Little Penguins

Murdoch University Research Associate Dr Belinda Cannell has been researching Little Penguins on both Penguin and Garden Islands for more than 15 years to understand the biology of the species. Such information is important for setting recommendations for good management of the colonies. The foraging habitat of Penguin Island Little Penguins during breeding is being studied, following well above average sea surface temperatures (SST) in 2011 and 2012, and greater than average SST in 2013.
“These high SSTs afford us the opportunity to gather information on the likely resilience of both the coastal marine habitat and ultimately the penguins on Penguin Island to impacts associated with climate change,” she said. “Little Penguins are known indicators of how well coastal marine systems are functioning. With climate change and increasing development along the South Western Australian coast, pressures on the marine ecosystem have also increased. So understanding the interactions between the habitats the penguins use and how well they breed each year gives us insight into any negative impacts within the marine environment. The areas used by the penguins are determined by attaching either satellite or GPS tags to them when they are incubating eggs or feeding chicks.”
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An adult Little Penguin with a GPS tag and her two chicks (Photo by Dr Belinda Cannell)

Last year, Dr Cannell attached special tags to several penguins to find out where they go when they leave the island. Fremantle Ports is providing some funding to cover the costs of three satellite tags and three GPS tags. The penguins were either incubating eggs or raising chicks. Those incubating eggs used areas that ranged from Cockburn Sound to Geographe Bay, and Preston Beach was a favourite spot of some penguins. But these trips often took a long time, some up to 15 days. Some penguins abandoned their eggs because their partner was away too long.

See Dr Cannell's Facebook page or read below.

News from Dr Belinda Cannell:


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A Little Penguin (with a satellite tag attached) incubating eggs


The study from 2016 has shown that the home range and core habitats of the penguins were more contracted than previous years, and this coincided with cooler SST in 2016. At the same time the penguins had a better breeding success, but the overall number of penguins attempting to breed was still low. This has thus indicated that there has been some resilience in marine system. The new diving data that I obtained is exciting, and I am investigating more in-depth analyses with these data.


Hi, fellow penguinphiles, Dr Belinda from Murdoch University here with an update on the penguins on Penguin Island.
Back to the chicks with the huge dad - I deployed a GPS tag (circled) onto the mum for a single day foraging trip when the chicks were about 5 and 7 days old. Usually the chicks hatch 2-3 days apart. This gives the older chick an advantage as it can outcompete its younger, smaller sibling when begging  for food from their parents. So when fish prey are scarce, the older chick is more likely to be fed, but when fish prey are abundant both chicks will be fed and survive.
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Only one chick can be seen in the photo, near mum’s head. The other chick is tucked under the mum’s abdomen.


Hi, fellow penguinphiles, Dr Belinda from Murdoch University here with an update on the penguins on Penguin Island.
I had attached a tag to a huge male, who was at least 9 years old - penguins can live for approximately 20 years, but survival starts to reduce around 9 years. He left a couple of days after I attached the tag, and swam into Cockburn Sound, where he stayed for 5 days.
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I removed the tag, and 3 weeks later we found 2 delightful little chicks in the nestbox. The chicks are around 3-5 days old.


Hi, fellow penguinphiles, Dr Belinda from Murdoch University here with an update on the penguins on Penguin Island. Last time we saw that a female was swimming and feeding around the Singleton-Madora Bay area, while her partner incubated the eggs. I was so pleased to see her return to her nest site just a couple of days later. So this was a much shorter foraging trip during incubation than we have typically seen the past three years. Her eggs have now hatched and the chicks are about five days old with very full little bellies. This means they are getting well fed. About a week later, I attached a satellite tag to another penguin that I had also microchipped in 2007. He weighed in at a whopping 1510g. The average weight for males on Penguin Island is around 1400g, larger than male penguins at most of the other colonies in Australia. So he was heavier than average, but this penguin is a particularly large bird. You can see the satellite tag attached to the feathers on his back, and two eggs, which he would normally have tucked away under his belly. Penguins occasionally only lay one egg, but usually lay two eggs. Stay tuned to find out where he heads to.

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Hi folks, Dr Belinda from Murdoch University here, and it is with great pleasure that I can be writing about the Little Penguins again in 2016. I am very grateful for the research support provided by both the City of Rockingham and Fremantle Ports. So now I begin the work to investigate the toll of the past five years of generally warmer than average local waters, and coastal development, on the penguins.

