About this episode

In the 1980s the penguin population on the Summerland Peninsula, home of the Penguin Parade, was declining. This episode’s special guest, Dr Peter Dann, had very good data suggesting that by 1997 there would be no penguins left, and what followed is an incredible story of perhaps a world first in conservation. Ranger Meagan hears all about how an entire town was purchased by a government for the sake of environmental and wildlife protection, and Ranger Jordan tries her hand at building a penguin home.


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Transcript

Skye

This is Nature Unfiltered, where you meet our team, hear their stories, and become inspired to protect nature for wildlife in your own corner of the world.

Jordan

Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of Nature Unfiltered. My name is Jordan.

Meagan

And I'm Meagan.

Jordan

And today's episode is going to be all about the Summerland buyback here on Phillip Island. So, we are lucky enough to have one of the largest colonies of Little Penguins in the world, up in the Summerland Peninsula, which used to be a housing estate. What, there used to be about 183 homes, Meagan, what else did we have?

Meagan

There was a golf course, a shop, there was a shell museum. It was crazy and all in the penguin colony.

Jordan

All in a penguin colony, so you can just imagine penguins waddling up your driveway, and that's what it would have been like.

Meagan

Living under houses.

Jordan

Going (makes penguin noises). Imagine that night after night from about November through to February nonstop.

Meagan

I don't think I could do it.

Jordan

Would have been tough. So, we are going to be dissecting the Summerland buyback in this episode. And we've got a jam-packed episode for you all today, everybody. We are going to be interviewing a very special guest, Peter Dan, who is the research director here at Phillip Island Nature Parks. And he has been instrumental in some of the work that he's been doing, researching the penguins, and helping to safeguard this wonderful colony that we now have here.

Meagan

So, we're very, very lucky we still have a thriving colony of penguins and other wildlife here on Phillip Island, also known as Millowl. And this is the traditional land of the Bunurong and the Bunurong have been here for thousands of years, caring for this country, before we were here researching and building houses in penguin colonies the Bunurong were here living sustainably off the land. And I would just like to acknowledge the Bunurong and their elders past present and emerging as the traditional custodians of the land that we are on today and acknowledge any traditional lands that you might be listening on today as well.

Jordan

Wonderful. That was lovely. Thank you, Meagan. So, there's lots and lots happening all year round here on Phillip Island, but at this time of year, what is going on in nature is that, well, we've, you know, in previous episodes, we've talked to you a little bit about seals and penguins so I think we might kind of tailor that towards our "What's on" section today.

Meagan

What's going on Millowl Jordan?

Jordan

What's going on, on Millowl. Alrighty. Well, the seals and the penguins are spending kind of more and more timeout in the big blue cold ocean. That doesn't sound like a very nice appetizing environment to me. I don't know about you.

Meagan

I think I could be a penguin.

Jordan

Or a seal, but yeah, they've got those adaptations to keep them nice and warm while they're out in that very cold winter ocean. But at the moment, some of our penguins might even be gearing up for the breeding season, which will start usually late winter, early spring. And Megan, I don't know if you remember last year, but you and I were actually out in the field about this time last year. And we discovered the first eggs of the season.

Meagan

Yeah. Everyone thought that penguin was a little crazy, but the eggs hatched, and they did well. So, we'll see if that happens again this year.

Jordan

They might be gearing up for an early start to the breeding season this year, those penguins. Time will tell, we will just have to wait and see. And we also do tend to have some other visitors here on Phillip Island at this time of year. So, in winter, we expect to have a few larger seabirds arriving on our shores and some of them may need some care, some TLC because they will have been coming from very, very far away from their homes and they're often exhausted. In the past, we have treated species such as the Fiordland, Crested, and Rockhopper penguins, and also albatrosses at our wildlife clinic that are wonderful Rehabilitation Rangers look after and release back into the wild. So, lots and lots of things happening, Meagan.

Meagan

Yeah oh, and one more thing, Jordan, we may still be seeing whales coming past our shores.

Jordan

Yes, of course. People go crazy for the whale season here on Phillip Island.

Meagan

Our penguins and seals might be a bit further away, but we're seeing hopefully plenty of whales coming past.

Jordan

Absolutely Southern Rights and Humpbacks, I believe are the most common ones, but you might even be lucky enough to spot a pod of orcas or killer whales.

So, for our next segment, Meagan, we are going to be interviewing a very special guest. Who have we got on the show today?

