The penguins of Patagonia

By Midge Raymond,

So often when people think of penguins, they picture the icy landscape of Antarctica. Yet only four of seventeen penguin species come ashore in Antarctica — while all live in the Southern Hemisphere, most do their breeding in non-icy places, from the little penguins of Australia to the tropical Galápagos penguins, to the Magellanic penguins of Argentina.

One of the most breathtaking places to see penguins is in the Chubut Province of Argentina, which features the largest Magellanic colony in the world, with more than 200,000 breeding pairs of penguins. These penguins come ashore at Punta Tombo every autumn to build nests, meet or reunite with their mates, and raise their chicks.

Studying and protecting these birds is important for so many reasons — for one, the more we know about penguins, the more we know about the state of our oceans, and the better job we can do taking care of the planet and all its wildlife.

Check out this video to see the gorgeous Magellanic penguins (and their chicks!) of Punta Tombo — and visit the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels to learn more and to support its conservation work. And of course, if you want to visit this colony and see it up close and personal, join me and Adventures by the Book in Argentina in October of 2018!

 



The scandalous sex lives of penguins

By Midge Raymond,

My friend Judy sent me this article on the “scandalous” sex lives of penguins, which mentions many of the penguin stories we’ve heard over the years, from the two male chinstrap penguins who raised a baby chick, to a nasty fight between two Magellanic penguins competing for a female. And indeed, the love lives of penguins are really so similar to our own: there is love, there is marriage for life, there is the raising of children; there is also divorce and cheating and all sorts of other drama.

The article references the observations from a scientist more than hundred years ago, buried because it was so scandalous at the time: George Murray Levick documented acts among penguins including necrophilia and group sex. Back in the early 1900s, editors cut the graphic descriptions of penguins’ behavior from Levick’s published work. As the article notes:

It took until 2012 for ornithologists at London’s Natural History Museum to finally dig up Levick’s “Sexual Habits of the Adelie Penguin”—by which point scientific inquiry had matured enough that they were able to publish it.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that penguins (or any animals) have such varied sex lives, or that their love lives mirror our own in so many ways. Humans often forget that we, too, are animals. We all just want to find love and share our nests with that special penguin, or person … and maybe raise a chick or two.



Chasing Penguins

By Midge Raymond,

As soon as I met my first penguins (chinstraps, Adélies, and gentoos) in Antarctica more than twelve years ago, I fell in love with these incredible animals. Two years later, when I had the opportunity to help the University of Washington’s Dee Boersma with a Magellanic penguin census in Patagonia two years later, I (along with my husband) pounced on the opportunity — not only to help with the amazing research Dee is doing but to learn about, and spend time with, another species of penguin; Dee has been studying the Magellanic penguins since 1982.

And when, a decade after our Patagonia penguin adventure, we learned that Dee would be a naturalist on board an expedition to the Galápagos Islands — home of the rare and endangered Galápagos penguin —  we jumped again at the chance to meet yet another species with the world’s leading penguin expert.

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Even Darwin didn’t see penguins on his visit to the Galápagos Islands, and to this day no one knows how many penguins now exist there (the estimate is between 1,500 and 4,700 — about half the numbers that existed when Dee began studying these birds in the 1970s).

When we arrived in the Galápagos, Dee advised us that we would have one chance to see Galápagos penguins on this journey, around the waters of Floreana Island. At first we were discouraged by the crystal clear (albeit gorgeous) waters, which are not ideal for the penguins’ fishing. We didn’t see a single penguin during an hour-long panga ride — but then, as we swam and snorkeled off Post Office Bay, a penguin popped its head above water to take a breath before diving back under to continue hunting.

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At first, as I was snorkeling, I saw only one penguin, diving for fish, swimming under and all around me (while they are comically slow and awkward on land, penguins are utterly graceful underwater), and then I saw another, about twenty feet below me, trying to snatch food from the other’s beak. Every time a school of fish changed direction and sped away, one of these two penguins was in close pursuit.

A short time later, back in our panga, we saw several more penguins, this time fishing in a group of four. Galápagos penguins look similar to Magellanic penguins, with the dark band around their white chests, but they are much smaller (though their beaks are roughly the same size, making this species look a bit big-nosed).

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As we watched the penguins, they began to fish with blue-footed boobies. In the photo below, you’ll see the boobies in the background; they dive for fish from high in the air, while the penguins work underwater.

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We observed this animated feeding frenzy for about forty-five minutes before the birds began to disperse, looking quite well fed. While we’d have been thrilled to get merely a glimpse of the Galápagos penguins, it was an extraordinary experience to see so many of them (about five or six, the naturalists believe, in all) swimming and porpoising and diving all around us.

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Our expedition group left Dee in Ecuador, where she was next headed to Isabela and Fernandina Islands to check on the nests she and other researchers have built to help the penguins’ breeding efforts.

And, shortly after we returned home, the University of Washington, where Dee holds the Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science, announced that Dee is one of six finalists for the prestigious Indianapolis Prize for conservation — the highest honor for animal conservationists, which has been awarded every other year since 2006. The winner will be announced in the spring of this year; click here to learn more about the work that has earned Dee this honor.

I’m looking forward to news from Dee’s time on the other Galápagos islands. To learn more about Dee’s work, visit Penguin Sentinels — and to see more of the elusive Galápagos penguins, visit www.iGalápagos.org.

 

 



Meet Turbo the Penguin

By Midge Raymond,

One of the great joys of volunteering with the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels to help count Magellanic penguins was meeting Turbo.

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He’s a unique bird in so many ways, and beloved even by those who have never met him. He got his name the year he decided to nest under a Ford Turbo instead of in a burrow or under a bush like most of his species. And while most penguins will scurry away at the sight of humans, Turbo would walk right up to you, and he even liked being patted on the head (which made the neighbor cats a little jealous).

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Each year, I eagerly await news from the penguin program about what’s new the colony, but especially for news of Turbo. There’s a lot going on with the Magellanic colony where he lives — the colony is in decline due to such factors as oil pollution, overfishing, and climate change — but hearing news of Turbo each season gives me hope that these magnificent birds will make it in the end.

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Researchers believe that Turbo is now about 11 years old. This season, he found himself a wonderful nest in a big molle bush, and we’re all hoping this will help him find a mate. (Yes, he’s still single after all these years.)

Visit the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels to sign up for news and updates, and you can also keep up with Turbo via Facebook.



Counting penguins

By Midge Raymond,

While these days, I can only count penguins via Penguin Watch, several years ago I was fortunate to have been able to help count penguins at Punta Tombo, in the Chubut Province of Argentina (one of the settings in MY LAST CONTINENT) with the University of Washington’s Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels.

 

This was in 2006, and back then it had been about 15 years since the previous census. A small group of volunteers, we counted all the penguins in 731 circles (in teams of two, we counted all the nests, birds, and eggs within five-meter circles spaced about twenty meters apart) and discovered that there were 155,000 nesting pairs at Punta Tombo.

This colony has been studied for about 30 years, and unfortunately, the number of active nests at Punta Tombo has decreased by about 1 percent each year. Reproduction was better than average this past season, but there were fewer active nests, which means fewer chicks fledged than in most years. The main cause of chick death was, as usual, starvation — due to overfishing, penguins have trouble finding food close to the colony, and when they have to go farther for food, it’s more likely they won’t make it back in time to feed their hungry chicks. Climate change has also affected the penguins — one rainstorm this season killed 3% of the chicks from a 100-nest area.

Like these two lovebirds nesting above, many penguins mate for life — and the research being done will help us figure out how best to help them survive on the long term.

Learn more — and find out how to help keep this important research going — at the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels.

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