Australia is sometimes called the land of the parrot. This is a fair description, as parrots, including rosellas, cockatoos, and galahs, are numerous and close to ubiquitous. The bird life in Australia is one of the great delights of this country—from the mobs of geese, storks, herons in Kakadu to the major migratory flyway near Broome to the birds that one finds everywhere, such as emus and kookaburras.
But there is a bird that most people wouldn’t think to associate with the land downunder: the penguin. However, Australia is the first landfall north of Antarctica, and there are large penguin colonies in several places along the south coast. The spot at which tourists are most likely to encounter these wonderful birds is on an island just south of Melbourne: Phillip Island. Every night, hundreds of penguins come ashore here, and are almost always met by a phalanx of eager visitors. The spot has been made increasingly touristy over the years, but it is still absolutely worth going—for the sake of watching the penguins.
Here’s a little from my book about my first visit to the island:
Shortly after the sun sets the first group of penguins “lands.” There is a shimmer at the edge of the water, a little extra white on a wave, a flip-flash of silver, then a penguin stands up. If there are no other penguins around, it again disappears into the foam. Soon, others arrive. They do not come ashore alone, always in groups—there is safety in numbers. Still, the sea gulls harass the small band trooping up the beach, trying to get them to give up the food they’ve brought for their mates.
If a wave comes along, the penguins drop on their stomachs and ride it in. They are undaunted by the crowd that has come to watch them—until someone disobeys the rules and takes a flash picture. The penguins flee for the safety of the water. (And the offender’s camera is confiscated.) In a few minutes, when it appears that the danger is gone, they start back up the beach.
By this time, farther down the shore, another group has gathered and is waddling solemnly towards home, and the flash and shimmer of another approaching group can be seen on the crest of a breaking wave. Soon, hundreds of penguins are on the beach—600, it is estimated. There are approximately 1,200 in the colony, but this is the mating and breeding season, so someone has to stay at home and sit on the egg. This job is traded off, with the male and female staying behind on alternate days. As a result, there is a tremendous “social hour” when the penguins return home, and we could hear them chattering and whirring as each related the day’s activities to the other mate. Some eggs had already hatched, and we could see the downy chicks in the nests, waiting anxiously for dinner.