Saturday, December 6, 2008

Penguins' annual beach party is a hot ticket

Magellan penguins, notable for the distinctive white-and-black racing stripes on their head and torso, are the stars of the show at Punta Tombo wildlife reserve in Argentina. Tourists delight in watching the antics, right, from a precipice overlooking the beach. (Dec. 4, 2008)

Magellans' courtship, parenting ritual draws crowds to barren coast

December 04, 2008
Claudia Capos Special to the Star

Patagonia, Argentina–It's lunchtime at Punta Tombo, and the babies are mighty hungry. Shrill, impatient peeps emanate from the tiny beaks of thousands of fluffy grey Magellan penguin chicks. Their plaintive cries shatter the stoic silence of this rocky, barren strip along Argentina's Patagonian coastline.

Some of the bashful chicks nestle in shallow burrows that pockmark the scrubby landscape like Swiss cheese. Others turn in unsteady circles, flapping stubby little wings in great expectation of a midday snack.

Finally, one mother penguin with the distinctive Magellanic white-and-black racing stripes on her head and torso waddles up to her waiting offspring and delivers the catch-of-the-day, beak to beak. Junior finally quiets down and flops into the family's burrow for a snooze, and mom retraces her half-kilometre trek back to the sea to find a tasty octopus or squid for dinner.

All around us at the Punta Tombo Penguin Wildlife Reserve, thousands of penguin mothers and fathers are caught up in this feeding frenzy, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists who trudge along a pebble pathway leading through their nesting area to the seacoast. From a precipice overlooking the crescent-shaped beach below, visitors can unobtrusively watch adult penguins dive into the frothy surf in search of fish and then plop down on the blackened sand to rest before returning to their brood nests.

It is an annual ritual of penguin parenting that never ceases to amaze and delight onlookers.

The penguin reserve, located 160 kilometres south of Puerto Madryn in Chubut Province, is home to the world's largest colony of Magellan penguins.

Each year, a million or more birds arrive by sea at this remote nature reserve to court, mate and bear their young before embarking on the return voyage to South America's northeast coast as part of their annual migration cycle.

Punta Tombo's accessibility makes it a favourite viewing spot for penguin watchers, who often travel great distances just to observe and photograph these toylike birds. Most visitors arrive via cruise ships at Puerto Madryn – gateway to the Valdes Peninsula, one of Argentina's richest wildlife sanctuaries and a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site – and then climb aboard tour buses for a full-day excursion to the rookery.

The six-hour round-trip to Punta Tombo follows Provincial Route No. 3 south through the fertile green farmlands of Trelew, an early Welsh settlement, and then into the rugged Patagonian plains. Herds of fuzzy brown wild llamas dot the sparse landscape, occasionally raising their scruffy heads to gaze indifferently at passing vehicles. The final leg of the journey curves along Provincial Route No. 1, a gravel track where the bus tires kick up choking clouds of white dust. A rock grazes the front windshield, leaving a large crack.

Any discomfort, however, is quickly forgotten once the bus pulls into the Punta Tombo rookery parking lot and the quest for photogenic penguins begins. Named in honour of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who discovered of the Straits of Magellan in 1520, the adult birds stand about 60 centimetres (two feet) tall. They are fond of parading single-file, like wobbly continental soldiers in full-dress uniform, across the visitor pathway, bringing human foot traffic to a standstill until they pass.

Joe Rothfleisch, a seed-crop grower from California's Imperial Valley, had never seen penguins in the wild before visiting the rookery.

"I've always associated penguins with snow and ice and cold, but the weather here in Punta Tombo is more like Baja California," he says. "I am surprised these cute, harmless little creatures can live in a place that's this hot."

Unlike their cold-weather cousins, the Emperor penguins – whose life-and-death struggle for survival in the inhospitable ice deserts of Antarctica was recounted in the 2005 movie March of the Penguins – Magellan penguins prefer the warmer, dry coastal plain areas of Patagonia.

The males typically arrive in August to prepare the nesting sites for their mates, sending plumes of dust and debris flying out of the burrows. The females arrive once the housecleaning is done and lay an average of two eggs. The chicks can be seen in the burrows and around the low scrub brush after they hatch in November.

In January, the youngsters leave their nests, grow swimming feathers and start learning to paddle around in the sea.

The following month, the juvenile birds moult and swarm along the beaches. In March and April, the moulting season ends for the young and starts for the adults, and the birds embark on their northward migration.

From May until August, the Magellan penguins are feeding out at sea and cannot be observed at Punta Tombo.

At the end of the rookery tour, visitors will find a selection of cute stuffed toy penguins and souvenir T-shirts on sale at the small gift shop near the parking lot. But most take home little more than lasting memories – and hundreds of photos – of a remarkable day spent walking among the Magellan penguins in Patagonia.

Claudia Capos is a Brighton, Mich.-based freelance writer.

Story and picture courtesy of the @

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