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Gentoo penguins
Pygoscelis papua

Estimated population: 320,000 breeding pairs
Breeding Season: December - March
Distribution: Falkland islands and south to the sub-Antarctic islands, the most northerly of the 4 Antarctic species.
Height: 71cm - 28 inches
Weight: 5.5 kg - 12lb
Facts: Antarctica Animals | Antarctic penguin fact file | Adélie penguins | Chinstrap penguins | Emperor penguins | Gentoo penguins | King penguins | Antarctic Animal Adaptations | Krill | How penguins survive the cold | Animals and the cold | Weddell Seals | Antarctic Fur Seal | Southern Elephant Seal | Other birds | Albatross | Snow Petrel | Whales
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1/ What are gentoo penguins like?

5/ Could this cute fragile creature really survive in the Antarctic?

2/ Isn't this chick a bit big to be fed, I thought this was the Antarctic, where's the snow?!

6/ Why are these people painting the penguins?

3/ Is that a hatching chick?

7/ Learning to swim

4/ Why are the nests spaced out like this?

8/ Has some-one coloured this penguin in?

1/ What are gentoo penguins like?
Gentoo penguins are the largest of the Pygoscelis penguins, though not by much

they average about 5.5kg and 71cm tall for the southern gentoo and about 6.2kg and 80cm tall for the northern gentoo. The northern subspecies nests on and around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, while the southern subspecies nests as far south as the Antarctic peninsula to 65 degrees south.

Gentoos are one of the most laid back of penguins, while they do have their noisy moments, particularly at nest building time, they are no where near as aggressive and raucous as Adélies and chinstraps for instance. By comparison a gentoo colony is a calm and far more sedate place.

 

2/ Isn't this chick a bit big to be fed, I thought this was the Antarctic, where's the snow?!
A parent gentoo feeding its chick.  

The chick is very close to fledging judging by its size. Penguin chicks because they are covered in thick down before they gain their adult feathers frequently look bigger than the adults that they are feeding from, it's largely fluff though and once they shed the down and grow the adult feathers they seem to shrink a few sizes.

This feeding is clearly taking place away from the main colony. As the chicks get bigger they beg for food from almost any adult that comes their way. It is only in the adults interest to feed their own chicks, so there is often a chase right through and away from the colony with much calling to each other while the adult establishes that this really is their chick.

A feature seen in this photograph that surprises people is how green some bits of Antarctica can appear away from the snow and ice. This area is covered in snow and ice in the winter, but in the warmer months, this melts exposing rocks and an extensive carpet of moss (not grass) in other areas, large expanses of green turn out to be lichens growing on the bare rock.

 

3/ Is that a hatching chick?
You can just about make out under the parent that the egg has cracked and there's an as yet upside down foot as the hatchling struggles out of its shell.

Gentoo penguins are the last to arrive on their nesting sites at the southern limits of their range. Unlike other species that nest alongside them nearer to the Antarctic mainland, they wait until the sea ice has retreated before heading for the nesting grounds.

 

4/ Why are the nests spaced out like this?
These gentoo nests are spaced out in a way that nearly all penguin nests are spaced out, at just over two "attack lengths" apart. 

If a penguin sitting on its nest can get a peck at a nearby or passing penguin, then it will usually do so. The resulting spacing is that penguins sitting on adjacent nests are just that bit too far away to reach each other, so neither feels immediately threatened and peace ensues. It reminds me of House of Commons in the English Parliament where the government and opposition benches are situated just over two sword lengths apart, should the honourable gentlemen decide to circumvent the electorate in the days when that sort of thing went on.

The down side of this arrangement is that when a penguin wants to leave the nest to go fishing, or if it's coming back from fishing, it becomes in range of both beaks from the adjacent nests when walking through the colony. So for the time from arrival at the colony in the spring to when the chicks have grown up a bit and hang around off the nest in "crèches", coming and going can be quite painful for these hardy birds.

