The Falklands Again; Gentoo Penguins

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A few months ago I started to describe the Falkland Islands and said there would be more, finally I’m getting around to it. I’m sure that you are relieved to have the long wait for Chapter Two finally end. Phew. 

 The Falklands are mostly barren, windswept, treeless, gray and stormy, full of birds and surrounded by oceans full of marine life. They are alone at sea; about 300 miles east of Argentina’s Patagonia and 750 miles north of Antarctica. There are less than 4000 people living out there. There are few roads and roadhouses. There are two main islands populated generally by British-heritage people. It is still argued by the British and the Argentinians as to who should own and manage the islands. The islands proximity to Argentina carries modest weight, but as the founders were British explorers and settlers they exert the greatest influence and control. Actually the British ceded the islands to Spain in 1774 but resettled them in 1833. The islands are a British overseas territory  even after a bit of a skirmish in the late 20th century (1982) and much discussion over the decades.

Overall they are a great destination for a nature-oriented traveler.

They also have that mix of colonial, military, and economic history (by 1900 there were thousands of feral cattle and an equal or greater number of sheep, wandering the islands) that drove all of the exploration and knowledge of the 19th century and has lingered into the 20th and now the 21st century. Many of the islands are the sort of uninhabited and windswept islands of movies and documentaries. The heathland vegetation is mixed with native Tussac Grass (a Poa) and a few short woody shrubs and trees only where people have planted them; safely tucked into a ravine or valley. There are no native trees. There is nothing of the South American plant diversity out on these islands. They split from Africa (not South America) some millions of years before the last ice age. The rock that underlays much of the Falkland seascape are the same as those found in southern Africa. The underlying rock is about a billion years old but the chunks that have become the Falkland Islands were attached to Gondwana until about 300 million years ago.

Sorry, this is supposed to be about Gentoo Penguins; but the earth is what it is because of what it was. Geology sets the rules, or at least supports the rules for, everything else.

Like many of the penguins Gentoo penguins hang around the shore line. Seemingly they wait to greet returning cohorts and reaffirm friendships with other penguins coming and going from the sea. This is a rather widespread behavior among this group of birds, penguins in general that is. In New Zealand the Yellow-eyed Penguins do the same thing in a most raucous and touching way.
The Gentoo group will build a nest in a colonial nesting area between Tussac grasses or in open areas if need be. They actually build a nest, of stone and shell that can be up to 8 inches in height. In order to find the best habitat, they prefer the grassier areas, they will sometimes walk inland as much as two miles before starting the colony. The colony will have to relocate after a few years as the grasses will be trodden into the mud and droppings after a while.
A new and developing nesting colony is a romantic idyllic treat to behold, and older colony with near-grown chicks will have become unbelievably muddy and smelly- visit early in the season.
The Gentoo Penguins lift their head and lean back a bit when calling; a braying sort of noise. The male will call most anywhere but, in and near the nesting colony seems to be the noisiest place. The males make the most noise. Sometimes when on the beach, especially if the nesting area is close to the shore, they will collect stones to be incorporated in the nest. Otherwise they collect stones wherever they can find them and deliver them with style and display to the female at the nest – or they steal them from another nest.
The underside of most penguin wings is rich in capillary blood vessels and often appeared pink. The birds are so well insulated and protected from the cold that they can overheat quite easily when walking about. The posture assumed when walking; wings out and back, is not so much for balance as it is to help the bird lose some of the building body heat from the exertion. Exertion in cold water is fine; as a matter of fact Gentoo Penguins can swim up  to 22 miles per hour, the fastest of all penguins. The feathers are short and curled making a felt-like nap, that creates an air space between the flesh and the water. This layer of air is what keeps them warm and prohibits water from actually touching the skin. They have downy “plumules” (special feathers) that are very densely arranged and help keep water off and the layer of air in. The feathers are individually small but when looked at closely appear feather-like not hairlike. The feathers do grow in a hairy pattern however; that is they layer over the entire body as fur does. Most birds have feathers that grow in tracts and then spread out to cover the bare skin in between the tracts.
On the beach, or near the colony, male Gentoo Penguins can hardly stop collecting things and walking about showing off. The shells and sea weed of the beach are not anywhere near as valuable as stones are for a nesting female – but they collect and carry most everything they can no matter where they are. The nest is mostly stones and stones are the currency in a penguin colony. As a matter of fact stealing stones from unguarded nests is the cause of most colony mayhem. The presenting of a rather special (whatever that means to a female) stone to a female often opens the door to a physical moment for the two birds. Just carrying stuff around draws attention to a male.

The Gentoo eats mostly crustaceans that they forage from the clouds of krill found in the cold ocean water. However those Gentoo near the Falklands eat about one-third squat lobster, one-third squid, and one-third small forage fish. Squat lobsters are actually an abundant bottom-dwelling crab of the cold waters. It is sometimes harvested for human consumption and sold as “langostino”. In many places and in many restaurants the Squat Lobster is on the menu simply as lobster. 

 

There will be a few more Falkland pages posted in the very near future. I have them about ready for Rockhopper and King Penguins, marine mammals, sea birds, black-browed albatross, and lastly one on other birds of the islands.

At some point I’ll post a page of older blog pages so you can search backward for posts on the natural history and eco-tourism opportunities of and for; Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos, and both North and South America.

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