UNDER the watchful eye of their canine protectors, Warrnambool’s Middle Island penguins have had another record-breaking breeding season.
Recent counts show the island is providing a secure breeding habitat for about 180 adult fairy penguins — more than triple the population of 51 penguins recorded in 2008.
A world-first trial to train Maremma dogs to protect the penguins from predators began in 2006 and is credited with strengthening the population on the island, which dwindled to just four in 2005.
Maremma dogs Eudy and Tula have been protecting the Middle Island penguins from foxes and other predators for the past two years.
Penguin monitoring has been co-ordinated by Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Group (WCLG) for the Maremma Project since the strategy was first implemented.
WCLG leader Kristie King said the arrival and breeding survey data was exciting because it showed penguin numbers and breeding success were climbing slowly.
“We can deduce from our data that the island is now providing a more secure breeding habitat for around 180 adult penguins — a substantial increase on the handful of birds recorded in 2005 before the Maremmas were in place,” she told The Standard.
“We recorded 104 birds in December during a second peak of breeding, which supports our suspicion that some pairs have laid two clutches of eggs this season, known as double-brooding.
"This phenomenon, which is uncommon in penguins, suggests that the colony is recovering well after many years of severe fox predation.”
Ms King said the survey deductions were backed up by results from the breeding monitoring program.
“We collect data about the number of eggs, chicks and fledglings in the colony and our records show that there has been an increase in the number of chicks fledging from the island.”
Warrnambool City Council environment co-ordinator Kate McInnes said council and the Department of Sustainability and Environment recognised the enormous volunteer and staff contribution to the Maremma project and penguin monitoring program.
“Volunteers hail from all walks of life, including general community members, staff and students of Deakin University and South West TAFE, employees of local government, DSE and Glenelg Hopkins CMA,” she said.
“More than 200 volunteers have contributed in excess of 1300 volunteer hours over 47 penguin counts.
“The local community has really embraced the program and demonstrated a sense of ownership over the penguin colony.”
Ms King said after five years of collecting information about the colony, the next step for the monitoring team was detailed analysis of the data.