Survey says: Emu Bay is the only penguin colony not in decline on KI

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The Kangaroo Island Landscape Board (KILB) completed a whole-of-island little penguin survey in November 2023, and the results are now in.

"Little penguins are an essential species in the marine environment in terms of biodiversity, but they are also important to the community and visitors to Kangaroo Island who travel here to see them," said KILB Coasts Project Officer Ms Alex Comino.

The survey, conducted by the KILB's Biodiversity Unit, involved a comprehensive count of active burrows in 12 known colonies. KILB undertook the count when little penguins were rearing their second seasonal clutch of chicks.

"We identified a total of 279 active burrows across the 12 colonies, and the population estimate for the Kangaroo Island region was 558 breeding adult little penguins in 2023," Ms Comino said.

Ms Comino said three colonies appear to have become extinct, while the populations of another three colonies have fallen by more than 70 per cent compared with the 2011-2013 averages.

"The Kingscote colony’s population has fallen by more than 90 per cent since the historical high of 868 in 2007, and the Penneshaw colony declined by 21 per cent," Ms Comino said.

Amidst the overall decline, there's a beacon of hope. The Emu Bay colony has shown a remarkable 36 per cent increase compared to the 2011-2013 averages.

The purpose of this survey was not just to determine the current population status of little penguins, but also to provide crucial data to inform management decisions that can help protect and preserve their habitat, Ms Comino said.

"There hasn't been an island-wide survey of little penguins on Kangaroo Island for over ten years," Ms Comino said.

Ms Comino said that much of the feedback received before completing the 2023 penguin survey was anecdotal.

"We would receive reports from residents about cats hunting penguins in colonies, and the absence of penguins where they used to be seen and heard," she said.

Ms Comino said the KI penguin survey results mirrored population trends across Australia, where some colonies have increased in size in recent decades while others, including colonies in every state across their range, have declined significantly.

"Previous research suggests that little penguin populations are in decline in South Australia, yet the contributing factors are poorly understood," Ms Comino said.

"Little penguins face complicated threats on both land and sea," she said.

Proposed management actions to benefit the Kangaroo Island little penguin population include habitat protection and improvement through targeted invasive predator and weed control, planting native coastal plants to enhance existing nesting habitats, and redirecting coastal walking trails away from key habitat areas based on relative densities.

"Continuation of the little penguin monitoring program via the island-wide census is needed to monitor the population status and determine the effectiveness of land-based management actions," Ms Comino said.

"This is a fitting time to do this work as avian influenza still looms as a threat to all bird species in Southern Australia should it reach our shores," she said.

"We recommend the community remain vigilant about avian influenza and report any suspected disease in poultry, livestock, or aquatic animal via the Emergency Animal Disease Hotline 1800 675 888."

A published report on the Kangaroo Island little penguin census outcomes is available here.

Survey says: Emu Bay is the only penguin colony not in decline on KI
Cats, both feral and domestic, are a threat to the remaining little penguin colonies on Kangaroo Island with this collared domestic cat actively stalking penguins.

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