Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Falkland Island Chronicals- some birds that actually fly in the air.

I realize that all of the birds described so far in the Falkland Islands, well,  don't fly in the air.  Penguins fly in the water.  So, it is time to highlight the conventional flyers. There were some I expected to see, and a few surprises.

The first birds to "greet" us at Saunders Island were a mob of Striated Caracara. They are pretty unafraid of humans and always on the lookout for a hand out. This guy was just feet away.

Our hosts often feed them, and they always finished off any leftovers from our meals. That may offend some, but it does reduce their preying on the hapless penguin chicks. When one of our members left his tripod outside unattended, one Caracara began to chew on the padding on the tripod legs.  They will try to eat backpacks, hats and just about anything other than a rock.

The other bird that preys on the nesting birds is the Skua.

When I walked too near one of their ground nests, the male got very aggressive.

Both Skua and Caracara regularly harass the nesting birds with close flight passes, as seen below. This is a colony of King Cormorants.  If the parent is startled and lifts up, the chick may be grabbed.  They will also form a mob to overwhelm a given nest.

Among the most graceful, elegant flyers are the Black-browed Albatrosses.  They are big  - 31 inches long with a whopping 95-inch wingspan.  Imagine one effortlessly soaring just a few feet over your head. That is one of my most unforgettable experiences of the trip.

They were not shy and would often approach closely, if I was sitting on the ground. If resting along a trail, they would silently mark your passing with a stoic gaze.

When we arrived, many of the Black-browed Albatross were beginning courtship.  They would posture and preen. It appeared that the pair bonds were not always firmly formed yet, as one would notice a rival and decide to pursue that opportunity.  They all looked alike to me, but the birds obviously saw more than I did.

But, the bonds do become firm and nesting begins with construction of a nest. When finished, the nest often was so uniform (as seen below on right) that it could have been formed on a pottery wheel.

Now, the albatross is a  famous wanderer of the open ocean, only coming to land to breed. There is another fabled wanderer that did make a few brief appearances along the shore.  I have to share my only good image of a Giant Petrel.  They are nearly as big as the above albatross.

Notice on the top of the bill that there is a prominent tubular passage; that is a salt gland which functions to desalinate ingested water.  The salt is expelled from the passage.  Wow!

Now, let me close with two birds that I did not expect to see, and whose plumage and behavior captured my interest.  Early in the trip, I saw this King Cormorant fly past me with a large clump of debris headed for a densely populated rookery.

Like all cormorants, they are fast on the wing.  The orange pad above the beak - called a caruncle - was striking.  Getting close to one, there was more to admire.  There was a blue sheen on the head below an upturned crest and a very blue eye ring.

I became driven to capture more flight photos of this bird streaking back to the nest with a treasure of nesting material.  It proved difficult. Even though they followed a pattern, the sheer number of birds and the small variations in its path, made it hard to anticipate the millisecond when the bird was just right.  Cannot imagine doing this with slide film; it took a hundred images to get a few good ones.

 At the end of the nesting season, there are totally bare areas that the cormorants have stripped clean down to the roots.

There was another cormorant whose nesting behavior made it impossible to observe closely.  The Rock Cormorant nests on tiny ledges in otherwise vertical rock faces.  We saw only one such place across a finger of the sea bounded by two such vertical walls. It was about 80 feet straight down to the sea below. Oh, and it was very windy.  I treated the edge of the drop with caution.

There must have been some similar ledges on our side, as there was an adult and juvenile on the edge of the drop. Again, they were not the least wary of us.

This basically covers all of the larger birds, leaving some smaller birds that offered more unexpected delights.  They will be the subject of the next post.

Paul Schmitt

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Little Penguins- Rockhopper, Magellanic & Macaroni

Magellanic Penguins are all black and white,  save a bare patch between eye and beak where pink skin is visible. They may be the more sensible of all the lot.  They nest underground so that the Skuas and Caracara cannot swoop down to seize a chick.

Ideally, they form nest burrows under Tussock Grass, but as livestock were introduced on the islands, the favored grass declined, and they went to nesting in bare ground or even under introduced shrubby plants like the yellow flowering Gorse (Ulex europaea).  This pair seem to have found a combination of grass and Gorse.

