Rachel Fieldhouse

Domestic Travel

Why the penguins are out in record-breaking numbers

Why the penguins are out in record-breaking numbers

Australia’s Phillip Island, home to the world’s smallest penguins, has been the site of a record-breaking “penguin parade”, with over 5,200 birds crossing the beach in a single night.

Every day at dusk, some of these penguins make the trip to their nesting grounds on-shore after hunting for fish, squid, kill and small crustaceans in the ocean in an event that regularly draws large numbers of tourists.

“Penguin viewing has occurred at the same location for over 50 years and the birds have been habituated to nightly activity over time,” Paula Wasiak, a Phillip Island Nature Parks field researcher, told Live Science.

On May 3, 5,219 of the 40-centimetre-tall penguins stormed the beach toward their burrows in less than an hour.

“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.

The penguin extravaganza comes just a week after the record for the island’s largest penguin parade was broken, when 4,592 penguins came ashore all at one on April 29 according to Wasiak.

Overall, May has seen multiple parades with surprisingly high numbers, with 3,000 to 5,000 birds marching each night.

“It’s been a penguin party night after night, which is unusual for this time of year, let alone in record numbers like we are seeing now,” Wasiak said.

Historically, the larger parades tend to take place in November and December during peak breeding season, according to the Penguin Foundation.

As for why they’re coming together in such large numbers lately, it might be to do with this year’s La Niña event.

Little penguins primarily eat small fish, such as anchovies, which can only live in a narrow temperature range, according to Wasiak.

“It suggests that during La Niña years, the ocean conditions around Phillip Island are often ideal for an abundant supply of fish/food close to shore,” she told Live Science.

But, Wasiak said the turnout could also be related to another phenomenon called the “autumn breeding attempt”, where older penguins attempt to breed outside of mating season and results in more penguins heading out to forage, or improvements in the island’s habitat.

“One of the main areas we’re seeing an increase in penguin attendance is to the east of the colony. In the past, poor habitat erosion in this area meant penguins had difficulty accessing and nesting there,” she explained.

“A lot of work has gone into improving dune structure, creating penguin pathways and restoring habitat, which is now paying off.”

If you can’t make it to the island for the nightly parades, you can also watch livestreams on Facebook and YouTube.

Image: Phillip Island Nature Parks

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