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

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