Magazine article International Wildlife

Birds with an Attitude

Magazine article International Wildlife

Birds with an Attitude

Article excerpt

Spunky rockhopper penguins relish a good challenge

Some penguins are sensible when it comes to choosing landing sites on the Falkland Islands. The king, Magellanic and gentoo penguins choose flat sandy beaches where they can waddle safely ashore, preen and rest before heading inland for their breeding colonies or burrows. The spunky little rockhopper penguins, however, prefer to land the hard way. They choose rocky shores with pounding surf, and scramble up the steep slopes to breeding colonies on high cliffs. "I have seen them battling to land," writes Falkland Islands author-naturalist-artist Tony Chater, "in terrible gales when the sea is blanched with boiling surf and massive waves send sheets of spray 100 metres [330 ft.] into the air." I first watched these seemingly suicidal landings on the Falklands' small Sea Lion Island, which has a sheer-cliffed east coast exposed to the full power of the subantarctic sea. Great waves roll in from the sea and shatter against the cliff, a mix too frothy for penguin-loving predators such as sea lions. As each wave recedes, a dozen birds cling to the wave-polished rock with strong beaks and long, sharp claws, then struggle upwards with narrow, flailing, hard-edged wings. A few make it up the cliff before the next wave crashes against the birds clinging to the rock and sweeps most of them out to sea. Unfazed, the rockhoppers ride in on another wave, torpedo through the wild water and rush towards the rock wall for another try. No human could survive even a few minutes in that raging sea nor claw up that steep slope, but the rockhoppers do it routinely. They rush up the slope, rest, preen, argue with neighbors, then hop jauntily to their clifftop colony to greet mates and feed chicks--just another day in the life of the rockhopper penguin. The rockhopper is the smallest and most widespread of the six species of crested penguins. Rockhoppers are seafarers for seven months a year, fishing for squid and krill in the circumpolar upwelling of food-rich water known as the Antarctic Convergence. Then, from October through February, they come ashore to breed on islands in and around the convergence. The Falklands, about 600 kilometers (360 mi.) east of southern Argentina, are the rockhoppers' most important breeding location. Here the penguins gather in dense colonies at some 35 sites, many of which have been used for thousands of years. Until recently an estimated five million rockhoppers lived on the Falkland Islands. In 1965, when naturalist Ian Strange first visited BeauchEne, southernmost and most isolated of the Falklands, he calculated that more than three and a half million rockhoppers inhabited its immense rookery. Millions more lived on other subantarctic islands, but now their numbers are tragically diminished because of competition with commercial fisheries (see box, page 48). Rockhoppers are dapper, energetic birds, but also rough, tough and quarrelsome. A large colony is in constant argument and commotion, and its reek and roar are overwhelming. Arthur Cobb, a Falkland Islands farmer, once described the sound of massed rockhoppers being "as if thousands of wheelbarrows, all badly in need of greasing, are being pushed at full speed." Small, elegant penguins, rockhoppers stand about 30 centimeters (1 ft.) tall and weigh about 2.3 kilograms (5 lbs.). A rockhopper's head, chin and back are glossy bluish black, its chest and belly pure white. The strong bill is reddish brown, the powerful, sharp-nailed feet fleshy pink, the foot soles black, the eyes a vivid geranium red. Above each eye is a brilliant yellow stripe flowing backwards into long golden tassels. In addition, rockhoppers have shiny black feather crests that they can raise when agitated, which is often. As their name implies, rockhoppers are bouncy birds. They can rocket nearly a meter (3 ft.) out of the water onto land and jump their own height forward and upward with each bound, legs together, like children in a sack race. …

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