Beyond penguins: The wildlife neigbours you did not know you have

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By Fam Charko

For many years the little penguin colony on the St Kilda breakwater has been attracting visitors from all over the world. Tourists as well as locals enjoy many a night of penguin spotting over summer and the penguins themselves rarely disappoint, waddling up to the boardwalk quite unperturbed and right in front of their human admirers. Little penguins are an amazingly stress-resistant species to be able to thrive in conditions that would have most animals fleeing. With the population consisting of about 1300 individuals and growing, we can confidently say that they are thriving.

But the penguins are not the only wildlife that calls St Kilda home. Jumping in off the penguin boardwalk, and snorkeling towards St Kilda West Beach, we encounter an abundance of underwater life. The seagrass beds are populated with magenta and sky-blue sea stars, baby fish seeking shelter from predators and thousands of pebble crabs, sand anemones, butterfly shells, moons snails and cute, tubby smooth toadfish zooming around like remote-controlled spotted submarines.

Many local and migratory shorebirds visit the tidal flats of St Kilda West Beach to forage for food; sooty and pied oystercatchers (this year spotted sitting on eggs at the very end of the breakwater) dig through the shallows with their long red beaks to prey on the abundance of small shellfish at low tide. Several times I have spotted a stately, long-legged, royal spoonbill picking its way between the ducks in search of delectable shrimp and tiny crabs.

Even on Acland Street, this vibrant part of St Kilda, with its paved roads, many visitors and frequent trams, wildlife reveals itself to whoever is willing to pay attention. Australian ravens keep an eye on the goings on from above. Once, I found a pastel tawny feather on the pavement, unmistakably belonging to a nankeen night heron. Below our feet, in the stormwater drains underneath, short finned eels slither in the dark, migrating between here and the Coral Sea. Walking up Blessington Street and into the botanic gardens, we even encounter the powerful owl, a huge and fearsome predator, using its serrated wingfeathers for silent stealth as it picks a ringtail possum off a powerline.

These and many other creatures are our invisible neighbours. Invisible, that is, until we are willing to look. When Gio Fitzpatrick, Youth Wildlife Ambassador of the EcoCentre, challenged himself to spot more native species in Elwood than displayed in Melbourne Zoo (320). He found no less than 382 in less than a day! How lucky are we, to live in this urbanised part of Melbourne, but still have nature all round us, living right on our doorstep? Or maybe we are living on theirs.

Fam Charko is a marine biologist at St Kilda-based EcoCentre. 

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