A king penguin has made its way from the Antarctic region to the South Australian coastline, where it is likely to stay on land to undergo a “catastrophic molt”.
Members of a local birdwatching society were surprised when they spotted the bird on a beach, thousands of kilometers from its usual habitat, The Guardian reported.
Each year, the penguins lose all their feathers. Then, over two or three weeks, they replace them with sleek, freshly oiled, waterproof ones. For those weeks, they have no protection from the icy waters so they seek land – but usually much closer to home.
The chair of Friends of Shorebirds South East, Jeff Campbell, was part of a group of eight people doing a bird survey along the Coorong beach when they spotted the penguin.
“We came across a penguin coming up out of the water and on to the beach, a large penguin. It came right up to us. It was displaying to us. It made a braying call, quite loud, then bowed to us,” he said.
“It did it several times. It came right up to us, right beside us. You shouldn’t approach these things but it approached us,” he added.
Campbell said it was “quite a surprise” but not totally unheard of – a king penguin was spotted at Port MacDonnell, near Mount Gambier, in 2004.
The bird looked “very healthy, very chubby”, he said. King penguins are close relatives of the larger emperor penguins, but prefer the subantarctic islands to the Antarctic ice shelf.
A Macquarie island conservation foundation describes them as “curious, social birds that breed in colonies”. Like the emperor penguin, they lay a single egg covered with a brood pouch. There are about 120,000 king penguin pairs on Macquarie Island, which is about halfway between Tasmania and the Antarctic.
“From time to time penguins do come up to the mainland ... often they’re coming in to molt. They come ashore for their catastrophic molt,” said Dr. Julie McInnes, from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, Ecology and Biodiversity.
It’s called a catastrophic molt because, unlike other birds that might shed some feathers, penguins lose all of them. So, they come ashore for two to three weeks. They lose all their feathers and replace them with new, waterproof feathers.
“They come in fat and well rounded, because they’re fasting for those weeks when they’re ashore. Energetically it’s quite costly to molt so they just need to sit quietly with their feet in water, that’s their ideal set-up,” McInnes said.
She said the Australian mainland was the furthest reach of their range, and that while global heating was causing changes in penguins’ distribution, that would probably cause them to seek cooler water. It could also just be that the penguin got off track looking for land – usually they would molt on their colony’s island.
“If it’s molting it can’t go into the water, so it’s unfortunate that it found a fairly populous spot,” McInnes said. Anyone wanting to see it should do so from a distance, she said, and not risk scaring it into the water.