Thursday, March 1, 2018

Remembering Patagonian penguins - an antidote to relentless bad news

Soon after we returned from a December-January trip to Chile and Argentina, I determined to write one blog post a week until I ran out of material. I managed three posts before I ran out of computer. My 2012 MacBook Pro was choking and gasping, taking forever to do anything. The spinning ball of death, black screens, refusal to sync with its Apple friends. Bad computer! I finally took it in for a checkup. It was in the shop for several days undergoing various murky but productive procedures. It's back! I'm saved from having to replace it for awhile. Now let's see how I do with one post a week. Thanks for reading! 

Love birds. Penguins mate for life.

I was chopping peppers and onions, listening to All Things Considered on NPR. It was dinnertime, just one day after the Florida high school  massacre, which was top news along with the DACA deportation threat. 

Kids shot dead. Kids raised in the USA facing deportation. It made me sad, angry, dyspeptic. I needed an antidote, something pure and pleasant to think about. 

A Magellanic penguin party on the path to a beach near Puerto Madryn, Argentina.
Penguins came to mind. And seagulls. Penguins and gulls on an island in the Strait of Magellan in Chile. Yes. The same Strait of Magellan that we learned about in elementary school when we were forced to memorize names of early explorers. Who cared? Not me. But now I do. It's the penguin effect.

On Chile's Isla Magdalena, thousands of penguins tended burrows and chicks on a windswept hillside with an ocean view. Penguins and their predators — seagulls, skua, petrals, and, in the sea not far away, hungry sea lions and maybe Orcas and leopard seals, waiting for a penguin snack. 

         About 100,000 penguins occupy the island during breeding time, a space 
they share uneasily with thousands of breeding seagulls.
Over the onions, I remembered that crisp morning in Patagonia, how we'd reluctantly agreed to a two-hour ferry ride to Isla Magdalena (and two hours back) to see penguins. Ho hum. (We'd visited another less dramatic but still engaging colony out of Puerto Madryn, Argentina a few days earlier.)

Then how within a few minutes of stepping off the boat, we were open-mouthed, wide-eyed witnesses to raw nature. Wild screeching and flapping, frenzied feeding, squabbles and fights to the death, tender parental care, necessary but cruel parental choices. Beautiful and 

A skua looks for unguarded chicks and/or eggs amongst the gulls. They eat primarily fish or krill, but are opportunistic in chick-rearing areas. 

It wasn't just thousands of penguins, but thousands of seagulls. Yes, those boring birds we see everywhere when we're not far from a large body of water.  They're so common and predictable, always snatching scraps and marauding around docks where fish are cleaned or loaded. But this was different. 

The penguins were raising young, but so were the gulls. The two species share space but  are not cooperative. The gulls are always grousing one another, and some hang out by penguin burrows hoping to snag spills when a parent comes to regurgitate food for chicks. Earlier, when the penguin chicks are smaller, the gulls eat them, if they can.

This solo mama accompanies her vulnerable chick. A skua might have it's eye on it. Or even another gull. Some gulls in the breeding season live almost entirely on the eggs and young of their own species, usually males with no young of their own. (Source: Birdforum) Egads! No wonder they fight.

These gulls are aggressive and loud. They're fighting. I'm guessing all males. Although there could be a female protecting her chick in this pile. We saw adult gull carcasses here and there, but we couldn't stick around long enough to see the results of this brawl. I wish I had the soundtrack. Ear piercing.

It may look as if this gull is landing in -  or leaving - a peaceful gathering, but the next minute the situation devolved into a fight. See previous photo.

The whole fam-damnly. Father guarding against gulls and anything else that may invade space around the burrow. The chicks look old enough to fend for themselves, but without waterproof insulating adult plumage, they'd die of hypothermia if they entered the sea to forage. Father is making a might noise. 

These well-fed healthy chicks apparently have two active parents. It looks like dad is in the nest while mom is taking her turn foraging in the ocean. 
In contrast, at least one of the parents of these chicks has come to a bad end, and they may be awaiting food that will never come. The chick on the right is on its last legs for sure, and the other, although twice as large, looks stressed. It was hard to see. Sometimes when one parent dies, the remaining parent chooses to feed only the stronger chick. If both parents perish, the chicks starve to death.

A Magellan goose, AKA upland goose, tries to hide her chick from an overwhelming,
in my opinion, number of predators. All those gulls!

This guy waddled right up to me, then I was chastened by a ranger for
 being too close. Getting to the beach was a mile-long hike on a wide
trail through a brushy area thick with penguin burrows under bushes. This

was in Argentina during our first penguin colony visit.

An adult penguin contemplates its cloaca, an all-purpose orifice
that handles urination, defecation, breeding, and birth. 

A penguin parent apparently reacting to heat. It was a sunny shirtsleeve day at the Argentinian penguin reserve. Several birds seemed affected by it. 

Earlier posts about our South American travels

Around Cape Horn - Happy 2018!
Ushuaia, Patagonian peat moss, and a polar plunge
Patagonian Paradox - the more you see, the more you want


  1. Mary, all so interesting and a break from the 24 hour news cycle and then you realize that there is beauty and tragedy everywhere.

  2. Thanks, Cel. What a wonderful comment. There is beauty and tragedy everywhere. Yes indeed.