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Avian Encounters and a Mind Meld with a Penguin on Saunders Island in the Falklands

Gentoos, Saunders Island

Gentoos, Saunders Island

On my recent Zegrahm expedition we got to spend one day on Saunders Island in the Falklands.  Some day I am going to return there and spend a lot more time.  We saw such diversity of wildlife and the creatures just accepted us into their ecosystem.  The gentoo penguins we encountered when we first landed waddled, lay day, flew, mingled together and did what they usually do.  We kept our distance walking around them and they were not disturbed at all.  It felt great to share their habitat.  However, I was surprised that their numbers were not as great as I'd heard they've been in the past and wondered if it was related to climate change.

Gentoos in Molting Season

Gentoos in Molting Season

The Gentoos were molting while we were there, so they weren't at their sleekest.  The amount of feathers they shed was remarkable, as the picture below shows.  

Molted Gentoo Penguin Feathers

Molted Gentoo Penguin Feathers

King Penguin Colony

King Penguin Colony

These King Penguins were absolutely spectacular as they huddled around their brown chicks. They looked so sleek compared to the molting Gentoos and their coloration was very dramatic. Their beaks were also very interesting as they waved them in the air or preened.

King Penguins Preening

King Penguins Preening

I was a little envious of the way they could bend and torque their necks to make sure their coats were flawless.

Prone King Penguins 

Prone King Penguins 

Next we hiked up this big hill to the albatross colony and then a couple of us ventured down the slippery slope to where the mothers were feeding their young. 

Next we hiked up this big hill to the albatross colony and then a couple of us ventured down the slippery slope to where the mothers were feeding their young. 

Mother Albatross Feeding her Young

Mother Albatross Feeding her Young

Mother, Baby, and Juvenile Albatross

Mother, Baby, and Juvenile Albatross

Look closely at the image above and you will see a tiny baby albatross nestled in its mother's wing.  I did not enough notice it was there until after I made the photograph.

Albatross, Saunders Island

Albatross, Saunders Island

The albatross were so fun to watch and they seemed very happy in their rocky ecosystem.  Throughout the trip we saw these birds flying, even when we were way out at sea. It is amazing how far they can travel once they are grown. 

Cormorant by the Sea

Cormorant by the Sea

 A few stray cormorants mingled in with the albatross.  The contrast of the dark bodies made a striking contrast against the orange lichen coating the rocks and the aqua-green sea below.

Upland Geese

Upland Geese

On the way back down from the albatross, I spotted these beautiful upland geese.  Their striations were remarkable.

Magellanic Penguins

Magellanic Penguins

Then this group of Magellanic Penguins popped up from behind a ridge.  They were also molting and their expressions were priceless.  The Falklands are purported to have breeding pairs in excess of 100, but we did not see that many on Saunders Island.  Climate change has been displacing fish populations, so the penguins are swimming an extra 50 miles for food while their mates sit on their nests and starve.

Magellanic Penguin Pair

Magellanic Penguin Pair

Magellanic penguins are monogamous and come back to their same partners year after year following their long swims.  They know each other through their calls alone.  

Commerson's Dolphins

Commerson's Dolphins

From the ridge, we saw the very rare Commerson's Dolphins playing in the waves.  These dolphins are unusual in that they swim upside down.

Falkland Steamer Ducks

Falkland Steamer Ducks

On the way down to the beach, two Steamer Ducks crossed my path, also a very rare sighting. This is one of only two species endemic to the Falklands.  These birds are unable to fly.  When Charles Darwin observed them in 1833 during the Voyage of the Beagle, he had this to say: 

In these islands a great loggerheaded duck or goose (Anas brachyptera), which sometimes weighs twenty-two pounds, is very abundant. These birds were in former days called, from their extraordinary manner of paddling and splashing upon the water, race-horses; but now they are named, much more appropriately, steamers. Their wings are too small and weak to allow of flight, but by their aid, partly swimming and partly flapping the surface of the water, they move very quickly. The manner is something like that by which the common house-duck escapes when pursued by a dog; but I am nearly sure that the steamer moves its wings alternately, instead of both together, as in other birds. These clumsy, loggerheaded ducks make such a noise and splashing, that the effect is exceedingly curious.
Rockhoppers in Love

Rockhoppers in Love

These rockhopper penguins seemed clearly in love. I spent a long time photographing them, but this was one of my favorite images because of the way them seem to be snuggling and burrowing into one another.