Meagan

So today we've got Peter Dann, and he's a research director here at Phillip Island Nature Parks and he's a real legend around here. He's been here since before the Nature Parks existed, studying our Little Penguins and has been an integral part in their conservation.

Hi, Peter, how are you going?

Peter

I'm very well thanks Meagan, how are you?

Meagan

I'm great. Now Peter, can you tell us a little bit about your role here at Phillip Island Nature Parks?

Peter

Yes. I'm the research director here and I've been here for an amazing period of time for anyone, I think. It's 41 years, I started in 1980.

Meagan

Wow.

Peter

Originally it was just three years, but life's what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.

Meagan

You just love penguins so much that you never left. Yep. And how did you get started here at the Nature Parks working with penguins?

Peter

I was doing my PhD at Melbourne Uni at the other end of the island, the North-eastern corner of the island on migratory shorebirds. And I saw this ad in the paper to work on penguins for three years to try and find out why they were declining or if they were declining and what might be the factors that caused the decline. And so, I, I took on the job and after three years it was really not going well at all, I almost, I achieved almost nothing in terms of what I felt was the long-term strategy for turning the population decline around. And I had an opportunity to work on an endangered seabird in the Indian Ocean. I'm glad I didn't because I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if penguins had continued to decline. And it's been fantastic working on penguins for 41 years. It's really rewarding and fulfilling and, wouldn't change a thing.

Meagan

Oh, fantastic. They are incredible birds, and we are so lucky to work with them. Now, you mentioned that you were looking at the decline and the threats, and what were the main things you found that were impacting on the penguin numbers?

Peter

I should point out how we knew they were declining. We were very lucky that in 1968, A group of citizen scientists called the "Penguin Study Group" started counting penguins at the Penguin Parade. And so, by the time I started in 1980, we had 12 years of that count data and there were Penguins being killed everywhere. It was a terrible time, there were penguins being killed by unknown predators. A lot of habitat loss over the Summerland Peninsula. Anyway, the results from the penguin study group counts and the counts that we started ourselves the Nature Parks, showed that that part of the colony was in very serious decline, and it was, there were going to be no penguins at the Parade by the mid-1990s if the trend continued. So, we had to do something about identifying these, these problems and, um, and addressing them. And turned out that foxes and domestic dogs that were running in the colony at night were one of the most serious problems. In fact, predation by foxes was quite intense and parts of the Parade. And we had instances of some foxes, on one occasion one fox killed probably 40 penguins and the penguins just had no appropriate responses to the foxes.

And I've actually seen foxes walk through groups of penguins and the penguins take very little notice of them. Penguins are also being run over by cars at night because you could drive through the whole penguin colony at night and even though it was mostly unintentional, it's very difficult to see a penguin on a dark road if they turn away from you because their backs are quite dark.

Meagan

Yeah, that, that camouflage that's so important in the water isn't so good out on the road. Is it?

Peter

No that's right, that plumage that protects them in the seas, from predation above doesn't do them any good when they're on a dark road. And it was also a great loss of breeding habitat on Summerland peninsula due to coastal urban development. And these were the kind of three threats that we particularly focused on. I should say our overall strategy has been to eliminate or reduce the impacts of human-related causes of mortality to a little penguin. And we largely succeeded in that in the long term, having got rid of many of the threats and I'll just go through a couple of them.

So, we've removed introduced foxes on Phillip Island entirely. And Phillip Island is actually the largest area that's had foxes removed from it, largest populated area, I should say, that's had foxes removed from it in the world. So, it's an amazing undertaking and it took a long time, but it was extremely valuable to reduce the predation of penguins by foxes.

We also brought in regulations to control domestic dogs in the Nature Parks and particularly in the penguin breeding areas. We excluded motor vehicles from the penguin breeding areas at night with a series of gates and gate rangers. And finally, and probably the most significant thing we achieved was we removed, we're involved with the removal of an entire coastal village from inside the penguin colony.

So, the Summerland Estate was a coastal village of about 180 houses. And, a motel, a milk bar, a general store, and about another 600 undeveloped building blocks. And in 1984 the Penguin Protection Plan was announced by the then conservation minister, the late Joan Kirner so that the Summerland Estate would be bought back over the next 25 years.

