A small penguin in a big pond

Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, contemplating the sun merging with the horizon before disappearing with lingering traces of orange and pink in surrounding clouds. You can feel the light wind on your face, enjoy the smell of the ocean and the sound of the waves relentlessly crashing against the shore. While you’re lost in your thoughts, little creatures close to shore are focussed on getting ready for the challenge they face every night: making it back to their burrow in one piece. Snapping out of your contemplation, you notice the groups of penguins - called rafts - that are forming in the water in front of you to benefit from safety in numbers. As they get closer, you hear their squawking calls, which will get louder and louder as the penguins come back ashore. Finally, darkness is upon them and they are one step closer to being home, safe and sound in their burrows. One brave penguin decides it’s time to go, carefully navigates a wave, gets carried back to shore and lands there. Others soon follow and form small groups that will start their nightly procession and march – or rather waddle – back to their homes. This is the universe Ken Stepnell’s book will immerse you in, the universe of the world’s smallest penguin, without the need to get wet.

Image: New Holland Publishers

Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell uses simple language and well-chosen illustrations to depict the life of these ‘perfect swimming machines’ in his book entitled Little Penguins: Exploring the Life of the World’s Smallest Penguin. Little Penguins are the only penguin species that lives and breeds on the southern coast of Australia, and they are also found across New Zealand. In fact, in both of these places, they attract quite a lot of tourists, as these are the only locations in the world where Little Penguins can be observed on their way back to their burrow after an active day at sea. They display remarkable adaptations to exploit the marine environment, but also to get by on land. The book is packed with interesting facts about their lives, and will satisfy the curiosity of anyone who wants to know more about these ‘good little divers’ – literally the meaning of Eudyptula, the genus in which Little Penguins are classified.

Stepnell starts by introducing the penguin family, which comprises 17 to 20 species of sea-going birds, depending on the classification used. These birds live mostly in the Southern Hemisphere and have evolved to live in very harsh environments, such as Antarctica. In his first chapter, Stepnell describes general features shared by these atypical creatures – birds that do not fly! – before introducing Little Penguins. Ever wondered if penguins have knees? Read this book to find out! 

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species. Image: Elodie Camprasse

The African Penguin - one of the other 17 to 20 penguin species. Image: Elodie Camprasse

In the second chapter ‘Vital statistics’, Stepnell elaborates on the unique adaptations Little Penguins have developed to cope with their environment. In this part, the reader learns that Little Penguins have glands above their eyes to concentrate the ingested salt that will then be excreted through the nostrils; that they have a third eyelid to keep their eyes clean; and that their very rigid and streamlined flippers are the reasons why they can ‘fly underwater’ so gracefully. On land, however, they use their sturdy feet and sharp claws to walk and climb.

The third chapter, ‘The lives of little penguins’, describes crucial activities for Little Penguins such as feeding, travelling and moulting. Ever wondered how and when Little Penguins catch their dinner? While you have it easy and can simply drive to the supermarket and pick up whatever you fancy, Little Penguins face the challenge of finding mobile food in the immensity of the ocean. Relying on results from scientific studies, Stepnell tells the reader how they go about doing just that.

The fourth chapter, ‘The mating game’, is dedicated to the way Little Penguins do what is one of the most important things animals are programmed to do: pass on their genes to the next generation. Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Here, the reader learns about how male penguins build burrows and stand outside them, calling in the hope of impressing the ladies; how many eggs a pair can lay and when; how penguins manage to keep their eggs warm; and how the chicks are fed. Want to know how often penguins divorce? You’ll find the answer in this chapter. 

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Image: New Holland Publishers

Stepnell guides the reader through the different stages this species goes through during the few months of the breeding season, from nest-building and courtship to egg-laying and raising young. Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you. Image: New Holland Publishers

If you want to know how often penguins divorce, then this book is for you. Image: New Holland Publishers

‘Threats and conservation’ focuses on the causes of population declines, which include natural and introduced predators, disturbances by humans, climate change, and pollution, to name but a few. Even though Little Penguins are not globally threatened, some populations have clearly been declining.

If Little Penguins has made you want to experience the life of these creatures for yourself and observe them in their natural environment, then read the last chapter of the book to find out where to go. Although giving an exhaustive list of suitable locations would be rather lengthy and was not the purpose of the book, the reader will find out about the most significant viewing opportunities throughout Australia and New Zealand.

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat. Image: New Holland Publishers

There are various locations in Australia and New Zealand where people can admire these fascinating birds in their natural habitat. Image: New Holland Publishers

As a researcher studying penguins, I was excited to review this book and learn new facts. I would have liked to read more details on some of the adaptations described, as well as more results from the scientific literature with more up-to-date information. Nevertheless, Stepnell’s succinct style makes this book suitable for both adults and kids who want to find out more about the world’s smallest penguin.     

