June 25, 2018

Penguins learn road sense

Crossing the Neck at Bruny Island one stormy night I was amazed to make out what looked like the shape of a penguin standing in the middle of the road.

As the wind lashed diagonal stripes of rain across the muddy dirt strip, I struggled to keep my focus on the puddled road ahead, knowing on one side was a steep drop into the waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel below me. But I soon confirmed my eyes were not deceiving me. There, staring straight at me, yellow in the light of my headlights, was a little penguin. I think we were both wondering at that moment what to make of it all.

The night is cemented in my memory because I was being a hard-news reporter for once, covering events across Bruny Island associated with the Bruny Island Bird Festival, and then going in search of a computer with a Wi-Fi connection from which to file my story. I had somehow mislaid my own.

The penguin finally waddled off through the puddles, seeking shelter on the side of the road bordered by sand dunes, and as I continued on my way across the isthmus to the southern end of Bruny Island I considered the eventual fate of penguins once a plan to seal the road was put in place. The rough, precarious nature of the road had ensured motorists paid it respect, whatever the weather, and in turn had given stray penguins a better chance of not ending up as roadkill.

My encounter with the penguins occurred some years back and the sealed section of the road was finally opened last year. And I am happy to report that the new route has not had the adverse effect on the penguin population that breeds in the sand dunes along the Neck as had been feared.

The happy outcome for the penguins can be attributed to the mitigation measures put in place along the road, primarily the incorporation in the road’s design of penguin tunnels so the little creatures can cross from one side of the isthmus to the other without actually venturing on to the tarmac.

The penguin-friendly design of the road is down to a partnership between BirdLife Tasmania and the Kingborough Council, which is responsible for Bruny. The council took into account the birding organisation’s recommendations for the road, particularly the need for tunnels to facilitate movement for the flightless penguins.

Tunnels have been used successfully in roadkill mitigation for penguins in New Zealand but it was not guaranteed the Bruny penguins would take to these culverts immediately.

BirdLife Tasmania monitored the penguins with cameras when the new road opened and were in for a surprise. The special tunnels created for the penguins were considerably larger than a second series of culverts designed to drain water from the road but, as the nocturnal footage revealed, the penguins preferred the smaller drainage culverts to the tunnels that had been built especially for them!

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