I think that the two significant things in the recovery of the penguin population were the removal of foxes from the island, and the control dogs but also the repurchasing of the Summerland Estate which removed a lot of risks, including domestic dogs, but also allowed us to control and eliminate foxes from that area and reduce the fire risk by an enormous amount. The four fires we had on the Summerland Peninsula in the early days all originated from inside the housing estate. And the loss of penguin breeding habitat was, abated by the repurchase, and eventually we've restored most of that Summerland Estate area back to penguin breeding habitat.

Meagan

That's an incredible story. It did take quite a while and a lot of effort and money.

Peter

It took much longer than expected. It took 25 years in the end, but that was quite an acceptable period to wait because most of the problems had been abated by the repurchase of the houses very quickly. And there were a lot of difficulties for some of the people that lived there, of course, because they had such a lot invested in terms of memories and their lifestyles in having houses there by the penguin colony. And so, we had very difficult conversations with a few people who really didn't want to go.

And so, the minister, I think very wisely gave them lifetime tenancies, so that they could stay there until they chose to go. And that was a much more civilized way of doing this than to be taking people out of their holiday homes.

Meagan

Yeah. And it would have been an incredible place to live, just unfortunately not compatible with the penguins living up there as well. And how the penguin numbers bounced back since that buyback?

Peter

The penguins have responded very quickly in terms of breeding success and numbers and breeding birds spread right into the centre of the housing estate. We provided a lot of wooden boxes for them when there wasn't a breeding habitat immediately available, but slowly those areas with our involvement have become very good breeding habitat for penguins.

But the first estimate I did of the number of penguins breeding up there was about 12,000 in 1984 and it was on the way down. And now the colony is about three times that size it's in the mid-thirty-thousands and, it's a stable population. Interestingly enough, it's now the biggest population of Little Penguins in the world by a long way, and just indicates to us, and we know this from our studies of the feeding habits, foraging ranges that there is an amazing amount of food available just locally within 50 to 60 kilometres of Phillip Island that is sustaining this very large colony.

But it probably won't get much bigger than this because the amount of food they have to take out of that area each year when the breeding is quite substantial and it's unlikely that the colony can keep growing and expanding at the rate it has up till now. But overall, it's a great success story and it's just amazing how well the population responded. Much better than even I hoped that things were done to address that threat.

Meagan

Yeah. That's just fantastic. So incredible that action was taken to move an entire housing estate to protect a colony of penguins. So, our penguins here have been extremely lucky. But other penguins around the world haven't had that luxury. So, what is the plight of other species of penguin around the world?

Peter

It's very sad to say that even though everyone loves penguins, I've never met anyone that doesn't like a penguin, 60% of the world's penguin species are threatened by either climate change, pollution, habitat loss, or fishing. And all of these practices are caused by humans and hence humans have the power to change them and reverse their effects on penguins.

And something we can all do Is we can reduce our own, carbon footprint and we can encourage governments to commit to carbon-neutral targets by 2050. These aren't difficult things to do but are something that can make a very big difference and hopefully start reversing some of the trends for the 60% of the world's penguin species that are threatened.

Meagan

Yeah, definitely. And it seems like a massive issue, but if each person does something small, it really does add up doesn't it? Well, thank you so much for coming and talking to us today, Peter, you're just a wealth of knowledge.

Peter

My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Bye.

Meagan

All right, Jordan. So the last episode, Skye challenged you to build a penguin box. Now, these nesting boxes have been a really important part of rehabilitating penguin habitat after the Summerland buyback, because normally a penguin will dig a little burrow in the ground to lay its eggs and raise its chicks but where there were houses the ground is too compact for them to dig. There's not enough vegetation. So, something that we've done is building penguin boxes. So little wooden boxes that we put out and the penguins can use those to nest in until the habitat can rehabilitate, and they can naturally dig their burrows again. So, Skye challenged you to build one of those boxes, Jordan, how do you go?

Jordan

Well, Megan, it was, I'm not going to lie. It was a bit of a challenge, especially because usually when you're doing box building, you have kind of a second pair of hands helping you, but I was a little bit stubborn, and I wanted to try and do it all by myself. So, uh, in this audio that you're going to be listening to, you are going to be hearing me regret some of that stubbornness. I make some interesting comments and sounds throughout the video. So, hope you're all prepared.

Meagan

Alrighty. Let's see your carpentry skills, Jordan.

Jordan

Oh gosh, here we go.

Alrighty, everyone. He goes the first nail. Sorry if it's a bit loud.

That one's a bit wonky. Get in there. Yes, I saved it. You are not going to have a leaky roof penguin. Okay. What do we think, Skye? Hope it's up to your standards.