Rockhopper Couple Posing

Rockhopper Couple Posing

I laughed out loud when I saw them posing right before their kiss.  The female coyly cocking her head before coming in closer.

Rockhopper Strutting with Attitude

Rockhopper Strutting with Attitude

The rockhopper penguins really do live among the rocks.   The one in the lower center came strutting down from the top like he really was somebody and the younger penguin to the left is clearly checking him out.  Though it was wonderful watching these creatures up close, I was perplexed that there were so few rockhoppers around and that it took us awhile to find this small colony.  Climate change, oil spills, habitat degradation, pollution both in the ocean and from fisheries is a great threat to all penguins.  Though scientists have a difficult time disentangling climate change from all the other causes, they say that it has an impact on the food web and also leads to the spread of new diseases.  I did not get the sense that these penguins were thriving.

Rockhopper Penguin that Approached Me to Give Me a Message

Rockhopper Penguin that Approached Me to Give Me a Message

As I was walking back down from the rockhopper colony, I suddenly came upon this lone rockhopper in front of me.  I only made this one image when I first saw him and then I dropped straight to my knees.  I didn't want to frighten him.  The way he cocked his head and looked at me in a simultaneously inquisitive and beseeching manner made me think he had something to tell me.  For about 10 minutes he stared at me, inching closer and closer ever second as we locked eyes.  I felt like he was asking me why conditions had gotten so bad. Of course to my eyes, it didn't look that bad, as the water was far cleaner than I have ever seen it anywhere, but it is undoubtedly warmer and this must be having a detrimental affect on their population and health. I kept whispering I am sorry and what are you trying to tell me.  He came closer and closer and almost climbed into my lap and then our guide said we had to go.  In some ways this was the highlight of my whole trip.  I was so touched that the penguin trusted me so much and wanted to merge with me, but at the same time I felt he was asking for my help in something and that it was a great responsibility and I could not let him down.

Gentoo Strolling with a Crab

Gentoo Strolling with a Crab

As I was on my way back to the ship, this Gentoo came walking right in front of me carrying a crab it was about to eat.  He as so focused I just paused and let him go buy.  Even in remote areas like this, where there are not many visitors at all, people can disturb their behaviors and create stress which I did not want to do given the stressors they are already under due to climate change, pollution, ocean acidification, fisheries, etc.

Gentoos by the Sea

Gentoos by the Sea

Before I boarded the zodiac, I communed with the gentoos on the beach one last time.  I was truly sad to leave these remarkable creatures and will return again, hopefully for longer, to learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

Striated Caracara

Striated Caracara

The caracara is a near threatened bird that is more common on the Falklands than in other parts of the Magellanes.  They are very curious birds and did not appear frightened of people at all.  

Giant Storm Petrel

Giant Storm Petrel

After we left Saunders Island and continued on our way through the Falklands and out to sea, I photographed Giant Storm Petrels for fun.  These birds have interesting tubular beaks. I could sense this one on track to fly right by the ship, so I waited for its body to come into alignment with the hill behind before I clicked the shutter.

Trio of Petrels

Trio of Petrels

Stormy Seas, The Falklands

Stormy Seas, The Falklands

When I saw all these waves pick up, beautiful as it was, I was relieved that the kayak portion of our trip would not be offered util we crossed the ocean and reached Patagonia.  Our leaders could read the waves and the spray and determine when conditions were safe enough.  I wondered if they ever were in the Falklands, except for very close to shore.