Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Penguins! The Essence of Antarctica!

I am recently back from two months on board ship with One Ocean Expeditions, with four groups of passengers. All four voyages visited the Antarctic Peninsula; the first two also visited Falklands and South Georgia. One of the most special experiences is the King Penguin colony at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, which has an estimated 60,000 breeding pairs. Here most of the downy chicks (9 months old) are cooling off by flattening themselves on the cold ground, since they soon feel the heat when the sun shines. (Click on the image to enlarge.) 

The Rockhopper Penguins on Westpoint Island in the Falklands choose to nest among Black-browed Albatrosses. When a predator flies over, such as skua, caracara or Turkey Vulture, the long-necked albatrosses help to keep it at a distance. In November the albatrosses were incubating a single egg, while the Rockhoppers had two.

Macaroni Penguins are the world's most abundant penguin, but it's easy to miss them in South Georgia as most of their colonies are on the inaccessible southern side. On our first voyage, we were lucky enough to watch them from zodiacs at a small colony on the east side of Elephant Island, though it was hard to keep bins and cameras steady in the swell. Macaronis lay two eggs, though it is rare for the first one to hatch. 

Down on the Antarctic Peninsula, we had a great day for visiting the Adelie Penguins. This group were heading away from their nests, towards a stretch of shore clear of icebergs. As with all penguins, males and females share the nesting duties and regularly take turns with incubating and feeding young. The decline of Adelies on the Antarctic Peninsula is linked to a reduction in winter sea-ice. Krill, their staple food, feeds on algae under the sea-ice. In the Ross Sea, the vast Adelie colonies are stable as they are much further south, where the ice levels remain unchanged.  

This Chinstrap Penguin is busy bringing another stone to the nest, essential for keeping the nest-base well drained. Eggs laid on snow, ice or mud fail to hatch. In a good year, both eggs hatch and two chicks may fledge. Hatching occurs around Christmas, with the youngsters taking their first dip two months later. At this time Leopard Seals are likely to be patrolling the shallows, looking out for first-time swimmers. 

Finally, a photo from Christmas Eve. This Gentoo Penguin had just hatched both chicks on a good stone-based nest. The chicks will be fed at regular intervals by regurgitation. In February they are nearly fully grown, very mobile and inquisitive, frequently walking up to visitors and pecking at rubber boots, cameras and gloves. In my next post, I will feature some of the region's flying birds. 

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