The world’s northernmost colony of king penguins has something to celebrate this week, as Tuesday marks Penguin Awareness Day and these well dressed seabirds play host to an international group of scientists gathered to discuss the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas)’s rich potential for new research.
To welcome their guests, including National Geographic grantees Scott Baker and Steve Campana, the birds went wild with squawking, flapping, yodeling, and even sizeable hops that could almost pass for flying. (OK, as wild animals, they do all these things regardless of the presence of any humans.)
Hailing from countries up and down the Americas, these experts in life on land and sea, geology, oceanography, and information systems are taking part in the Falkland Islands Science Symposium, investigating opportunities for collaboration between themselves, the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), and other groups in the region.
Before the talks began though, the delegates piled into Land Rovers and headed out from the main town of Stanley up to Volunteer Point, to see the penguins.
That About Penguins of Which You Should Be Aware
The Falkland Islands are home to breeding colonies of five species of penguin. At our destination, there were three: king, gentoo, and Magellanic.
The Magellanic couples would leave one parent with the chicks in a small burrow dug into the sand on the beach, while the other headed for the waves to pick up some fish. Upon returning, the adults would sing out in unison a song that sounded like a kid blowing on a New Year’s noisemaker. Then they’d pause, maybe dip their heads, and start up with verse two.
This strange sound leads some to call them “jackass penguins,” though that is a term specifically for a similar but distinct African species. One noticeable difference: African penguins have one black stripe on their necks, Magellanics have two (as seen in the figure at right).
The kings mostly stood around like royalty. They are slightly smaller than their imperial cousins, but they have larger patches of golden feathers on their heads and necks, which contrast nicely against their blue-steel colored coats, giving them an elegant appearance among the rest of the black and white suits.
While small groups of kings waddled back and forth to the water or off to find a place to chill out far from the crowd, hundreds of individuals sat huddled in a mass on a dirt section by the hills, cradling eggs on their feet and squawking at any wanderer who passed by putting itself on display. Varying states of molting made some young kings appear to have elaborate or particularly Mr. T-like hairdos.
The most entertaining of all though were the gentoo penguins. Their young were still covered in down and looked like plush dolls positioned on the hills to ensure that visitors develop an irrepressible desire to buy penguin souvenirs. Their bright white eyebrows and orange-sherbert feet don’t hurt either.
They also put on the best show. Those gentoo parents returning from the sea to healthy, growing chicks were instantly bombarded by a flurry of flapping and screaming. Once they’d bent down their heads, opened wide, and regurgitated fish into the gaping mouths of their offspring, they would try to wrap up and move along. The chicks would chase them down till they relented and served up seconds of the day’s catch.
This repeating cycle meant that at any given moment, you could see several hilarious games of tag being carried out over the hills.
After a few hours of observations of the penguins, the team headed back to town, where locals knew well that Penguin Awareness Day was on the horizon (yes, they really did). An appreciation of the penguins’ cuteness was fairly unanimous, as was respect for the adaptability of these seabirds.
On island groups like this, diversity and adaptability are useful for penguins, farmers, and scientists alike. As researchers develop ideas for new projects and collaboration at the #FalklandSci symposium, a good appreciation of the virtues of penguinhood could help guide them to success.
More for Penguin Awareness Day