Purchase your copy of Little Penguins from New Holland Publishers.


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Elodie Camprasse

Elodie came to Australia where she recently completed a PhD in seabird ecology at Deakin University, after studying marine biology in Europe. She is passionate about the natural world and its protection. She is also a dive instructor and Emergency Response Operator at Wildlife Victoria.

You can find her on Twitter at @ECamprasse.


Banner image courtesy of JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The seat

This is a guest article by Wendy Cook.

I am sitting on a wooden seat in my favourite place in the Brisbane Ranges National Park, swinging my legs. The seat, designed and built by a former park ranger, has a sloping back, and with feet well off the ground, everyone who sits on it soaks up their surroundings, relaxes and soon finds their legs swinging. It’s a cool October morning and I’m enjoying the warm sun and the view. In front of me are knobbly grey and red rocks, with a scattering of pale green and grey circles of lichen. They are the top of a small cliff, below which are bare twisted branches, black and grey, a reminder of the intense bushfire that tore through here in January 2006. 

The view from the seat. Image: Wendy Cook

The view from the seat. Image: Wendy Cook

Although it is over ten years ago, the dry rocky soil makes recovery difficult. Many gum trees resemble small bushes. Fresh green leaves highlight the tops of a few. The soil between them is still bare. The seat miraculously survived the fire, unsinged, although nearby trees are blackened. In the valley and on distant hillsides the effects of the fire are less obvious. Trees are still less dense than they were and tall black trunks stand out. On one, I see a white pair of cockatoos. Raucous calls alert me to two more Sulphur-crested Cockatoos flying overhead.  A small dark bird of prey soars and dives over the valleys and hills. I hear quieter calls of many birds, chirps, chatterings and chimes, some sounding like musical conversations. A little bird with a grey back and an orange-brown breast lands, partly hidden, in a nearby tree, perhaps seeking insects. 

Taken seven years after the bushfire, this photo shows recovering eucalypts and bare soil. Image: Wendy Cook

Taken seven years after the bushfire, this photo shows recovering eucalypts and bare soil. Image: Wendy Cook

A Red Beaks Orchid (Pyrorchis nigricans). Image: Wendy Cook

A Red Beaks Orchid (Pyrorchis nigricans). Image: Wendy Cook

As I write, a small shiny dark brown beetle with reddish legs lands on my pen. The sunlight catches its wing cases, turning them dull green. It spends a couple of minutes exploring my pen, hand and paper, then flies away. On the red gravel, sand and rocks beneath my feet, little black ants work, heading out from their hole at the base of a rock, searching with pauses as they spread out from its central point, returning in haste with morsels of food for their nest. One pushes ahead of it a dull yellow wattle flower fallen from a bush growing up from below the cliff edge. The faded bloom is huge in comparison to the ant. It turns backwards and pulls it prize down into the hole. Nearby on the rocks, I see a larger ant, one of my favourites, also black apart from a golden abdomen glistening in the sun. 

A black ant with its golden abdomen glistening in the sun. Image: Wendy Cook

A black ant with its golden abdomen glistening in the sun. Image: Wendy Cook

I think of the discoveries I made on my walk here. The bush is full of flowers, with species changing with the soil type. The most colourful area is through a heathland of poor soil.  Among the eucalypts grow grass trees with long narrow leaves. The central leaves stand tall like a spiky haircut, surrounded by a long drooping fringe. Below this is a jacket of brown dried leaves, and for the older plants, a black trunk, straight or crooked, and perhaps branched to two or more shaggy heads. The smaller grass trees create a circle in the dirt around them, where the pointed leaves touching the ground are swayed by the wind.  Around the grass trees are the flowers.  Orange, yellow and red peas mix with white flowers of teatrees and everlasting daisies and curly red blooms of Brisbane Ranges Grevillea, found nowhere else in the world. Buds on long stalks sprouting from a circle of leaves promise lilies yet to come. A cluster of wattle bushes dangle green seed pods edged with red. Crane flies cling to grass blades with their long legs. Their narrow wings spreading outwards are transparent, patterned with brown veins. 

Grass trees are a common sight on the journey to the seat. Image: Owen Cook

Grass trees are a common sight on the journey to the seat. Image: Owen Cook

A view of grass trees and wildflowers. Image: Wendy Cook

A view of grass trees and wildflowers. Image: Wendy Cook

The red flowers of Brisbane Ranges Grevillea (Grevillea steiglitziana) growing with Parrot-pea (Dillwynia sp.)

