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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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.