Issue Number #32
Issue Date Winter 2005
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Title Penguins and Plants

Little penguins are a familiar and popular resident of coastal Tasmania. On Tasmania's offshore islands little penguins are relatively secure. However on Tasmania's mainland, many little penguin colonies have suffered serious declines and extinctions due to increased human development, increased predation, population pressures, habitat degradation and conflicting land uses. Appropriate and effective management and focused on the ground works are needed to address these declines.

Little penguins are amazingly adapted to life at sea, though must return to land for periods of rest, breeding and their seasonal moult. During these periods, penguins are particularly vulnerable to disturbance. The important vegetation component in penguin habitat is primarily reflected through the understorey. Whilst upper canopy provides important shading, penguins as ground dwellers rely on the understorey for nesting, protection against predators, heat stress, shelter and burrow stabilisation.

Little penguins will nest within a variety of habitats, utilising rocky cavities, sandy burrows, hollow logs, dense vegetation and even man made structures. The disturbance or removal of such features from a colony can severely decrease quality nesting sites. Penguin habitat is not just the nest site, as penguins often use large areas of the colony for courting, prospecting for new burrows, and resting or "refuge" areas when traversing between the landing zone and nest site.

Little penguins use a series of well-worn runs, like our footpaths, to get from the sea to their burrows and back again. It is vital that such access not be impeded by the construction of walls and fences, thick vegetation and drainage features.

Introduced coastal species with soil binding properties such as Marram Grass, apart from excluding other native vegetation, can often lead to the formation of steep banks, which again can exclude penguin access to colonies. There is recent evidence that such bank formations have been a major cause in colony abandonment in areas of southeastern Tasmania.

When attempting any coastal regeneration it is imperative that the area be searched a number of times for signs of penguin occupation. Evidence can be found in the form of white streaky scats on runways, footprints and feathers. Penguins may also be heard calling after dark. Penguins can nest up to 300m inland, so when assessing sites it is important not to just concentrate on the immediate coastal fringe. If in doubt feel free to contact the Marine Unit, Nature Conservation Branch.

To avoid disturbance to penguins, works should only be conducted around nest sites in periods outside the breeding and moulting seasons. This generally only gives groups a few months with which to undertake major works, spanning from mid-April to mid July. It is important to only conduct vegetation removal in conjunction with sufficient replanting, maintain a gradual and staged approach. Often site remediation works or other land care type initiatives are undertaken without specific regard for little penguins and the removal of non-indigenous vegetation is a major goal of landcare efforts. Weed infestation, thorny bushes and thistles may inhibit penguin access, however older more established exotic vegetation such as African Boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum) and Blackberry (Rubus fruiticosus) may provide shelter from larger predators and can play a vital role in protecting vulnerable penguin colonies. Some examples of penguin friendly native plant species include Tetregonia implexicoma (Ice Plant), Rhagodia candolleana (Seaberry Saltbush), Myoporum insulare, (Boobialla), Carpobrotus Rossi, (Pig Face) and Poa poiformis (Tussock). Most native coastal plants will be appropriate, especially if they have the ability to provide cover and insulation for nesting. Notes on the collection, propagation and availability of seedlings can be provided from The Understorey Network.

An excellent resource that is an essential tool for this subject matter is Marker and Wind.2003. Guidelines for works in areas of little penguin habitat. Which can be found on the web at$FILE/Penguin%20Guidelines_FINAL.pdf

Over the following months we will be looking at establishing community partnerships to assist in the rehabilitation of penguin habitat. For more information on little penguins, please contact the Nature Conservation Branch on 1300 135 513

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