BOULDERS COASTAL AFRICAN PENGUIN RESERVE – SIMON’S TOWN

With the onset of the winter rains ‘braying’ activity within the resident penguin population has begun in earnest as bachelors stake out new nesting sites in the hope of a mate, while pair bonded couples reinforce existing marital ties within the resident community of several hundred birds directly below our ‘birder friendly’ guest house.

Originally known as the Black-footed Penguin, it was converted to the less flattering descriptive of Jackass Penguin some time back. This change in the descriptive in audio recognition of the incessant donkey-like braying that takes place throughout the breeding season. More recently the local descriptive underwent further change and the Jackass Penguin was upgraded to African Penguin. This descriptive review was conducted by the ornithological committee appointed to standardise on the list of common names for all bird species occurring within the sub-region and further to the north in Africa.

Wandering down at day’s end with one’s camera in hand to the well-established rookery that stretches south along boulder strewn shore below the guest house, when rafts of penguins return after a day’s fishing in False Bay, is a visually delightful and highly entertaining experience to be savoured and enjoyed at leisure.

Once ashore and well  beyond predator and wave reach preening commences in a meticulous manner before individual birds waddle about in dwarf-like fashion in search of existing partners or potential mates for the forthcoming breeding season.

Such activity, involving head bowing, mutual grooming and the presentation of nesting material to incubating partners, accompanied by vigorous bouts of flipper waving and braying activity, adds to the comical and endearing nature of these totally unassuming and accommodating members of our neighbourhood.

Sadly, the future prognosis for the African Penguin population off the Southern African coastline is looking increasingly bleak due to a major shift in the migratory patterns of pelagic fish species targeted by African Penguins.

Although the precise reason behind the prevailing migratory trend in the principal prey forms of anchovy and sardine to switch direction from the west to the east coast is largely unknown and is believed to be associated with climate change. The net result is that the African Penguins have been forced to follow the pelagic shoals up the warm Agulhas current in order to survive but have nowhere to breed beyond two land based sites and two islands compared to a wide selection of suitable offshore islands along the West Coast. Expressed in stark statistical terms the breeding population in South Africa has declined dramatically from 56 000 pairs in 2001 to 21 000 in 2009 and this highly disturbing trend is continuing much to the concern of the scientific community and local conservationists.

This extremely disconcerting situation has resulted in stepped up research efforts utilising satellite transmitters attached to young penguins to ascertain where they go during the four years between leaving the nest and returning to breed.

As such the recent initiative will hopefully cast new light on what needs to be done to re-kindle declining coastal populations before it’s too late to save what is unquestionable South Africa’s most endearing seabird species. Such a loss will indeed be a sad one to not only the ornithological world but to the residents of Simon’s Town who have co-existed in delightful harmony with the endearing penguin community since the breeding colony established itself at Boulder’s Beach over 30 years ago.

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