A mishmash of penguins

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Not all penguins we see during our cruises are found on the snow-covered landscapes of Antarctica. In fact, numerous penguin species are distributed from the Antarctic right up to the warmer waters off New Zealand and South America as well as up in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean areas adjacent to the Southern Ocean.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

A mishmash of penguins

Not all penguins we see during our cruises are found on the snow-covered landscapes of Antarctica. In fact, numerous penguin species are distributed from the Antarctic right up to the warmer waters off New Zealand and South America as well as up in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean areas adjacent to the Southern Ocean.

The feisty chinstrap penguin

The Chinstrap penguin is a species of penguin found in the South Sandwich Islands, Antarctica, the South Orkneys, South Shetland, South Georgia, Bouvet Island, Balleny and Peter Island. Their name comes from the narrow black band under their heads which makes them appear as if they are wearing black helmets. They are one of the most numerous penguins in the world with their population estimated to be around 12-13 million in the sub-Antarctica Region and the Antarctic Peninsula. Their diet consists mainly of krill, small fish and other roaming marine crustaceans. They are considered near-shore feeders as they forage among the pack ice looking for their meal. Because they feed by pursuit diving near the shore they have short dive times of less than a minute and seldom to depths of more than 200 feet. When in the water, they reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour while on land they slide around the ice on their stomachs with their feet and flippers propelling them. The chinstraps live and breed in large colonies and even at times live on large icebergs floating along in the open ocean. While floating along food is aplenty with the penguins often jumping off to catch fish and krill. An interesting fact is that they are a bold species that is often likely to get into a fight with other penguins.

Yellow-eyed penguin

The yellow-eyed penguin is unique to New Zealand and is found along the south-east of the South Island and on Banks Peninsula, on Steward Island and its outlier islands as well as Codfish, the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island. The penguin is famous for its yellow iris and distinctive yellow headband. Adults are a slate grey colour, with a white belly and flesh-coloured feet that turn bright pink during exercise. Their chicks are small, fluffy and brown and begin to shed their juvenile plumage after about 70 days. It is only once they become adults do the juveniles don their yellow iris and yellow band on their crown. The Maori name for yellow-eyed penguins is hoiho, which means ‘noise shouter’ due to their shrill call, often heard when they encounter their mate or others at their breeding site. While they typically feed on red and blue cod, opalfish and squid they are picky about their prey and hence very selective about what they will dive for. Unlike other penguins, yellow-eyed penguins are not typically colonial and so their breeding grounds cannot be called ‘colonies’. Instead, they seek out private nesting areas with a solid back and a roof for egg laying. Two eggs are laid in a shallow bowl that is lined with sticks, ferns and fronds. Typically, these penguins usually come back to the area where they were born to breed. Females breed between 2-3 years and the males start breeding between 3-6. An interesting behavioural trait is that adults stay near their breeding area for life and do not migrate elsewhere during the non-breeding part of the year.

Macaroni penguin

The macaroni penguin has a plume that is easy to identify when compared to other crested penguins. They have a yellow-orange crest on their heads that start between their eyes and extend through their head in a v-shaped form. They have bright red eyes and their beak is thick and orange. The macaroni penguin is found close to the Antarctic convergence in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean sectors of the Southern Ocean. South Atlantic breeding sites include South Georgia and South Sandwich and South Orkney Islands with populations also found in the Falkland Islands and southern Chile too. In these locations the penguins are found inhabiting dirt, mud or vegetation-covered areas and so they can walk and jump over large slippery rocks without any problems.

Gentoo penguin

The Gentoo penguin is easily identifiable as it has a wide white strap that goes across the tops of their heads from one eye to the other in addition to their bright orange beak. Gentoo penguins are the third largest penguin species alive. The adults weigh between five and eight kilograms. The Gentoo penguin is one of the fastest underwater swimming birds, reaching speeds up to 36 kilometres per hour. They are found in large, noisy breeding colonies by sandy or shingle beaches at over 80 locations around the Falkland Islands as well as South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. In fact, there are around 300,000 breeding pairs around the sub-Antarctic island. Gentoos build nests on beaches and amongst the tussocks and are very feisty in defending their turf. While the Gentoos are usually found in and around the Antarctic Peninsula area, there have been recorded sightings of them near the mainland of New Zealand on as many as six occasions with one sighting as far north as the Banks Peninsula, by Christchurch on the South Island.

King Penguins

The king penguin is the most marine of all birds, spending more time at sea than any other group of birds. The tall, colourful penguin uses its giant 30-plus centimetre flipper-like wings to swim and can dive to depths of more than 300 metres to pursue prey. In fact, the king penguin can hold its breath up to nine minutes down below. When back on land, the penguins stand upright and walk on their powerful webbed feet. They are a highly social bird that gather in massive colonies along the sub-Antarctic islands to breed. However, they do not build nests. Instead, the lay one green-white egg which is incubated on the parents’ webbed feet and kept warm with a fold of skin. King Penguins are known by scientists to have mid-afternoon siestas with the birds sleeping more deeply after lunch than during the morning. South Georgia is home to large colonies of King Penguins (over 200,000 pairs).

Magellanic penguins

Magellanic penguins are only found around the Falkland Islands and South America but they are extremely numerous there. In fact, the Falkland population is over 100,000 breeding pairs, but this is extremely small compared to South America where there are around 900,000 breeding pairs in Argentina and 800,000 pairs in Chile. The penguins like islands with deep layers of soil for burrowing deep into and dense vegetation which offers protection from aerial predators. However, the ones that find themselves on the Atlantic coast of mainland Argentina have much less vegetation cover but it’s still home to around 650,000 breeding pairs, many of which nest above ground using whatever materials they can find or under bushes. The magellanic penguins are opportunistic feeders, taking equal proportions of fish, squid and crustaceans. While out to sea, the penguins forage at depths of less than 50 metres, but may at times dive up to 100 metres.

Rockhopper penguins

These penguins are distinguished by a crest of spiky yellow and black feathers that cover their heads. When scientists first named these penguins, they were obviously inspired by the fact these creatures’ preferred habitat is among the windswept shorelines of the islands north of Antarctica, from Chile to New Zealand. There are also one of the world’s smallest penguins, standing just 20 inches tall. They usually stick to shallow water but can dive up to 100 metres in pursuit of fish, crustaceans, squid and krill. During annual breeding times, rockhoppers gather in vast, noisy colonies, that often number in the hundreds of thousands. They construct burrows in the tall tussock grasses near the shore. They return back each year to the same breeding site and even use the same nest as the year before. Typically, they also seek out their previous year’s mate. 

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