The red flowers of Brisbane Ranges Grevillea (Grevillea steiglitziana) growing with Parrot-pea (Dillwynia sp.)

A crane fly. Image: Wendy Cook

A crane fly. Image: Wendy Cook

A wallaby and I startle each other.  I watch as it hops away, quickly vanishing among the grass trees. I find a large wide feather, white and fluffy near its base, brown towards the end, with darker brown patterns across the middle.  It lies on top of the leaf litter near the base of an old stringybark. A hollow is burnt into the tree’s base. Its top is broken off and its branches are twisted. I see two holes in the trunk with bark torn off around the entrances. Birds or animals are nesting in these hollows. Perhaps the feather fell from a young owl, learning to fly, or its parent delivering food.

The feather found on Wendy's travels. Image: Wendy Cook

The feather found on Wendy's travels. Image: Wendy Cook

To me, the walk, and especially the seat, is a magical place, peaceful and full of life, with a wonderful view of hills and valleys, becoming paler in the distance. The horizon is fairly flat, with faint blue hilltops showing just above it in places. The only obvious signs of humanity are a pale gravel road winding down to a picnic ground, out of sight, and up again over a distant hill, sounds of faraway traffic on a busier road, and the seat.  Perhaps you too have your own magical place to visit and enjoy nature.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.


Banner image courtesy of Wendy Cook.

Landscape of conflict

I knew every nook and cranny of the tea trees along the dunes and every trail and bike track through the bush. I understood the weather patterns like they were part of me. The big westerlies that pushed up the swell, the southerlies that brought the chill up from Antarctica and, in summer, the northerlies that blew heat down off the inland.
— The Road to Winter, Mark Smith

It’s been years since a virus wiped out the majority of Australia’s population. In Angowrie, a fictional town on Victoria’s Surf Coast, teenager Finn has survived almost entirely alone, save for the company of his dog, Rowdy. With a hidden stash of supplies stockpiled from ‘before’ and a thorough knowledge of hunting and fishing, Finn has made it through two years of isolation. After the catastrophe of the loss of everyone he knows, he has finally got into the rhythm of survival.

But when a girl shows up on the beach one day, his world shifts again. Rose is a ‘Siley’ – an asylum seeker – on the run from the gang of Wilder men who’ve held her captive. She’s one of the few women untouched by the virus, along with her sister, but the two of them have become separated in the course of their escape. When Rose is incapacitated by an infected wound, Finn sets out to find her sister, Kas, and bring her back to Angowrie.

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

Image: Text Publishing

As for the wider situation, the reader knows only what Finn knows. On the cusp of adolescence at the time the virus strikes, Finn is aware only of the quarantine, the resulting chaos, and the personal tragedies that ultimately leave him alone in a ghost town. It’s hinted that the virus was somehow linked to global warming, which manifested in extreme weather and tidal changes, but the focus of the story is on the here and now: Finn’s struggle to navigate a once-familiar, sparsely populated landscape where some are simply trying to survive and others to take control.

The author’s love for his environment clings to every word of Mark Smith’s description. Though his prose is sparse, the details he calls attention to paint a vivid picture. Finn, his protagonist, is intimately familiar with the flora and weather patterns of the coastal town he has always called home. He notes the ways that the tides and seasons have changed in preceding years; he uses them to his advantage, and prepares meticulously for what’s coming, in order to keep going.

Yet what grounds Finn most of all is surfing. The passages in which Finn takes to the water have an almost meditative feel. This pastime, totally unrelated to survival, reminds Finn that he is human; and as a character, it is a powerful means of connection with the reader. A typical Aussie even in the face of adversity, Finn is called to return home throughout the series by the promise of good surf.

Every ten metres or so there is debris blocking our way. The bush is eerily quiet – the wind hardly stirs the leaves, as though everything is finding its breath again after the storms.

 

In the second book of the series Finn must travel away from home again, into the eponymous Wilder Country, where a gang of men holds sway over a rural inland region. In a world where fuel has become scarce to the point of nonexistence, all ground must be covered on foot, on horseback, or by bicycle – if you can find a horse or a bike. No journey feels insignificant when the cracked remains of main roads must be avoided and trails must be carved out through bushland. We see the changing landscape through Finn’s eyes as he moves away from the coast and up into the hills.

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey. Image: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Both landscapes and seascapes play important roles in Finn's journey. Image: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

The story moves so quickly it’s worth pausing for breath once in a while to soak up the imagery. In an author event at the Kyneton children’s bookstore Squishy Minnie, Smith mentioned that he’d cut much of the description down to the bare bones to suit a younger audience and quicken the pace, but in several places I found myself wishing I could read those unedited passages and see more of this world through Smith’s eyes.

