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Macquarie Island's annual penguin and seal census is underway. Rangers are tasked with manually counting each one

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 4 days ago
a bird sitting on top of a penguin: King penguin chicks on Macquarie Island. (Supplied: Kim Kliska) © Provided by ABC NEWS King penguin chicks on Macquarie Island. (Supplied: Kim Kliska)

While Australia's humans have now been counted, down on Macquarie Island the yearly penguin and seal census is underway.

It's a big job, with the 128-square-kilometre sub-Antarctic island home to 100,000 seals and four species of penguins totalling 4 million birds.

Wildlife ranger and biologist Kim Kliska has been tasked with counting thousands of king penguins and elephant seals.

"The reason we do a census, just like with people really, is to understand population size and if it's going up or down in numbers," Ms Kliska said on ABC Radio Hobart.

"Particularly on Macquarie Island where they are breeding because that influences a whole bunch of management decisions.

"It involves a lot of counting."

Counting the penguin 'creche'

Ms Kliska says the king penguin census is the hardest, with rangers taking photographs and manually counting the birds on a computer.

"The island is quite large and there's literally thousands of penguins here," she said.

Ms Kliska said there were more than 200 photographs to count.

She says the king penguins have a complex breeding cycle and breed every 14 to 16 months, which means there are different cohorts of adults with chicks.

Ms Kliska said counting the chicks was the most reliable method to working out how many breeding pairs were on the island.

After the parents hatch an egg they guard the chick for a month until the chick is big enough to create a "creche" with other chicks.

"They all huddle together to stay warm and avoid and defend themselves against other predators," Ms Kliska said.

"So we just take photos of the creches of these penguins and then we are able to sit there and count them on a computer."

She goes up to high areas of the island to take the photos.

"It can be challenging, but we're pretty confident we get all the penguins at once," Ms Kliska said.

'Pterodactyl' predators

It's not all fun and games in the king penguin creches.

Giant petrels with a wingspan of about 2.2 metres can pick the chicks off and kill them.

"I like describing them as pterodactyls," Ms Kliska said.

"They have an incredible call and breed all over the coastal escarpments.

"They are opportunistic scavengers, and they will stake out a king penguin colony and take the weaker chicks. Occasionally they'll take an adult too."

Fur seals are also known to hang around the penguin colonies.

While Ms Kliska said it was heartbreaking to watch creatures get killed, the offending animals were also trying to raise a family.

"It's the cycle of life going on there which is incredible to witness," she said.

'It means the population is stronger because the weaker don't survive."

Elephant seal harems

The other important census to conduct on the island is of the elephant seals.

Ms Kliska said the males, which are three to four tonnes, started arriving on the island last month.

"We're just starting to see a few pregnant females turning up," she said.

"Within the next two weeks the beaches, instead of having a handful of seals, will be full of seals.

"Big males will be very actively defending their harems of females."

Seal pups are born from now onwards and Ms Kliska will count the pups every week and harems every day from mid-October.

There is also an entire manual population count of every seal on the island using clicker counters.

"It's quite an incredible task, I love doing it," she said.

"You get to see the changes daily and observe the behaviour of the pups and their mums.

"The males fighting is a spectacular scene.

"It's quite a busy, noisy scene come October."

Days getting longer

Ms Kliska, who will spend 12 months on the island, says the days on Macquarie Island are finally getting longer and watching the change of season is "incredible".

The island sits 1,500km south of Tasmania.

"We don't experience total darkness like our colleagues down on the continent of Antarctica do," she said.

"We have only six hours of daylight in the middle of winter and a short twilight.

"In the middle of summer we will only have four hours of darkness."


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