The Falklands; Gentoo Penguins

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Penguins are represented by 17 species and there are nearly 40 species that are represented by fossils. The evolved from a small tough flying birds that could fly underwater as well. Probably a bit like modern auks like our northern hemisphere Razorbills (RAZO) or murres (Common and Thick-billed). Of the extinct penguins there were at least fourteen that were from New Zealand. New Zealand was historically a bird place – all birds essentially no mammals; certainly none that interacted with the birds.

I’m going to approach The Falklands through the penguins and other specialized bird groups. There are lots of penguins on these islands; penguins from 5 different species with over a million individuals reside here. There are Macaroni, King, Gentoo, Rockhopper, and Magellanic penguins on this lonely rather barren array of islands. Over the next few pages I will present albatrosses, marine mammals, sea birds, as well as the Rockhopper and King Penguins in addition to this page featuring Gentoo Penguins.

Just a brief bit on these islands – yes this is like the last Falklands post but only a short review. The British and Argentinians lay claim to these islands. Britain has wrested complete control through force and population. There its one town, rather birdless, called Stanley where about two-thirds of the 3,400 human residents live. The resident British folks were subsidized by the government (and may still be) as an enticement for staying out there 400 miles east of Patagonia on a small treeless windswept island keeping a British population and presence well away from London. There are two main islands that make up most of the 4700 square mile area – but there are also about 775 small islands and rocky islets upon which birds nest – sheep graze on a few. Boat access is difficult because of the rough seas and the lack of landing places and also there is little reason to go from island to island. 4700 square miles is about 85% the size of Connecticut or Puerto Rico.

There are three related small penguins known as the brush-tailed penguins. they are the Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap. These are birds of the Antarctic land mass for the most part but there are breeding colonies well north (most everything is north of Antarctica isn’t it) of the frozen continent. The Gentoo is the third largest penguin after King and Emperor. It is a medium-sized sort with a pair of white earmuff-shaped patches behind and above the eye. The bill is bright red in breeding adults.

Gentoo Penguins are very social. Breeding is in colonies and pairs are monogamous at least during the breeding season. Most individuals will stay near the nest site throughout the year. Those that live near the Falklands eat mostly forage fish and those closer to Antarctica eat moistly krill and small aquatic crustaceans. They can dive and swim to depths greater than 300 feet. Many of the beaches in the Falklands were strewn with land mines in the Argentinian skirmish; land mines that are still present and unexploded. Humans would explode them but the penguins weigh between 9 and 19 pounds and do not explode the mines. Thus they have no human challenge for beach use.
It is no surprise that penguins hang out near the ocean; they live off the oceans largesse and can swim like a feathered dolphin. The Gentoo Penguins wander the beaches and seem to enjoy the company of other Gentoos. The nesting colony can be quite distant from the water’s edge and the birds often create a new path each year to reach the colony. The supposition is that there are parasites surviving along the older paths and the birds avoid them by taking a new route to the colony.
The males are full of themselves. They strut and bray even when no one may be looking or listening. This is a rather widespread avian behavior. Females choose mates based on their perceived ability to provide and protect. Thus males strut and females evaluate.
Sound familiar?
The males are endlessly trying to impress the ladies. The pairs will use pebbles, feathers, albatross bones, and stones to create a nest. While on the beach the males will strut about with shells and sea weed advertising their proficiency and skill at collecting nesting material. Once paired, and established in a nesting colony, they will take turns incubating the two eggs for about 35 day. From hatching it is another 4-5 weeks until the youngsters waddle into peer group creches and hang out together for several more weeks. The birds near the Falklands won’t fledge until the are about 12-15 weeks old. The Antarctic born birds are fledged earlier by a few weeks. They can breed when two years old.

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