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Penguins and muttonbirds on the coast of Victoria


I suppose we should not have been surprised, but after a run of hot days, we did not expect to be wrapping up against the cold. It was evening, however, and a gusting south wind blew across Port Phillip Bay to buffet us as we walked along the promenade toward the 400-metre St Kilda breakwater. To our north, lights were being switched on in Melbourne’s Central Business District and an arc of brightness suggested late activity at a city centre sports arena.

On reaching the breakwater, we descended into the relative warmth of its lee, where we joined a few other visitors to sit and wait. Over the next half hour, our numbers swelled to around a hundred, watched over by a small group of yellow-coated marshals.

A solitary silver gull rested on the water. A rat-like creature with a half white tail scurried out from beneath the boulders of the breakwater and mooched about on the shingle. This was a rakali, sometimes known as an otter rat, because of its habit of floating on its back while eating its prey. During the first half of the 20th century, this small, semi-nocturnal rodent was hunted almost to extinction for its fur. It is now protected and can safely forage here for its diet of fish, molluscs, insects and almost anything it can scavenge from the shore.

Fairy Penguin, St KildaAs dusk descended, a sudden excited gasp drew our attention to a bird bobbing toward us to the side of the breakwater. Was it just another gull? No. The tiny penguin, vanguard of its flock, hopped out of the water and quickly vanished into a crack between the boulders.

We had to wait more than ten minutes for the next to appear, then more followed with increasing frequency. They hopped out onto the shingle and waddled beneath our wooden boardwalk and up onto the boulders of the breakwater, completely unconcerned by our proximity. They disappeared into the cracks between the boulders, to be greeted by chuckling whistles and the occasional squawk. One showman, ignoring the exhortations of his mate, perched for several minutes on a boulder, like a celebrity at a photo shoot, turning around to present his best profile to the huddles of admirers who clicked madly on their cameras, two metres away.

The colony of little penguins at St Kilda comprises one small group out of many that breed around Port Phillip Bay, and indeed all along the coast of southern Australia. Also known as fairy penguins, they are the smallest species in the world, standing only up to 33 centimetres tall and weighing in at 1.5 kilograms. The first breeding pair set up home at St Kilda in 1974. Since then, their numbers have risen to around a hundred. Though the colony is small, it has the highest survival rate of any in the state of Victoria. To avoid predators, the adults leave their burrows in early morning and swim as far as twenty kilometres to fish, before returning at dusk.

By now, the penguins were scattered along the breakwater. A wire fence limited how far along this we could venture, but it did not matter. There were enough to keep us interested on the short, unrestricted section. The boulders were large and their interstices correspondingly so, with the result that we could peer into several of the cracks to where they had their nests.

Rufous night-heronAs the dusk deepened into darkness, some of the chicks ventured out onto the rocks. A little unsteady on their feet, they sometimes flopped onto lower boulders, bounced, and fully cushioned by their layers of fat, stood up again without apparent injury. After an hour, they could only be seen in the dim, red beams of torches, yet their chattering now drowned the murmurings of the visitors, who were beginning to drift slowly back toward the bright lights of St Kilda.

Four days later, glutted by the coastal cliff scenery of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, we arrived in Port Fairy. A small town with something of a wild west atmosphere, this had once gloried in the name of Belfast. Again, dusk was approaching, and after relaxing over a pizza in the open air, we strolled across the short causeway onto Griffiths Island. The western sky grew fiery as the sun sank, and its fading allowed a crescent moon to emerge almost subliminally from the gathering gloom. A white-faced heron stalked the shallows to one side of the causeway, and a rufous night heron alighted on the sand at the other. We tagged onto the end of a group of about a dozen people and followed them to the north of the island to await the arrival of the muttonbirds.

Griffiths Island consists largely of basalt laid down by a volcanic eruption some 400 thousand years ago on the edge of what are now the Grampian Mountains to the north. Its area has been enlarged by the construction of training walls to re-direct the sea currents, while the bedrock has been covered by wind-blown sand in which the birds have burrowed to build their nests.

Short-tailed shearwaters are the most abundant sea birds nesting in Australian waters. They were eaten by the early European settlers and their fatty meat was likened to that of sheep, hence their alternative name. They are now a protected species, though their numbers remain robust. From September to May each year, tens of thousands nest on Griffiths Island after flying from their boreal summer sojourns around the Aleutians and Alaska. Their 15000-kilometre journeys, lasting two months, have brought them down the Californian coast and across the Pacific to the very burrows in which they nested the previous year, and back to the same mate.

White-faced heronThe females lay a single egg in mid-January, which both parents take turns to incubate, and which hatches after 53 days. Parents then fly as far as 1500 kilometres searching for food, a journey that may take three weeks. At the end of the breeding season, the adults fly north along the coast of Japan, back to the Bering Sea. The chicks, driven by hunger, follow some two weeks later.

Even as the first stars twinkled, there was no sign of the shearwaters. We waited patiently. The sky darkened further, leaving only the faintest glow in the west, and it was against this that the first few silent silhouettes swooped in. Within minutes, we were surrounded by flapping wings that seemed nearly to graze our heads. At the same time, almost cat-like moans rose from the sandy scrub to the sides of our track.

A few torches were switched on, and within the arcs of their beams we saw dozens of small, dark bodies staggering over the humps and hollows of the dunes. Occasionally, one bird would poke its head into a hole, then withdraw it and continue its search further. Another would enter a burrow, kicking quantities of sand behind it as it disappeared.

More and more birds flew in, so many that the air seemed to be completely filled with the flutter of wing beats. It was now so dark that we could see nothing of the arrivals, which we felt might crash into us. But they did not. After the better part of an hour, the numbers arriving fell to a trickle. By fading torchlight, we made our way back along the just discernable track to the town. The sandy ground around us remained a blanket of noise, which we could hear even as we crossed the causeway.

0209152 (3)Much more by this author, a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, on his very excellent website.

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