This year I am again using satellite and GPS tags to locate penguins when they are on the surface of the water. Excitingly, I will also be using some special tags that give information not only on the depth the penguins are diving to, but also where they are catching their food. These tags have only recently become small enough for Little Penguins.

So the breeding season has recently begun - a bit later than the long term average, but not much different to recent years. I was really beginning to get very worried that it was going to be another abysmal year. Although the numbers breeding are still low, the birds that are breeding are all in great condition.  I am quietly hopeful that there will be a surge in breeding soon. I will let you know in coming weeks how it progresses.

I was delighted last week to find a female in one of the nestboxes who I microchipped in 2007. I don’t know her exact age as she was microchipped as an adult, and penguins are usually 2-3 years old when they return to the island to start breeding. They can come back when they are about one year old though, but physically they all look the same, so this means she is at least 10 years old. I attached a tag to her, and she is now swimming in Comet Bay, not far from Singleton. She has been away for four days now.

Here is a map of her movements. Note the locations that are on land. The penguin didn’t really leave the water! These points are raw data, and sometimes the locations aren’t the most accurate. These points would be removed when the data are analysed.

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Stay posted for the next instalment.This research is funded by the City of Rockingham and Fremantle Ports.

Report Year 3 March 2016:

Download Dr Cannell's final report on How resilient are the Little Penguins and the coastal marine habitats they use? (3.5MB, Report Year 3 March 2016).

2015 wrap-up:

The penguin project run by Dr Belinda Cannell has finished with the end of the breeding season for the penguins. Overall, few penguins were breeding in the nestboxes, which was similar to 2014. When food is low, fewer penguins attempt to breed.

Some of the breeding penguins travelled long distances while their partners incubated eggs, travelling as far south as Geographe Bay. Some penguins headed north to Cockburn Sound. The penguins feeding young chicks stayed much closer to home, some foraging in Comet Bay, and others in Cockburn Sound. Sadly, a few clutches of eggs were abandoned, and several chicks did not survive. On a brighter note, a small number of penguin pairs laid two clutches, and a few of these pairs successfully raised their chicks. Here is a picture of one of the star penguins who raised two clutches:

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So when food is low only the best foragers breed successfully.


When we checked in last, Dr Belinda had just removed a sateliite tag from a female penguin, and one of her chicks had hatched, probably within the previous 24 hours. At the next check, just over a week later, both chicks had hatched and were growing quite well.
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Two months after they had hatched both chicks had grown their adult feathers (fledged) but were a quite a bit underweight. Once young penguins have fledged they leave the nest and have to learn to fish on their own. Sadly, many do not survive, and the heavier they are when they leave the nest the more likely they are to survive. Both of the fledged chicks were microchipped, so we can trace the history of the penguins if they are ever seen again, live or dead.


You may recall that I recently attached a satellite tag to a female who headed down towards Preston Beach. Well, this female headed even further south, almost reaching Myalup, some 80 km from Penguin Island. She left her partner incubating the eggs for 12 days - much longer than the typical incubation shifts the penguins take. Here is a picture of where she went during her trip. You can see that she remained reasonably close to the coast.

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And when I got to the nestbox to retrieve the tag, I found one of the chicks had just hatched, probably the day before. It was very lucky she returned when she did, as the chick’s dad wouldn’t have had any food to feed the chick. You can see both the chick and the egg in the photo. The chick weighs less than 50g.
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The year has been racing and I have been busy going back and forth to the island, attaching and retrieving tags. Sadly, there have been few penguins breeding, at least in the nest boxes, so I can usually only attach or retrieve one tag per trip. This makes for a very long field season.

I have also just returned from the World Seabird Conference, held in Cape Town. This was an amazing four-day conference with almost 600 people attending. It was fascinating to hear about all the incredible research that is being undertaken on seabirds all over the world, and I feel very privileged that I could present some of the long-term Little Penguins research I have been involved with.  

But back to penguins. I am happy to tell you that Bravo’s chicks survived, and the last time I saw them they had lost some of their chicks down and grown about half of their adult feathers. But now there were two other 'wanderer' chicks in the nestbox, too.

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This project was funded by the City of Rockingham and Fremantle Ports.


The chicks of Bravo, the penguin who swam to northern Cockburn Sound, are growing steadily, but imagine my surprise when I opened the lid of their nestbox to suddenly find three chicks! The wandering chick would have come from a nearby nest, as penguin chicks do sometimes move from their nests once their parents leave for the day to catch food. But Bravo and his partner would only feed their chicks, which they would be able to identify by the sound of their voices!


