World Penguin Day, celebrated the end of April, brought memories of a favorite bird. Years ago, my wife and I visited a colony of Magellanic Penguins (Sphenicus magellanicus) at Cabo Vírgenes (Cape of the Virgins) in Argentina, where the Atlantic Ocean enters the Strait of Magellan. The cape is the southernmost tip of continental South America. Magellan named this point in 1520 when he found the strait that bears his name. His sailors were the first Europeans to see these penguins, so they too are named for him. Since we were living in Bolivia, it was convenient to visit Argentina. The Argentine airline offered a 30-day pass for $125 that let you visit anywhere in the country. So, we bought two passes and headed for Tierra del Fuego (Ushuaia) and then up to Río Gallegos. A penguin colony was nearby, and we wanted to visit it.
We contracted a local tour company for the trip to the colony. This was before credit card days, so we carried traveler’s checks, always as good as cash. However, the company wouldn’t accept them, but happily received a personal check instead!
We left early, and after travelling across the barren Patagonian pampa for well over an hour, I asked when we would arrive because we thought that the colony was only a few minutes from town. “Oh,” our driver replied, “I decided to take you to another colony, a bigger one.”
It was big. There were thousands of Magellanic Penguins running on the beach and jumping into the water or roaming among the low vegetation. Many were nesting. The partners are lifelong and nesting sites, shallow burrows, are reused. When mating season arrives, the male returns to the couple’s burrow and awaits his mate. The pair share incubating their two eggs, and won’t leave the nest, making them easy prey for predators, including humans. Sadly, the area was littered with penguin carcasses. Our guide explained that locals used the penguins for target practice. The carnage was appalling. Back then the colony had no protection, but fortunately, today it is rigorously protected by the Argentine government.
Since then I’ve seen Humboldts (S. humboldti) off the coast of southern Peru; more Magellanics in the Beagle Channel of Cape Horn; and the Galapagos Penguin (S. mendiculus), the only penguin that lives north of the equator. My wife Janet saw the African Penguin or Jackass Penguin (S. demersus) when she visited South Africa several years ago. Yes, she says, they do bray like a donkey!
Penguins have been around for about 63 million years. Especially important fossils have been discovered in New Zealand and Peru. Some of these were giants, standing a meter-and-a-half tall and weighing 100 kilograms! Through millennia penguins adapted to cold water, even icy, conditions. Unfortunately, this makes them especially vulnerable to climate change as ocean warming affects fish, squid, and other marine life that are their only food sources. Since they forge as far as 50 kilometers from shore–George Gaylord Simpson insists that penguins really fly in the water– and dive to 40 meters in search of food, ocean conditions are key to their survival. For the Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri), global warming means melting the only ice-shelf they live on. Several species are in peril and are Red Listed as threatened or endangered.
Penguins are marvelous birds. There are 15 more species than I’ve seen or probably ever will see. That’s okay. Memories of the Cape of the Virgins are more than satisfactory!
A note from Kay Hawklee;
How has COVID affected your life as a birder? Please share with us your story of how you used the time of social distancing to increase your love of birds. Has it been a time to increase your knowledge and “take comfort in an activity you love?” You might have found that birding alone offers a distinct kind of pleasure? You might share a story while birding, a new birding spot or a simple wish for well-being. We want to open up the lines of communication since we can’t be together. Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org