The Rockhopper Penguin

 

My grandfather was a well-known birder and professor of ornithology. I often helped him in various surveys and I clearly remember one afternoon when we were out on the shores of Lake Erie. He was calling out various bird species as he saw them. “one spotted sandpiper”, “one ring-billed gull”……pause…..”30,000 Bonaparte’s gulls.” Ever since, I have taken great pleasure when I see a bird species for the first time and see it great numbers.

And so it was this morning during our cruise ship’s first expedition at New Island in the Falkland Islands. We walked up a gentle slope and arrived at very windy cliffs. This is an enormous breeding habitat for three southern bird species: Imperial shag, Black-browed albatross and Rockhopper penguin.

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What a perfect name for this, one of the smaller of the 17 penguin species. Here were hundreds of nests located far up from the sea. The 45 – 55 cm rockhoppers have to travel all the way to the top of the cliff through a very complicated series of rocky promontories and they hop from one boulder to another the whole way. It must take hours and they do it every time that they go to sea to feed.

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Life is much easier from the thousands of shags and albatross who simply leap into the air and are immediately whisked away by the powerful breezes.

The colony was very noisy. We heard repeated trumpeted display calls of mixed grating, loud barks and braying “yells” with vibrating quality and repeated rhythmically, accompanied by head swinging and raising, and flipper beating.

Rockhoppers breed from October to March and lay 2 eggs, of which only one chick ever survives. The eggs are incubated for about 35 days and it takes the chicks about 70 days to mature enough to be able to fend for themselves at sea. They spend about 6 or 7 months at sea until next spring when the whole cycle repeats itself.

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Miles Hearn

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