Parental Proximity (More Penguins)

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This is one of my favorite photos from our recent trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. Surprisingly, it was taken just feet from one of the only inhabited structures we saw on the continent, at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island (part of the Palmer Archipelago). It’s a British research base, or it used to be- now it’s mostly a museum and a place to send postcards, from the most southern post office in the world! The little museum is in one of the original buildings, along with the little gift shop and mailbox, and a more recent addition houses the few people who summer at the base and run the island’s buildings and projects, which take up half of the island. The other half is reserved for the gentoo penguins, who have arrived since the base was originally constructed in 1944 and are slowly and surely overwhelming the area ostensibly overrun by humans.

Pink penguin guano, filled with the exoskeletons of unfortunate krill, coated almost every surface (penguins are projectile poopers- the excrement goes up a lot higher than you might expect from flightless birds). The sides of the path from our landing site to the buildings were barely five feet away from gentoo nests, which seemed to bother the humans a lot more than it bothered the penguins. It was overwhelming- by that point in our trip, we’d seen a lot of penguins. But… penguins! Meanwhile, this fascinating little museum filled with half-century old expedition rations, notebooks, maps, radios, record players, and creepy audio reconstructions waited just beyond the adorable-birdie gauntlet. And we had something like forty minutes to experience all of it.

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p.s. here is the main museum/gift shop building. I like that the color scheme matches the gentoo penguins so well.

I blame Dad for my lack of photos of the island- he left me to write postcards to all of our various family members (anyone whose address I had in my phone). But I can’t really actually muster up any righteousness about it. He had so much fun checking out all the weird leftovers from the age of brutally beardy science-men of the Antarctic… and while my freezing fingers wrote too slowly for me to get back outside for long, our delay kept us in the building just long enough to catch the penguin parent above returning from its foraging trip. From the rocky path, we watched the parents greet one another with bows and beak touches before orchestrating their careful swap in position, moving simultaneously so that the two chicks in the nest would be unprotected and uncovered for as few seconds as possible. Chicks safely covered once more, the relieved parent headed for the water and the returned parent settled on the pile of rocks and guano and roly-poly babies. As the rest of our group headed to the zodiaks and the ship, we lingered for a gross but awesome feeding (the parent barfs up some portion of whatever he or she has consumed while out foraging straight into the mouths of the hungry young) and finally, this picture-perfect family photo.

Leaning on my dad on our way back to the Orion, I did tease him about making me write all of our postcards… but he reminded me of all the times that, like that penguin dad (or mom), he’d (not as graphically) brought home food for me and my siblings. He never barfed up food for his offspring, but he is pretty great as a human father.

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Precocious Penguins

Gentoo penguin with a rock.  Don't interrupt; he is VERY BUSY.

Gentoo penguin with a rock. Don’t interrupt; she is VERY BUSY.

I watched this penguin for half an hour, and have maybe a hundred photos of the busy bird (who I have named Sylvia). It’s very unclear if it is a male or female bird- I don’t think I could have been sure without some very invasive inspection or watching her lay an egg. (It’s hard to tell penguin sexes from the outside: they all wear tuxedos, which is their right as self-determining individuals freed from the constraints of a societally imposed gender binary.) But anyways, “she” was very industriously stealing all the rocks she could from penguin parents snoozing unaware on their eggs or chicks, sometimes sneaking away with beak clamped on a pebble and sometimes dodging snapping beaks with a squawk of protest. Moving with purpose (don’t get in her way) she carefully brought each stolen stone up a short slope to a precariously balanced pile, but when she added the new stone to the little heap, inevitably three would fall, rolling away down the rocky hill. With endless patience Sylvia would ferry each stone back up to the “nest.”

I guess by now most people are aware of penguin nesting behavior. A lot of courtship behavior for some species of penguins, gentoos and chinstraps included, involves a (probable) male presenting a (probable) female with a rock or a pile of rocks. This will be the basis for a nest, on which the parents will take turns brooding the eggs and eventual chicks while the other feeds at sea and returns with food for the young. However, gentoo penguins don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re two years old, leaving them a year in which to either stay at sea and grow or, more hilariously, return to the rookeries and confuse the older and younger birds.

Apparently young birds just do this sometimes, participate in the ritual of nest-building, act out their future nesting, with no actual mate or reproductive potential. It’s almost like kids and baby dolls, or… prom… or something. Next year, if she makes it through, Sylvia will return to this same beach and maybe even the same nesting site, find a partner, and start collecting pebbles all over again. How sweet.

Sylvia and I aren’t what you would call friends, though. I’m more like her creepy stalker. We did make some good friends on the boat! At this point in the trip, I’d started hanging around the naturalists as much as I could, collecting penguin facts and whale identifications along with career advice (do stuff!). We’d also had some very fun dinner conversations- a retired surgeon who traveled the world as a military doctor in his youth, a pair of business school professors with a talent for snarky humor and secret kindness, a high-powered business executive and her actor/director husband- and the dining room was starting to be as noisy as the colonies as each evening jokes were told and stories recounted. The Lindblad trips, with their partnership with National Geographic, attracted a really wonderful group of smart and motivated people, all of whom had life stories much longer and more interesting than mine. But that’s why I travel, and that’s why I love to learn! Someday I too will be interesting enough to listen to for hours at a time, whether it’s recounting whale facts or stories of my adventures as a Science Educator who changed the world. In the meantime, me and Sylvia will just keep building our little piles of rocks, piece by piece, and chasing after the bits that get away.

Rock on, little penguin.

Best Looking Birds

As we chatted with the tour operator at Yardie Creek, a group of elderly travelers disembarked around us. Wives helped husbands with canes out of the low seats, and their cheery organizer/guide asked for a vote on whether or not to walk up the trail a bit (it seemed like nobody was that enthused). One khaki-clad man, seemingly alone, paused as he passed us three Team Sousa members.

“Best-looking birds I’ve seen all trip,” he grumbled in our general direction before stomping up the few steps to the dock.

My first (innocent) thought: I wonder where they’ve been, and if they’re all on a bird-watching trip?

My second thought: …gross.

Crusty old Australians aside, Yardie Creek (Yardi means “creek” in one of the many Aboriginal languages of Australia, so really all of us immigrants and tourists are referring to the briny tidal waters as the “creek creek”) did in fact host some lovely birds. Ospreys seem to be a theme around here:

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It feels like everywhere we go, someone points out an osprey nest to us. Doesn’t make them less awesome, though- this one has reportedly been occupied nearly continuously for 80 years at least. It may not always have contained chicks, but the past few years have been productive for local ospreys, evidenced by the juveniles and new nests we’ve seen around the area. They’re very fun to watch from the boat, as they dive for fish and flap, low and slow above the waves, with their struggling prizes.

Corellas, with their cockatoo head plumes and raucous screeches, followed us from the trees of Exmouth to the cliffs of Yardie and the Cape Range. They’re not the only things sheltering in the little caves worn into the rock faces (more on their other occupants in a later post), but they certainly make an impression. They flash white feathers over ledges and splay their wingtips to impress their companions and warn away hovering birds of prey, and peer down at the boat below with heads cocked.

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A kestrel of some kind, with a tiny bit of snake in her mouth, landed just shy of these two youngsters who were tucked away in an overhang. They shuffled out to peer at us as we peered at them, wide-eyed and wobbly.

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Among the other lovely long-legged locals, this white-faced heron gave us a good show. Best-looking birds, indeed, random old guy. Best-looking birds, indeed.

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