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Another satellite tag has been deployed on a penguin incubating eggs. But this female has headed much further from the colony, swimming down to near Preston Beach.

This project was funded by the City of Rockingham and Fremantle Ports. 


Charlie has been joined by a second chick, Delta. Many weeks have passed and both are doing well. Here is a photo of them with almost all their chick down replaced by the lovely blue feathers. The penguins chicks are now called fledglings. Fledglings leave the nest when they are about eight weeks old.


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Meanwhile Bravo stayed feeding  in Cockburn Sound for three days. This was a quick trip. Both Bravo and his partner continued to take turns incubating the eggs, and now they have two chicks.

This project was funded by the City of Rockingham and Fremantle Ports. 


In 2013 Dr Belinda Cannell from Murdoch University began a three-year study to look at the impacts of the above average sea surface temperatures that had occurred in local coastal waters since late 2010. In particular, she is investigating the feeding areas of the Little Penguins from Penguin Island, and relating this to their breeding success.

So the circle of life continues, and the penguins have begun breeding on Penguin Island again. When breeding last year, you may recall that the penguins swam a long distance from the island while their partner was incubating the eggs. And they remained at sea for eight days or more. The furthest recorded distance was by a female who swam to Margaret River.

Dr Cannell has attached a couple of satellite tags already this year. For those penguins heading south, it appears that fish must be much closer than in the past two years. So far, penguin 1 from Penguin Island swam only as far south as Mandurah/Halls Head and stayed here for a day. One of his chicks was starting to hatch when he came back to his nest though, which may be why he only did a short trip. Penguin 2 headed to the northern half of Cockburn Sound.

Here is a photo of Penguin 1’s chick starting to hatch, (red arrow). The chicks have an egg tooth on their beak that they use to chip away at the egg. It can take 24 hours - three days for a chick to hatch.

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This project was funded by the City of Rockingham and Fremantle Ports. 


The last we heard of pair 328405 and 328396 was that one chick was alone in its nest. Sadly it had died the next time the nest was checked, as did both of the chicks from the other nestbox whose dad had foraged near Lake Clifton and Preston Beach.

But the penguins are incredible, and a couple of weeks later 328405 was back in the nest, incubating a fresh clutch of eggs. I am very happy to report that one chick hatched, and is doing very well.

And now to report on some of the areas where the penguins feed once they do have chicks. As the penguins have to return each night when they have young chicks, they have to stay much closer to the island. For these short trips, I attach a GPS tag to a penguin. These give me many more locations per day, but I must get the tag back to get the data.

Here is a picture showing the two types of tags:


And one of penguin 213614, with the GPS tag attached:

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Now here is the wonderful information that I get from these tags - the picture shows where 213614 travelled and foraged for the day:

As you can see, he swam to near Singleton and spent a lot of time feeding there. We can tell where the penguins’ important feeding areas are by looking at where the penguins’ tracks have many twists and turns.


Before I continue on the story of the penguins I have been tagging, I will answer some questions from people.

Paul asked if large predators were a problem for 328405, who swam from Lake Clifton to the west side of Garden Island.

Answer: It potentially can be dangerous, with sea lions and sharks potential predators, but many of the penguins that I tag have spent time in these areas, and they have returned. Also, the most important activity for a penguin is to find food, and given that 328405 spent a lot of time in these areas we presume that this is where the fish were. But we don’t know how abundant those fish stocks are. It is likely that they are not very abundant though, which is why the penguins are staying away for so long.

A final word on the track data - this is raw data and I have yet to verify all the locations and some of the more outlying locations may be not quite true. You see, the locations that I get from the satellites can vary in their precision. I do all this checking once I have collected all my data.

Trevor asked why they avoid the sound (i.e. Cockburn Sound).

Answer: Actually some penguins from Penguin Island do feed in Cockburn Sound, although the majority seem to head southwards, while others feed around Five Fathom Bank, on the west side of Garden Island (as 328405 did). However, the penguins on Garden Island, which I also study, exclusively feed in the sound.

Now back to the journeys.

We had seen 328396 (328405’s partner) with one of the chicks and the other one was hatching. When the nestbox was checked the following week, 328405 was in there with his 2 chicks that were then about 1 week old. You can see them in this photo, although one chick has its head tightly tucked under Dad’s belly, so we can only see its butt!  

