As dusk fell over Australia’s Phillip Island last week, thousands of tiny black-and-white birds took part in the largest “penguin parade” seen on the island since record-keeping began in the 1960s, with over 5,200 little penguins (Eudiptula minor) across the beach in one night.
Phillip Island, known as Millowl to the indigenous Bunurong people, is home to Australia’s largest colony of little penguins, currently numbering around 40,000 birds, according to the Penguin Foundation, a group that funds research and conservation efforts on the island. This is the smallest penguin species in the world; the birds grow to be no more than 40 centimeters (15.7 in) tall, or about the height of a bolus, depending on the australian museum.
Every day at dusk, a subset of Philips Island’s penguin population swims back to shore after hunting fish, squid, krill, and small crustaceans in the ocean, then heads inland to their nesting grounds. Known locally as the “Penguin Parade,” this event draws large numbers of tourists to Phillip Island’s wildlife parks, where visitors can “sit and watch penguins emerge from the water for 50 minutes” each night, Paula Wasiak, a nature specialist from Phillip Island. Parks field researcher, she told WordsSideKick.com in an email.
“Penguin viewing has occurred in the same location for more than 50 years and the birds have become habituated to nocturnal activity over time,” he said. (If you can’t make it to the island in person, you can also watch live streams of the parade on Facebook either Youtube.)
On the evening of May 3, an unusually large number of penguins took part in the parade, as 5,219 little penguins stormed the shoreline at once, then headed for their burrows.
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“We couldn’t believe our eyes when more than 5,000 penguins came out of the water in less than an hour,” Wasiak said in a statement.
To count the birds, rangers position themselves along the four main penguin “highways,” dedicated paths that small birds always use to get to land, Wasiak told Live Science. “Little penguins cross in groups, with the same penguins using the same path each time they enter the colony,” and during the 50-minute parade, rangers count every bird that wanders these paths, he said.
The record for the largest penguin parade on the island had just been broken the week before, on April 29, when 4,592 birds came ashore at once, Wasiak told WordsSideKick.com. The previous record was set on a night in November 2021, when 4,435 birds scuttled across the sand and toward their nests, according to abcgippslanda local news station owned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
In general, the parades in May included a surprisingly high number of penguins, with approximately 3,000 to 5,000 birds parading each night. “It’s been a penguin party night after night, which is unusual for this time of year, let alone record numbers like we’re seeing now,” Wasiak said in the statement. Historically, the largest parades have taken place in November and December, at the peak of the birds’ breeding season, according to the Penguin Foundation.
Why have this month’s penguin parades grown to such a remarkable size? It may be that this year’s La Niña event, where strong trade winds whip across the Pacific, from South America to Indonesia, is increasing the food supply of birds offshore, meaning more birds are flocking. in coastal waters rather than forage further afield. far.
The little penguins feed mainly on small fish, such as anchovies, which can only survive in a narrow temperature range, Wasiak told Live Science. “It suggests that during La Niña years, ocean conditions around Phillip Island are typically ideal for a plentiful nearshore fish/food supply,” she said.
Typically, when they’re not breeding, penguins can spend up to a month feeding at sea, Wasiak told ABC Gippsland. With food closer to shore, the penguins make quick trips back to the beach just in time for the nightly parade.
In addition to the prolonged La Niña event, the parade’s large turnout may be related to a phenomenon known as “fall breeding intent,” where older penguins in the colony attempt to breed outside of peak mating season, Wasiak said. to WordsSideKick.com. This breeding attempt is usually preceded by an increase in the number of penguins going out to find food.
The big parades in May may also be the result of continued improvements to the penguin island’s habitat, Wasiak told LiveScience.
“One of the main areas where we are seeing an increase in penguin attendance is to the east of the colony. In the past, poor habitat and erosion in this area meant that penguins had difficulty accessing and nesting there.” Wasiak said in Parks. statement. “A lot of work has been done to improve the structure of the dunes, create pathways for the penguins and restore habitat, which is now paying off.”
Originally published on Live Science.