The Magellanic avoided the acrobatic displays of the Gentoo when coming ashore, but sometimes did ride the wave crest.  Perhaps that gave them some degree of visibility to chose a safe landing spot.

In early December, the Magellanic were at the time to hatch eggs, so there was often a watchful adult at the face of the burrow casting one eye to examine any possible interloper. One needed to be watchful for these shallow burrows as it would be easy to trip on one, or worse to collapse the ceiling, spelling doom for the nest.

The Magellanic were the quiet, retreating member of the community that carried on their lives mostly unseen except when coming and going from the sea.   The Rockhoppers were a much more demonstrative presence.  They were the smallest of the penguins we saw, and also the most fierce at times.

The Rockhopper is a very photogenic bird that will often approach quite closely when you take a seat and wait calmly.  Above the brilliant orange eye is a sulfur yellow eyebrow that extents into a trailing plume; the top of the head resembles a punk rocker's haircut.  The bill is sturdy and capable of inflicting a lot of pain.

The Rockhopper name is directly linked to their preferred nesting habitat.  They choose elevated, rocky coasts where they can be seen coming ashore among crashing waves. 

Up  these steep faces they travel using only their short legs to propel them.  They've been doing this for centuries such that in places, one can find grooves in the rocks from thousands of tiny penguin claws. It is quite amazing that these little legs are sufficient to seemingly propel them to heights more than their body length.  I would not have attempted  many of these climbs.

Having reached the heights, Rockhoppers form dense nesting colonies that give a very scenic view of their sea.

For all of their pugnacious behavior, these birds exhibit a very tender courtship with much grooming and caressing. It would be easy to anthropomorphize their behavior.

On some occasions, I saw a third party get close, and most often the pair both reacted strongly to defend their bond.  However, in a few cases, it seemed the bond was quickly fractured by a more attractive suitor.  I guess they were still shopping for the best offer.

The whole purpose of this begins with an egg. The grooming seemed to continue through this stage.

I found a good field guide for the Falklands that included a chronology of the Rockhopper hatching.  The pair jointly incubate for about a week. Then they alternate fishing over two weekly cycles, ending with the female present to hatch the two eggs. Then both share feeding and fishing.  The chicks grow quickly.

There was one other Rockhopper behavior which was seen at three locations - bathing. In two places, it was really showering. Really. In all cases, a hillside spring offered fresh water.  The shower occurred when the water fell over a precipice offering a good landing spot.  It was amazing.  This pair were obviously having a grand time. 

It was difficult to leave this spot when the clock told us we needed to rendezvous with our ride back to camp.  The personality of these smallest penguins just capture your attention. 

This concludes my description on the expected penguins of the Falkland Islands. King, Gentoo, Magellanic and Rockhopper.  Each was fascinating in some way. There was one unexpected penguin that was seen in two separate locations.  The Macaroni Penguin is uncommon there with a   few breeding pair reported among the Rockhoppers.  We only saw lone individual looking rather lost.

I went expecting to see penguins, and not sure what other treasures would be revealed.  These unexpected discoveries brought greater wonder than even the Rockhoppers in the shower, or the Gentoos popping out of waves.  I will get to those in future posts.

Paul Schmitt

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Now for some acrobatics- Gentoo Penguins

After a day trip to Volunteer Point near Stanley in the Falkland Islands, we flew to Saunders Island and took Land Rovers over a rough track to the Neck.  This is a popular 3-hour landing for ships making the circuit from Ushuaia (Argentina) to South Georgia Island and hence on to the Antarctic Peninsula.  Two days at sea to get one or two 3-hour zodiac landings? We were in camp there for three full days.

That's our little camp at the right overlooking colonies of Gentoo and even a few King Penguins.  It was a reasonable walk to find Rockhoppers, Magellanic and Black-browed Albatross nesting sites.  Just plain wonderful.

This was my first good chance to observe the Gentoos in an unhurried setting.  A lot more was revealed than a short ship landing could offer.