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A week later 328396 was with her chicks, so all seemed to be going well. The next week though, only one of the chicks was in the nestbox by itself. It is not unusual to see them alone once they are about 2-3 weeks old, as the older they are the more food they need and so both parents have to fish each day. But because only one chick was in the nest box, this means that the other chick has most likely died. Sadly, the chick in the nestbox did not have a full stomach, and so hadn’t been fed for at least a day.


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Now for the other penguin, who had foraged in the coastal waters adjacent to Lake Clifton and Preston Beach areas.  The week after his chicks were first seen as 2-3 day olds, they were found in the nestbox by themselves. They are not normally left alone at 10 days of age, and as you can see in the photo, they were quite different in size. This is sign that the bigger, older chick is getting more food than its sibling.

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So 328405 remained at sea for 13 days, while his partner remained in the nest incubating the eggs. He took his turn keeping the eggs warm, and eight days after his return, one of the eggs hatched. Two days later, his partner was in the nestbox with one chick, and the other hatching (see red arrow in picture, which points to where the chick in the egg is breaking through, or pipping, the shell). Hatching can take from 24 hours to three days.
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The other tagged penguin spent five days in the coastal waters near Preston Beach, before heading about 10km north to the coastal waters adjacent to Lake Clifton. He remained at sea for 16 days. Meanwhile his partner remained with their eggs. These penguins are amazing! Nine days after he returned from his very long foraging trip, the female was again in the nestbox, but with her were two chicks, two-three days old. Now the penguins take turns guarding the chicks while the other is at sea all day. Usually they return the same night to bring back food for the chicks, and then swap duties the next morning.
Join Dr Belinda Canell next time to check on the progress of these chicks.
Just before Penguin 328405 returned home, Dr Cannell attached a satellite tag to another male penguin incubating eggs. He has also headed south, and in one day swam from Penguin Island to the coast near Lake Clifton. This is a distance of approximately 60km south, as the penguin flies! Like 328405, he has also remained in this area for several days. Little Penguins usually only spend an average of 5 days at sea while their partner is incubating the eggs. Stay tuned for an update on this penguin’s journey to see if returns to his eggs in record time.
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The last we saw of Penguin 328405, he seemed to be heading home, having spent 5 days near Lake Clifton. But he swam straight past Penguin Island and headed for the west side of Garden Island, where he stayed for another 7 days. The northernmost point he reached was just over halfway between Penguin Island and Rottnest. He finally returned home after being away for 15 days. Luckily, his partner was still incubating eggs. Here is a picture of his amazing journey from Lake Clifton to west Garden Island and finally back to Penguin Island:
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Well, the penguins have begun breeding on Penguin Island, and some started breeding slightly earlier compared to last year. I have attached a satellite tag to one penguin (328405) incubating eggs. He has swapped duties with his partner, and has swum down to coastal waters adjacent to Lake Clifton, as you can see. He stayed for 4 days. He didn’t go inland though,- that was an error! It looks like he is heading back home to his partner.

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The Coastal and Estuarine Dolphin Project program began in July 2011 to help shed light on the lives of river dolphins, including the size and structure of their group. Fremantle Ports is providing significant funding to the project run by Murdoch and Curtin universities. Read more about this sponsorship here.

News from the Coastal and Estuarine Dolphin Project (Curtin and Murdoch universities):

Dolphin researcher and PhD student Sarah Marley won the Trans-Tasman 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) Competition Final, where PhD students from 48 Australasian universities presented their research to a generalist audience in under three minutes. Sarah is researching the effects of noise on dolphins. Her research includes the port. See her presentation here.
Barb Green, Acting Coordinator for the Cockburn Sound Management Council, has started up a shore-based community monitoring group for dolphins around Rockingham. Barb said they were looking for people who regularly walk along the beach: "Become part of our volunteer research group and help us learn more about when and how dolphins are using the near shore areas of Cockburn Sound." See more information in the Council's flyer and call the Council if you are interested (9591 3827 or 0427 886 237).
Some great news — DPaW Wildlife Officers have successfully disentangled an entangled calf near Point Peron. Think this may have been the calf that Delphine observed in Cockburn Sound several months ago. Miraculous to have survived with all that line. No doubt a credit to good mothering!
The "Naked Scientist" team from Cambridge University visited recently to help out with Murdoch's effort to raise the interest in science among school kids in the Perth region. They went on the river with Delphine, a Murdoch researcher, for a day. See the Naked Scientist home page and the BBC item.