The Penguin Post has learned that a pair of Northern Rockhopper penguins have been discovered far from their usual habitat on the beaches near the town of Denmark in South Western Australia. They are believed to be one-year-old Northern Rockhoppers which are normally found on Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean, about 3000 miles from Australia. Denmark vet David Edmond has taken in the two, which have come ashore to moult, for safety. “When they come onshore for a moult they usually lose all of their feathers and they can’t swim because they’re no longer waterproof and they grow a new lot of feathers and that takes about two to four weeks,” he said. “During that period onshore, they’ll find somewhere nice and sheltered and they’ll sit there nice and quietly.
The one year old Rockhoppers need some time to molt before being released.
“So, basically we need to make sure they’re somewhere safe and secure where they’re not going to get attacked by dogs or foxes.” The Conservation Council of Western Australia’s Nick Dunlop says there could be a number of reasons why the penguins, more commonly known as Moseley penguins, are being found so far out of their usual habitat. “There are lots of strange things happening in the ocean at the moment due to changing ocean temperatures,” he said. “If they’re having trouble finding enough food and it takes them too far away from their breeding islands then they may come ashore and moult on another piece of land somewhere. “They can’t moult in the water because they will drown.” “So, the most likely explanation is they’ve dispersed further than normal because food is in short supply and when they got up to moulting weight, they’ve been too far away from their breeding colonies and they’ve come onshore in Australia on the mainland to replace their feathers.” A researcher and penguin expert at Murdoch University, Belinda Cannell, has recorded a spike in the number of dead penguins turning up on the South West coast. She says another breed, the Little Penguin, have washed up dead in much higher numbers this year, dotted along the coast from Safety Bay to the mouth of Donnelly River. Dr Cannell’s explanation is the Leeuwin Current which was much stronger in 2010 and early 2011. The current comes from northern WA bringing warmer water of lower salinity with fewer nutrients, resulting in less food than usual for the penguins. “It seemed to have some sort of impact on the fish supply that the penguins normally feed on as we had more than normal that were being found along the shoreline apparently dying from starvation, so they’re really underweight, no food in their stomachs,” she said. “It’s a signal that they’re travelling further to find fish supplies of some fish stocks so it’s more indicative that there’s nothing available for them closer to home.” Dr Edmond says he’s seen an alarming increase in the number of Rockhopper penguins – five in the last 12 months, compared with one or two in the previous 15 years. “Hopefully it is just a coincidence and it’s not that we’re having an epidemic of it,” he said. “There’s always a concern when we’re finding more than one animal. “I was speaking to DEC as well and there’s also been an increase in the number of baby seals that have been stranded over the last 12 months so that also makes a bit of concern, thinking ‘is there something else happening out there or is it just the season with the currents the way they are?” he asked. The author of the Field Guide to Birds of Australia books, Ken Simpson, has spent half of his life researching and cataloguing rare penguins. He says there’s been a drop in their numbers. “All the penguins of the entire world are dropping in numbers dramatically everywhere, almost all, with a couple of exceptions,” he said. “Their numerical total world population of each kind, whether it be from one or two islands or from 30 islands, like the Macaroni Penguins, they’re all dropping so it’s rare that they’re edging into endangerment or areas of concerns.” Mr Simpson says there are all sorts of theories as to why. “There’s various pollution problems, there may be starvation problems, the odd oil spill doesn’t help, some of the seas are becoming a bit more acidic than perhaps they ought to be,” he said. “There’s a lot of melt water going, fresh water, around Antarctica at the moment because of the steadily melting bits of the Ross Ice Shelf,” he said. “Slightly warmer water doesn’t favour food production, little tiny creatures that feed the fish, plankton size bits and pieces don’t grow so well in warm water so it’s a great combination of things and it’s very hard to pin it down.” Dr Dunlop says a diminished food supply is a concern. “We do know it’s got to do with changes in ocean climate at the time which normally affects food supply, their fish move away or their fish abundance declines,” he said. “There’s a consequence in change in sea temperature or change in current flows. “Normally the climate-induced effects are much greater than the fishery ones but they may actually work in concert in some situations.” He is urging anyone who finds a washed up penguin to keep it cool and contact either Dr Cannell at Murdoch University or the Department of Environment and Conservation so the reasons behind their death can be uncovered. And, vet David Edmond is organizing to take the two Northern Rockhopper penguins to a nearby island to release them.
A couple of locals on the beach with a not so local penguin