Blue-Eyed Babies

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The blue-eyed shag aren’t graceful, like albatrosses, or as cute as penguins. But these birds (Phalacrocorax atriceps) are excellent at catching fish, and as attentive parents as a baby cormorant could hope for. One of the coolest things about the nesting colonies we visited on the Antarctic Peninsula was that the birds were at all different stages of breeding: some were recently arrived, constructing nests from seaweed, grass, mud, poop, and feathers; some sat on small clusters of eggs; some guarded their new-hatched fuzzy babies from skuas; some watched as their gigantic young flapped their ungainly wings, preparing for the day they’d take to the skies.

In colonies, the shags aren’t as aggressive as the penguins- we watched the nearby gentoos pull tail feathers, smack each other with wings, steal rocks, and scream full-throated into each others’ faces- but seemed more widely-spaced, and more likely to build a bit apart from one another. The shag in the photo above had claimed the top of that rock and apparently all the space around it, risking predation from the skies but earning a bit of piece and quiet, or as much as a parent could reasonably expect while sitting on two giant squawking babies. As it waited for its partner to return with a belly full of fish (they can dive over a hundred meters deep to catch their prey), this parent contemplated the bustle of the penguin colony and the comparable awkward waddle of the orange-coated humans onshore.

They’ve struck an interesting balance between the aquatic optimization of the penguins and the aerial competency of more typical birds. They take off with difficulty, especially when laden with full bellies, and land in an ungainly jumble of feathers and webbed feet, but beat their wings powerfully through the air once airborne, and dive like black-fletched arrows from sky to sea to catch their prey. From their perches on the rocks, the young shags watch their parents and, presumably, dream of leaving their awkward adolescence for the slightly less awkward, occasionally glorious life of a grown-up. I can relate to that.

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Squawk and Bray

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A penguin colony is an overwhelming place. Sights, sounds, and smells abound, even from hundreds of feet away. The visual of thousands of nesting penguins all piled on the bare rocks is an impressive one, all black and white and pink from beaks and feet and krill-laden poop. The sound is even more aggressive: gentoos sound like donkeys braying when they reach their chests and beaks to the sky, and the lower-level muttering, squawking, and occasional hissing of aggression and defense amongst closely-packed penguin nests. And the smell… a combination of fish and a sort of sweaty salty odors, it clings to your clothes for days (forever? I haven’t found out yet when it goes entirely away…) and drifts down the rocky beaches until the sights and sounds fade away.

Our trip first took us to the Antarctic Peninsula; this photo was taken on Cuverville Island, which lies at 64°41′S 62°38′W. It is, according to Wikipedia, a “dark, rocky island lying in Errera Channel between Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Rongé Island, off the west coast of Graham Land in Antarctica.” It’s also home to the largest gentoo colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, composed of over 6500 pairs of breeding birds. Double that number and account for chicks and juvenile birds, and you’ve got well over 15,000 penguins. They were everywhere. As IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) members, our expedition was logically and rightfully required to approach no closer than 15 feet to nests and the penguins themselves… but it was nearly impossible to keep said penguins from approaching us.

There was nowhere to stand on the beach that wasn’t covered in penguin poop, traversed by busy birds moving to and from the water, or covered in penguins resting on their bellies (or all three at once!). As we stood in the clearest areas, they would pile up behind us like we were blocking a freeway, cocking their heads and craning their necks to see what the holdup was. When we moved out of their way, they would parade on past, wings held out behind them and stomping their feet like they were huffily making up for lost time. It was impossible, in some places, to stop and take a photo without feeling like we were totally in the way of penguin parents, who clearly had enough on their minds thank you very much, and just wanted to finish their commute and get home to the kids to put dinner on the table. Rush hour on the 101, for sure. If we successfully found a spot to sit and wait, though, we were well-rewarded. There could never be a boring moment on the island, sensory stimulation aplenty… and always the possibility that behind you something even more incredible was waiting to happen.