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360/VR: After penguin burrows, Fix it Sisters are ready for anything

Earth Matters

When the Fix it Sisters were approached by seabird expert Chris Lloyd with a brief involving penguin colonies and concrete in early 2019, they acknowledged that they were completely out of their depth.

A fire had just swept through the little penguin habitat on Lion Island, at the mouth of the Hawkesbury River in NSW, decimating the penguins' burrows.

Lloyd's first port of call had been a Men's Shed, but "they said "we don't do concrete, makes our hands burn". "It's quite a delightful situation because [the Fix it Sisters] have become the experts in something men didn't want to touch," Lloyd says.

The Fix it Sisters Women's Shed is a non-for-profit with a goal to "empower women of all ages with practical and creative skills". The organisation was founded in 2018 by Linda Prince and Lynn Kristensen and operates from southern Sydney. "Chris came to us and said, 'Would you be interested in making these penguin burrows out of concrete?' And we went, 'Well, we don't know anything about it, but we'll give it a go'," Lynn says.

Today, all apprehension is gone, "It's like making a cake," Linda says of mixing concrete. "Mix all your perlite and your cement together, add your water as you need it."

360: Chris Lloyd shows off a little penguin burrow on Big Island, Five Islands Nature Reserve youtu.be

Since the project's inception, the Fix it Sisters have shipped off more than 70 habitats to four locations. Not only has this been a win for critters who have get to live in the "McMansions", says Lloyd, but the Fix-It Sisters have found the project deeply gratifying.

The project is testimony to the enduring appeal of sheds, community spaces that foster action as well as fellowship. According to Beyond Blue, community sheds began popping up across Australia in the 1990s, however the primary focus was men's mental health. In recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of sheds made for and by women across the country.

When we speak, the Fix it Sisters are in the process of fitting out their new digs at Kyeemagh, in southern Sydney. The building, previously an RSL, is roaring with activity; a chalkboard wall is being painted, the now-defunct bar is being removed and tools are being organised. Prince and Kristensen are everywhere at once, coordinating the day's events.

360: Fix it Sisters hard at work youtu.be

A striking feature of all the women around me is the innate desire to do. A peruse of their @fixitsistersshed Instagram profile reveals an ongoing mentorship of girls from Arncliffe Public School, sewing pouches for joeys, knitting winter woollies for the homeless and endless experiments with power tools.

The aim of the penguin burrow project is to support little penguin colonies by creating artificial nesting burrows designed by Lloyd. The project has garnered plenty of media coverage and attracted penguin devotees to their social media accounts. The Fix it Sisters chalk the attention up to the cuteness factor of little penguins.

Kristensen and Prince were there for the rollout of the first burrows on Lion Island in June 2019 but, two years on, COVID restrictions have meant they are still yet to see a penguin in residence in one of their burrows. In spite of this, there is a palpable sense of pride when they speak about "their colonies".

Kristensen is grinning from ear to ear when we discuss the penguin colony on Snapper Island, near Bateman's Bay. "We've got so many chicks from down there and we've got double chicks from there too. They've (the original parents) laid them, they've fledged them and they've laid another set, which is phenomenal. Those new chicks of ours have now been tagged. So now we'll be able to see where they're going and when they're coming back. That'd be fantastic. And these are all tests, these have never been tried before in the field, and they came about because of a bushfire," she says.

Because the project was created in direct response to a fire, the burrows are fireproof. Concerned about the temperature in the burrows, Lloyd is monitoring fluctuations using temperature probes. The perlite and concrete construction of the burrows seems to be agreeing with most residents. "Because the penguins have used them, we're thinking they like it and we've gone through what was quite a hot, hot summer," Kristensen says.

It is not only little penguins, the Fix it Sisters are focussed on. On Lord Howe Island, their creations are helping to settle a real estate issue between birds big and small. In collaboration with designers Pink Cactus Props, whose work credits include work for Vivid, Barangaroo and Chinese New Year celebrations, the Fix-It Sisters have fabricated a "pod" for small birds wherein "a steel mesh system stops the big birds taking their holes over".

Lord Howe Island is an historical breeding ground for a petite seabird called the white-faced storm petrel. With the 2019 eradication of rats from the island, seabird expert Lloyd hopes to revive a breeding colony there. "We think they're in trouble," he says. "So, we're trying to attract more of them onto the islands. But the big seabirds find their little holes … and just dig them out and take over.

"So, it's a real estate problem. And if you live in Sydney everything's a real estate problem, it is the same for birds, they're running out of space."

By encouraging the species to mate on Lord Howe Island, Lloyd and scientist Nicholas Carlisle are then able to collect data from the birds' yearlong sea voyages. "We stick a little logger on its leg. It carries it 8000 kilometres out to sea for us and gives us water temperatures over a year. If you've got 20 or 30 of those off one island, you can cover most of the Central Pacific Ocean" Lloyd says.

Recorded bird calls are used to attract birds to the pods. "We blast them with these huge megaphones out to sea with a solar panel system and batteries to drive the system. It's kind of like saying, 'auction here this weekend, beautiful block of flats'. That's literally what we are doing, and it works," Lloyd says.

"Hopefully they succeed over in Lord Howe, then the opportunities are massive," Kristensen says of the pods. Theoretically, the pods could be deployed anywhere that the seabird mates. However, it may be years before they know whether the pods are successful.

Regardless of the outcome, the Fix it Sisters are besotted with the process. "It's a real community activity, which is just great," Kristensen says. Ideally, the pods will attract new nesting birds to Lord Howe Island, but Kristensen explains this is only the first step. "New parents are not always as good at bringing up. They don't fledge them or they forget to feed them. Maybe we need to do parenting classes!" she laughs.

When I speak to Prince and Kristensen they are gearing up for a concreting seminar over the coming weekend. They will use the course to trouble-shoot stress cracking in the burrows by using an alternative mixture of fibreglass and cement.

The concrete project has also provided them with a source of income, allowing them to forgo the Bunnings sausage sizzle roster, as each habitat order "makes us income, and we need income to keep us functioning".

"We love Bunnings, but we don't want to do a barbecue. It's just such hard work," says Kristensen, "we would rather be playing with concrete."

Ever forward-looking, the Fix it Sisters ask: "Now we've done the pods for Lord Howe, what else can we do? Can we do other ones for bushfire-affected areas? … I think that this concrete course will open up a whole pile of things that we just won't be able to stop ourselves from making."

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