At the beginning of December, Gentoo eggs are hatching, and the female has typically returned from an extended time at sea with plenty in the hold to feed the new chicks.

The Gentoos often return from  fishing in packs. They seem very nervous.  That may be wise; Sea Lions and Orcas were spotted along the beaches.

As they approach the beach, they porpoise to look towards the beach for a safe landing spot.

Then it becomes interesting. If the sun is positioned to good effect, one can follow these dark shapes in the water swimming under the oncoming swell, and .........

.... often erupting through the crest of the wave.

It was easy to spend an hour or more watching this and trying to be pointed to the right place when the Gentoo popped up.  And, they really do pop up sometimes.

They can be quite acrobatic, like this one.

But, on to the reason for all of this.  It is about the chicks.  Once ashore, the Gentoos begin a trek to the rookery, often some distance from the beach.  Notice how clean they are.  They've been at sea. After a few days of feeding the chicks, their white apron will be pretty soiled.

The rookery is a pretty densely packed area that is stripped clear of any thing that may be used to build a nest. This includes any grasses, bushes or even small pebbles.   The wind is always blowing, so even a small pebble added to the rim of the nest will help shield the chick from the cold wind.

The parent below is placing pebbles around the chicks.  There is a pretty constant  commotion as  penguins wander about attempting to steal pebbles from neighbors.

Of course, the main action at the rookery is a combination of feeding, plus protecting the chicks from the wind and from the marauding Striated Caracara and Skua birds seeking to steal a meal. The chick seems to gain enough strength to lift its head. This will trigger the parent's feeding which begins with beak contact.

Then the parent presents an open beak for the exchange. It happens pretty quickly.  Seemingly exhausted, the chick then returns to rest.

It seemed two days later that the chicks had ballooned to three or four times what I saw initially. With seventeen hours of daylight, there is a lot of feeding.

Just like the action at the beach, I found myself drawn to the colony on a daily basis to watch from a distance the behaviors, which included being on guard for the predators' attempts to snatch a chick.  This did happen.

A key challenge to this photography was due to the denseness of rookery.  It's that way to provide safety from predator birds.  Getting this simple view required lying on the ground.

At the beach, it was still the same for a different reason. When you get REALLY low to the ground, the background is more distant and more out of focus.  The subjects are better defined.  So, our leader set a good example for us. That's blowing sand.  Maybe 30 mph wind - very typical.

Following his example, I made this sunset image near the Gentoo rookery.

Gentoos were clearly the most entertaining penguins to see come ashore.  Kings, Rockhoppers and Magellanic all seemed to just slide on shore with no theatrics. I will have more on the latter two in a few days.

Paul Schmitt

Friday, December 19, 2014

King Penguins- Finding the Expected

My recent two weeks in the beautiful Falkland Islands revealed both the expected and the unexpected.  There were plenty of penguins that I longed to see coming and going from the sea. Their daily habits were fascinating and are the subject of my first posts.  There were also unexpected  discoveries, the most delightful were pairs of Silver Grebes feeding the chicks riding a parent's back. I'll save those for my finale. In between, I'll also share flight photos for a range of birds and include images of the new life being created in the rookeries.  With all that, I will conclude in a much later blog with insights into the places and people of the Falklands.  It's a bit of Britain far away in the South Atlantic.

The King Penguin is immediately recognized by its bright gold-to-orange auricular patches on the side of the head. The color extends down the neck and across the throat. The gold color is carried over to a matching mandibular plate on the beak.  Their head is deep black with a dark eye that is nearly impossible to see.  Adding to the striking appearance is a coat that is best described as steel gray.

The King is the second largest penguin, standing about 37 inches tall.  Its carriage is erect, and its walk is deliberate and graceful. It reminds of the gait expected of the wedding party entering the church. The penguin comes ashore in groups without much fanfare. (You will see that the Gentoo Penguin often erupts through the waves as though a Sea Lion is on its tail.)

 Along the shore, I often found small groups of Kings in seemingly aimless wandering.  I am guessing that the one on the left just returned from the sea with a full stomach.