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

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