Low Head is home to a unique species of penguins unique to Australia and New Zealand

The scientific name of the Little Penguin (formerly known as Fairy Penguin or Blue Penguin) – Eudyptula minor – is most descriptive. Not only are these penguins the smallest of the species, but Eudyptula means ‘good little diver’.

Description:

Only 40cm (16in) tall and 1.1kg (2.4lbs)

Little Penguins are the smallest penguin species in the world. They are flightless seabirds who breed in colonies along the southern coast of Australia, as far north as Port Stephens in the east to Fremantle in the west. Subspecies are also found in New Zealand.

Their dense waterproof plumage is dark blue on the upper parts of the body and white on the underside. The single Australian subspecies is distinguished from the five New Zealand subspecies by having a margin of white feathers on the tail and on the rear edge of each flipper.

Habitat:

Little Penguins usually breed on offshore islands or, less commonly, along parts of the mainland coast that are inaccessible to mammalian predators. Most breeding sites are adjacent to the sea, with burrows in sand or soil or under vegetation, but in some areas the birds nest in caves or crevices in rock falls. A few sites are in urban areas and some are on anthropogenic structures such as breakwaters. The type and structure of vegetation in the breeding areas varies from sparsely-vegetated caves and rock screes through grass-, herb- and scrublands, to woodland and forest (Marchant and Higgins 1990, Dann 1994, Fortescue 1995).

Locations:

The world breeding population is thought to be between 350-600,000 birds, comprising 300-500 000 in Australia (Ross et al.1995) and c.50-100 000 in New Zealand (estimated from Robertson and Bell 1984). These figures are undoubtedly underestimates as new colonies are still being found. Bass Strait, with 60% of the known breeding population, is the stronghold for the species in Australia. However less than 5% of breeding pairs are found on mainland Tasmania, where ever-increasing human pressure will probably result in these colonies extinction. The largest populations are found on Tasmania's offshore islands.

Their breeding distribution in Australia, extends from the Shoalwater Island Group (Penguin and Carnac Islands), near Perth in Western Australia, across the southern coast (including Bass Strait and Tasmania), and up the east coast as far as South Solitary Island in New South Wales (near Coffs Harbour) [Blakers, Davies and Reilly 1984, Marchant and Higgins 1990].

In New Zealand, Little Penguins are found around the coasts of the North, South, Stewart and Chatham Islands (Marchant and Higgins 1990, Dann 1994).

While the species is not endangered, some populations are threatened and penguins no longer breed at some previously occupied sites. In addition, the size of some breeding colonies has diminished since European settlement in both Australia and New Zealand (Dann 1992, 1994). Conversely, several new colonies have become established in the recent past, for example at St. Kilda in Victoria, where approximately 200 birds now breed on a breakwater constructed for the 1956 Olympic Games (M.Cullen, unpublished obs.).

Behaviour:

The Little Penguin’s streamlined shape and its efficient flippers enable it to seek prey in shallow short dives, typically between 10m and 30m. Its diet consists of small fish, some squid or krill (shrimp-like crustaceans) and occasionally crab larvae or sea horses from the sea floor.

Each evening as it gets dark, groups of penguins gather beyond the surf where they may be heard calling to each other. They surf in from their day at sea and walk up the beach to their burrows. In large colonies, hundreds of birds may come ashore in a brief time.

Some Little Penguins return to their burrows year round, but most stay at sea over autumn and winter.

Fairy penguins have a distinctive song, which moves from a bass rumble to a trumpeting cry, accompanied by flipper, beak and body movements. At night, and especially in the breeding season, the din of a penguin colony can be considerable.

It’s a record:

Researchers at the Phillip Island Nature Reserve have been following the fate of one particular male penguin since 1994. On one foraging trip while gathering food for his growing chick, the penguin dove down to 57 metres - three metres deeper than the previous deepest dive of 54 metres. http://www.abc.net.au/science/scribblygum/march2003/

Reproduction:

Fairy penguins live on average for 7 years, and some retain the same mate for life. Most Little Penguins do not breed until they are two or three years old. Breeding is roughly seasonal, peaking around spring: some pairs breed twice in one year.

A clutch of two white eggs is laid in spring. Male and female birds share the 36-day period of egg incubation. When the chicks hatch they are initially helpless and are brooded continuously for about 2-3 weeks. After this period both adults leave the chicks unguarded in the nest during the day, while they forage at sea to obtain food for the rapidly growing chicks. By 8 weeks of age the chicks have lost their down and acquired the waterproof plumage necessary for independent life at sea. These young birds are not seen again at their original colonies for at least a year and may disperse widely during this period.