I'll sit it a little bit like this so that it stabilizes itself.

Aha! Haven't hit myself with the hammer yet. The next bit is definitely going to be a bit of a challenge Skye and Meagan hopefully you haven't sent me up.

Yeah. Why do these have to be so awkward? I'm going to try holding it.

It worked! Yay! That did not work. Try again. Fingers crossed. This is going to work better. Okay.

Everything is fine. Now Meagan's watching me fail. This is great. One more, everyone nearly finished. It's been a tough challenge, but I hope the penguin who's going to live here is going to love it. Mr. And Mrs. P and then, a penguin box! Yay, I did it!

Meagan

Great work, Jordan.

Jordan

I am such a dag. Oh my goodness.

Meagan

I already knew that. I'm looking forward to seeing your new penguin box out in some of our newly rehabilitated penguin colony.

Jordan

Well, hopefully it's up to your standards as well.

Meagan

Yeah, I might have to go out and inspect it.

Jordan

Pressure's on.

Meagan

And what we hope to happen eventually is we'll put that box out and it will get covered in vegetation and create a nice little home for some penguins. And something we have been seeing with increasing temperatures and heat waves is that sometimes our penguins in some of these more exposed boxes are getting a little bit heat stressed because even though our little penguins are the best-adapted penguins to dealing with warm temperatures, they still struggle when it gets over 30 degrees. So, something we're working on is trying to improve box design.

Jordan

Yeah, there's lots and lots of studies and research going into different designs of the actual nest box itself and also the lid design as well to try and kind of increase ventilation and reduce the amount of sun that's actually touching the outside of the box and actually heating up the inside of the nest box and the penguin then inside it as well. So, we currently have a Ph.D. student focusing on the designs of the lids, and hopefully, we'll be able to get some really, really great data and some really great research that's going to help inform us. Be able to build the best penguin nest boxes under increasing heatwaves and temperatures under climate change as well.

And if you would like to check out the video of me failing or semi-failing building the nest box by myself, do jump on our social media and check it out for yourself.

Meagan

Now you might see quite a few of these penguin nesting boxes if you actually head up to the Summerland Peninsula. Next visit to Phillip Island, you can during the day, head up along the peninsula, visit some of the beaches.

You go to Shelley's or Cowrie's you might see some Little Penguin footprints along the beach from the night before. You can drive up to the Nobbies and if you walk along the boardwalk, you get some beautiful views and you might actually see some little penguins poking their heads out of their boxes, getting a little bit of fresh air, and then you can drive back along the coast road.

Jordan

I love the coast road.

Beautiful.

Meagan

You're pretty much driving through what used to be the housing estate. You can stop at the lookouts, taking the views, trying to imagine what it might have been like to live in a penguin colony. You do need to take a little bit of care though, hopping out of your car, make sure you stay on the path and boardwalk.

Jordan

Stay behind the fences. We want to make sure we're protecting penguin habitat and all of the wonderful vegetation out there.

Meagan

Definitely. Penguin habitats are very fragile. So, you can see them, pretty much right in the side of the road, little burrows where those penguins are nesting. You certainly don't want to step on one of those.

And keep an eye out for those penguins who might be on land. So, we do have a colony of about 32,000 Little Penguins now out on the Summerland Peninsula. So, you're probably bound to have one or two home in their burrows that you might be able to see. And once you finish exploring and you leave the peninsula the roads are actually closed off at sunset. So that Little Penguins are safe when they're making their way home.

Jordan

So next up we have the well-loved joke section of our podcast because we are so witty and so funny, aren't we Meagan?

Meagan

Look, they're mostly "Dad jokes," we do our best.

Jordan

Alrighty, Meagan, you ready for the first funny of the segment?

Meagan

I don't think so but go for it.

Jordan

Alrighty, Meagan. Tell me why are penguins so difficult to get along with?

Meagan

Why Jordan?

Jordan

Because they're always fishing for compliments.

Meagan

I actually had that one too.

Jordan

So, we went away separately and did some research on the joke. So, she already, you could have answered that for me.

Meagan

Well, you know what, Jordan that made me pen-grin. Okay. Okay. Okay. I got another one for you. Why don't penguins fly?

Jordan

Well, I mean, I know why they don't fly, but it's not a very funny reason. They've got flippers, not wings.

Meagan

No Jordan, it's cause they're not tall enough to be pilots. They can't reach the pedals.

