in WA along the southern coasts to Coffs Harbour in northern NSW. They usually nest in burrows in sand dune vegetation but sometimes they will use cavities under raised buildings, in caves or between rocks.

Little Penguins feed mainly in shallow waters within 15 to 20 kilometres of the coast. They hunt near the surface for fish and dive deeper to catch squid and krill.

Like all penguins throughout the world Little Penguins are unable to fly and consequently are vulnerable out of the water. Dogs, cats and foxes pose the greatest threat as they attack and kill both adults and chicks. Other threats include destruction or disturbance of nesting habitat, pollution and run-off from nearby human activity, and reckless behaviour from jet skiers and water skiers. Little Penguins are difficult to see and spend most of their time in the top two metres of the water. They are often victims of boat strikes so make sure you go slow when boating and skiing in areas where they are around, and never ever allow your dog or cat to roam free where penguins may have breeding sites or burrows. Fishing line and tackle are also a threat because they can get caught around legs and flippers, and hooks can be deadly if swallowed, so take discarded fishing gear home with you.

Little Penguins are special little Aussies that are having a tough time on the mainland. We all love them and the tourists do too, so let’s be more responsible, consider their needs and go out of our way to help them to live alongside us in our rapidly changing environment.