Tuesday, July 24, 2007

My Penguin Summer

"What a summer it was! Penguins were everywhere-riding the waves, tending their nests, and patrolling the shore."

I get my best photos while at eye-level with my subjects, such as the gentoo penguins at left. They mostly minded their own business and ignored me. Sometimes they even tripped over my legs.

What could be more peaceful than a stroll along the beach? King penguins often move in an orderly line (below). That would make any teacher proud!

There I was-just me and the penguins. You must be thinking, Where's the snow? Where's the ice?

* It's true that some penguins live in Antarctica, where it's always snowy and icy. But many penguins rarely, if ever, see the white stuff. That's why I wanted to take pictures that show penguins not on snow and ice.

* My choice of places was the Falkland Islands, located off the southern tip of South America (see map on page 8). That's way below the equator. There the seasons are the opposite of those where I live, in Germany. So, for me, Christmas and the New Year come in wintertime. But I spent these holidays down there, where it was summer breeding season for penguins.

* During my five-week stay, I got to know four different species of penguins. Let me introduce them to you.

How do you like my campsite? I stored everything-camera equipment, clothes, cooking stuff-under this sheltering rock.

"Turns out, my nearest neighbors were a family of magellanic penguins."

After landing on this tiny, windswept island, I was dropped off with all my gear at my new home-away-from-home.

* I set up my tent near a colony of magellanic (maj-uh-LAN-ik) penguins. They're the ones with the double bands of black on their fronts. I soon discovered that one pair was nesting in a hole only about six feet (2 m) away. I worried that I might disturb them. But the birds just gave me a funny look and then went back to their business.

* Because I was a huge penguin fan, I thought to myself: How wonderful! But later, while trying to sleep in the tent, I thought: How noisy! These penguins spent nearly the whole night hollering at each other. They sounded just like a bunch of braying donkeys.


Falkland Islands

That's my next-door neighbor below, heading to its nesting burrow. One day, I saw a chick poke its head out of the burrow (left).

"For me, the little rockhopper penguins with their wild 'hairdos' were the most fun to watch."

Yes, it's true: Rockhoppers really do hop on rocks. No chunks of ice here.

More rockhopper penguins breed in the Falklands than anywhere else. They're the smallest penguins on the island, standing less than two feet (55 cm) tall. And they're the ones that made me laugh the most.

* Their spiky crests make them look like punk rockers. But that's not the only thing about them that cracked me up. I got a kick out of watching them on the go, too.

* For one thing, rockhoppers are never alone, and they're always in a hurry. When it's time to go fishing, they all dash down to the beach and dive in. Then, on the return trip, they pop out of the waves and sprint across the sand. It was the funniest daily commute I'd ever seen!

* After each fishing trip, the rockhoppers take a long, hilly hike from the beach up to their nesting area. This journey messes up their feathers. So at the end they take a refreshing shower under a rocky waterfall.

* It must be hard for them to be patient and take turns-they act grumpy, and fights often break out. After-ward, they stretch and pose. It's as if they're enjoying their sparkling-clean look. If a hopper shook its feath-ers dry when I was around, I got my own shower!

Nothing beats a freshwater spa treatment after a day of fishing in the salty sea.

Surf's up! Here come the gentoos, heading for home after a day of fishing.

"You can always tell the gentoo penguins, with their white bonnets and bright orange beaks."

As soon as they reach shore, penguins, such as these two, must quickly get on their feet and rush out of the waves.

This gentoo chick is only a few days old. Note the sandy-not icy-nest.

On my summer island, each species of penguins has its own section of beach to come ashore on. Some-times, I would climb high above these landing places to watch the penguins return from the sea. On other days, I would go right down to the beach to welcome them out of the surf. Of course, I was always ready with my camera.

* I often had to choke back laughter, watching these landings. Just imagine trying to get from your belly up onto your feet without using your hands. Penguins can do it-but not always gracefully. Not always fast enough, either. After all, the next wave is crashing in right behind!

* Once ashore, the gentoo penguins don't have so far to go. They nest much closer to the water than the rockhoppers and magellanic penguins do.

* There's not much to a gentoo or rockhopper nest: just a few sticks, stones, leaves, or grasses. The nests are very close together, too. The magellanics prefer the privacy of burrows. And king penguins don't make nests at all. Instead, they hold their single eggs on top of their feet until they hatch!

* The kings are the biggest and most colorful penguins of the Falklands (see photo at bottom of pages 6-7). To me, they also seem the most stylish and handsome of all the penguins.

I'm so glad I got to share my penguin summer with you. I hope you agree that penguins are cool-even when they're not on snow and ice!

By Solvin Zankl

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