It’s a vision of the near future that’s made all the more frightening by the ring of truth that all good dystopias hold: a tinge of familiarity and possibility, even when the story itself pushes those possibilities to the extreme. At this point in time the publication of the third book in the Winter trilogy is yet to be announced. It’s safe to say, however, that following the pattern of the series so far, we can expect this cast of tough young characters to face their greatest challenges yet in this feral Victorian landscape – and perhaps get a glimpse into the state of the wider world.

Purchase your copies of The Road to Winter and Wilder Country from Text Publishing.


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Alex Mullarky

Alex is a writer and National Geographic Explorer who combines her love of the environment, adventure and animals in her work. She has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Arts and is training as a veterinary nurse. She is Publications Sub-editor for Wild Melbourne and Remember the Wild.

You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra


Banner image courtesy of Amy Mackay on Unsplash

Visiting Goongerah

This is a guest post by Laura Jennings.

In November 2016, I was one of the many UK tourists who visited Australia. My UK friends found it eccentric that I was going to spend three weeks in Australia but not leave one of its smallest states. (‘What? You're not even going to Sydney?’) But, for this flora and fauna obsessive, Victoria has delights enough. In my day job I'm a botanist, so I have a deep appreciation of plants, and I'm also a keen amateur birdwatcher. I think I’m more of a nature lover than an average tourist, but I was lucky enough to have like-minded friends in Victoria who could take me on a road trip to some incredible wild places, one of which was Goongerah, in East Gippsland. 

I would hazard a guess that most visitors from the UK have a mental picture of Australia that includes its beaches, endless deserts, cities (the suburbs of which we recognise from Neighbours) and the Great Barrier Reef. The rainforests don’t seem to feature very prominently in the tourist literature which I think is a sad omission, because they are unbelievably beautiful and full of rare and threatened species.

Me at Goongerah. (I have never looked so British....!)

Me at Goongerah. (I have never looked so British....!)

We went on our trip to Goongerah in the early spring, and seemed to have the whole area almost to ourselves. As someone who lives in crowded southern England, I'm used to queues of traffic even in our "wild places" like national parks, and the noise of passing traffic being almost everywhere, so being somewhere truly quiet, where the dominant sounds were of birds and running water, was very humbling. The campsite is a series of forested glades with a small, clear river running through it. The stereotypical response of the first-time European visitor in Australia is to marvel at how huge everything seems, and even in the campsite I was no exception, as the eucalypt trees seemed to tower over us. I was told by my Australian friend, however, that these are comparatively small compared to true old-growth giants. 

A Gang Gang Cockatoo and a King Parrot.

A Gang Gang Cockatoo and a King Parrot.

I was amazed at the wildlife we spotted from just beside our tent. We startled a pair of Satin Bowerbirds when we arrived. We only got a brief look at the male, but the female became used to us, and we got a close look at her lustrous, olive-green feathers and bright violet eyes as she hopped around our camp. A group of Superb Fairy Wrens fed in short flights in some clumps of sedges, constantly flicking their tails. We saw Gang-Gang Cockatoos feeding on wattles next to King Parrots. In the evening, we were treated to a kookaburra concert in full surround sound as a group of them filled a eucalypt grove. Perhaps that's a common experience for lots of you, but I was mesmerised. You have no idea how lucky you are to live in a country where you can see parrots every day.

We drove around the area to experience some of the different landscapes and types of forest, and one of the things that particularly struck me was the sheer number of tree ferns. I see the same species, Dicksonia antarctica, grown in the UK in groups of two or three as a stylish and very expensive addition to domestic gardens, so to see a whole hillside covered in them beneath a tall Eucalyptus canopy was incredible. I have a particular love for the Proteaceae family, so seeing the Victorian waratah (Telopea oreades) in flower had me in open-mouthed wonder.

Dicksonia antarctica hillside.

Dicksonia antarctica hillside.

I can see now why appreciating and protecting rainforests is so necessary. If Victorian rainforests aren't valued as they are now, intact and beautiful and full of life, then they're even more vulnerable to the wide range of threats that currently exist, such as overexploitation and climate change. I’m jealous that most of you reading this are only a few hours’ drive away. Visit, and bring your friends (visiting from abroad or otherwise), because they’ll go home dreaming of when they can come back.


Laura Jennings is a botanist working for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She specialises in ex situ plant conservation as part of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.


All images courtesy of Laura Jennings.