Jordan

Oh, right.

All right. Lucky, last one. Why do polar bears and penguins not get along?

Meagan

Oh, I know this one. Because they are opposites.

Jordan

Oh gosh, that’s terrible.

Meagan

I love it. Okay. Jordan it's time for "Guess that Noise".

Jordan

Wow. We have such beautiful voices.

Meagan

Give me the noises, Jordan.

Jordan

Alrighty. So, Meagan, these are some of the noises that you might hear up in the Summerland Peninsula when you come and visit us. So, let's see how good you are, Meagan.

Meagan

Okay. I spend a bit of time up there, so I'll do my best.

Jordan

Pressure's on.

(Bird noises)

Meagan

Okay. It sounds like.

Jordan

I mean, there's a lot of wind, we know that.

Meagan

Yeah, especially up near the Nobbies it's pretty windy. Sounds like a bird. Is it a purple swamphen?

Jordan

Woo. Well done, Meagan. Very, very good. I've got three more to go for you. Plenty of time to fail.

Meagan

Filling me with confidence, Jordan.

Jordan

All right. Next one.

(Bird noises)

Meagan

Is that someone trying to eat fish and chips?

Jordan

Could you hear the screaming? Were you traumatized?

Meagan

Seagulls? Silver gulls if you want to get technical.

Jordan

Very good. All right. She's on 50% everyone. Let's see how she goes with the next one.

(Bird noises)

Meagan

Okay. It was pretty tame noise. Kind of like a duck, but I think it was our normally more boisterous than that Cape Barren Goose. It's normally more like, ah, ah, ah, ah, and there's a head bump to go along with it. Just trust that we're doing that, right?

Jordan

Yeah, absolutely. Google Cape Barren geese. They are beautiful and hilarious.

Meagan

Oh, we love them.

Jordan

Now, Meagan, this next one I think is going to be the trickiest of all. I have stumped someone with this noise before, not naming names. We're going to make fun of you very shortly. So, let's just see how we go.

(Bird noises)

Meagan

Okay. So, anyone who's been to the Penguin Parade should know that noise. That's a penguin.

Jordan

You know what Meagan, in our very first episode of this podcast, Skye thought this was an African Penguin.

Meagan

Skye, that is not a Jackass Penguin! That is our Little Penguin!

Jordan

Of course! The littlest and cutest of all the penguins in the world. We're not biased at all.

Meagan

No, no, but they are clearly the best.

Jordan

And that brings us to the end of this week's episode. I hope you've all had a wonderful time and learned lots about the Summerland buyback estate and all the different ways that we've helped to protect the largest colony of the Little Penguins in the world.

Meagan

What an incredible story. And next week, we're going to be talking to you about our cute cuddly little residents, here on Phillip Island, Koalas!

Jordan

Oh yeah, I love koalas, Meagan.

Meagan

So that means we have to set a challenge and next week's challenge is going to be for Skye. So, Skye has done a bit of work with koalas in the past. So, we're going to challenge her to be a koala keeper for the day.

Jordan

I reckon we're going to have lots of good content from that challenge, Meagan.

Meagan

Should be a good one.

Jordan

Now at the end of every episode, we like to leave our listeners with a little bit of a challenge of the different ways that they can help protect nature for wildlife based on what we've learned in the episode.

So, through our interview with Peter Dann today, we learned a little bit that the penguins are struggling in the face of climate change. So, one of the best things that every person can do is try to reduce their carbon footprint. So, one of those things could be to choose to have a meat-free Monday, reducing how much meat and animal products that you consume is going to reduce your carbon footprint. So, jump on Google, check out some vegetarian or vegan recipes and there are lots of really great ones out there.

Meagan

It's pretty easy and it can be pretty damn delicious. And if you were inspired by Jordan's box building attempt you can also create some habitat in your own backyard for wildlife by building wildlife boxes. So little bird boxes, possum boxes, bat boxes. That also gives that wildlife a bit of a helping hand.

Jordan

Also, if you want to check out the local or indigenous plants in your area, plant some native plants in your garden to, you know, help out the bees and the birds and all of those things to encourage them into your garden and create a lovely habitat wherever you live.

Thanks so much for joining us, everyone. We will see you next time. Bye!

Du du, du, du, du, du, du, du, du. Maybe we should just sing the intro.

What are you doing Meagan?

Meagan

Just keeping my vocal cords warm.

Jordan

Yeah. I'm sure that's going to help.