 

5/ Could this cute fragile creature really survive in the Antarctic?
Looking as cute as any baby bird can, penguin chicks of this age are food processing machines.  

With a relatively late start to the season compared to many other birds and the need to leave early before it begins to get cold with the threat of sea-ice arriving, Antarctic animals have to grow fast to survive.

This shot taken with only a moderate telephoto lens shows how close you can get to the nest without disturbing the penguins or chicks. This was taken on Signy Island part of the South Orkneys group when the only humans that the wildlife encountered were occasional scientists who lived at the scientific base elsewhere on the island. Increasing tourist pressure on certain regions of Antarctica, particularly around the Antarctic Peninsula mean that for many people who visit the Antarctic, it is not possible to take such pictures. If the tourists that visited were allowed to get this close to the wildlife on a regular basis, the wildlife would soon up sticks (or stones) and disappear.

 

6/ Why are these people painting the penguins?
There area a number of long term scientific projects in the Antarctic

one of them being an annual survey of penguin numbers and breeding success at specific breeding areas. These pictures (taken 5 minutes apart) show such a survey of an Adélie penguin colony on Signy Island in the South Orkneys group. 

As they look rather similar it's not easy to know which penguins you've counted and which you haven't. So the answer is to use very dilute paint and tie a brush to the end of a stick, giving each counted penguin a splodge as you count them. The problem on this day was that the rather wet snow that fell meant that the paint mark that was supposed to wash off the next time the penguin went swimming, lasted only a few minutes instead. It didn't make it any easier that the penguins kept laying down and hiding their paint marks as they tried to shield themselves from the worst of the snow.

 

7/ Learning to swim

This is one of my favourite events that I was privileged to see when I was in Antarctica. Gentoo penguins - one of my favourite Antarctic animals being cute, comic and noble all at the same time. The Gentoos - they're the ones with the orange beaks -  in these pictures are youngsters that have only just moulted their juvenile down and have grown their adult plumage, though are the penguin equivalent of young teenagers I guess.

It was a calm, mild day and nearly all of the adult birds were off fishing in the favourable conditions leaving the youngsters behind in their crèche. For some reason, though these birds had never been in the sea before, they decided pretty much altogether that it was time to learn to swim and so they all waddle down to the shore-line where there is only a very gentle swell with waves of just an inch or two high coming in - ideal conditions.

Unlike seals, penguins learn to swim without their parents and these started off paddling in the shallows. Some of the less adventurous types mis-timing the waves and suddenly getting about two inches of water over their feet would turn round and run back up the beach flippers outstretched in considerable horror. Eventually, they did all end up standing around in the water like a collection of matronly old aunts "taking the waters", they'd go in up their waists (or where the waist would be if they had one) and look quite pleased with themselves waving their flippers around a bit. Every now and then, one of those pesky waves would come again and take them by surprise, so it was jump up, flippers out and all rush out of the sea again. All in all it was about half an hour before they were all standing in the water and appeared to be anything like comfortable with being there.

A few of them laid down in water about 2 or 3 inches deep and put their beak in the water, a bit like children daring themselves to put their face in the water, then over the next half an hour or so, they moved back out of the sea and went back to wait for mum and dad to come with an after-dip snack.

Other penguin species are much more forthright about the whole process, Adélies for instance, stand en-masse at the waters edge and then jump into "the deep end" right from the start. I thought the Gentoo approach was far more civilized and genteel.

 

8/ Has some-one coloured this penguin in?
No its not a gentoo penguin in fancy dress!

this is a different type altogether. Named macaroni's after some 18th century English travellers who took on some of the more flamboyant European fashions, the Macaroni Dandies, themselves named from their habit of eating macaroni during their "Grand Tour" of Europe, an upper-class version of the gap year.

Macaroni penguins with their bright yellow crest feathers nest on Antarctic islands, in greatest numbers on South Georgia and Heard Island. They are about 4.2kg in weight and some 70cm tall, superficially they are similar to the smaller rockhopper penguins that they are frequently found nesting nearby.

 


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