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Jan-19-2010 14:46printcomments

The Magellanic Penguin, One Famous Black and White Bird

El pinguino patagonico stands about 18 inches high. Knee-high to a tourist you might say.

The Magellanic Penguin
The Magellanic Penguin
Photos: Gail Parker

(PATAGONIA) - Punta Tombo near Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast of Chubut Province, Argentina is the biggest mainland penguin colony on the South American continent. In late November we went to see the Magellanic penguin (pinguino patagonico) Spheniscus Mangellanicus.

When we arrived at the parking lot and were greeted by a penguin nesting just a few feet from the car, I began to laugh. I couldn’t help myself.

As we strolled down the marked path among these adorable little magellanic penguins I continued to laugh. I began to imitate the penguin waddle (wings out for balance) and kept laughing and waddling as we progressed into the throng of millions.

Despite the huge numbers, our ornithologist friend says that in the 1970’s there were many, many more penguins. Senor Ors Kovacs had worked at the colony documenting and counting the penguins for many years.

The penguins, the order sphenisciformes are a group of primitive birds that adapted to aquatic life and are found exclusively in the southern hemisphere mostly in regions arctic and subarctic.

The overall characteristics of the famously black and white bird are the strong beak, medium sized head on a short, flexible neck, a body tapered at both ends and wider in the middle making it more hydrodynamic, articulated shoulders beneficial for swimming and short, fat feet with three toes in front and one behind. The plumage is short, rigid, compact and totally water impermeable. They screech a loud trumpet call.

El pinguino patagonico stands about 18 inches high. Knee- high to a tourist you might say. The sexes look the same. The eye is dark grey, the iris brownish gray, rosy patch around the eye and a rose line below the beak on the upper throat.

The outstanding feature is the white eyebrow that continues as a line between the black chin and white collar. There is a black line on the white flank, the feet are gray.

Penguin photos by Gail Parker

We were there just as the eggs were nearly all hatched. The nesting begins in September when the arid coastal landscape is invaded by the birds which live half their lives at sea. Really, the nests are little more than a hollowed out depression on the sandy terrain often below scrub brush. Two white eggs are laid.

The penguin parents sit on their nests, trading duties - going to and coming from the sea - and warding off intruders, hoping to have at least one of the two hatched chicks reach adulthood. The chicks are born with abundant gray plumage on the back and the front is whitish. The young are lighter than the adults and often have a double collar.

Often one chick takes all the food or maybe a predator gets one.

In The Illustrated Mannual of the Birds of Patagonia, the Kovacs say that at times you can see all the penguins stand at the mouth of their caves and nests to watch the sun go down at the end of the day.

There were hordes of international tourists with expensive camera gear and look-alike state of the art beige travel clothing with zip-off legs and lots of pockets for lots of stuff. And they were taking their penguins very seriously.

I saw a pair of bird watchers spending fifteen minutes or more digitally capturing the freaked out mother penguin who sat atop her two fuzzy little ones. She kept glancing from the skua (the brown bird of prey made infamous by Happy Feet) behind her to the humans in front of her, both no more than 2 or 3 feet away, and I wondered if she would have a nervous breakdown and abandon her nest due to stress.

I began to grow nervous myself wondering if the penguins were in more danger from climate change or the human visitors. As we headed back, I strayed off the path and was scolded back by a park ranger, and realized I was a danger to the pinguinos myself.

Really, ecotourism is an oxymoron.

Gail Parker is a writer and photographer who lives in Argentina. She and her lifetime mate and husband Eddie Zawaski, who also writes for Salem-News.com, are former resident of Oregon, Gail has a great eye for memorable photos in this lush place called Patagonia. Her observations from this amazing wonderland of nature are a fun and welcome addition to our story flow. Watch for Gail's wonderful coverage of the birds of Patagonia in future stories and photojournals here on Salem-News.com.

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sandone1360 November 2, 2010 10:38 pm (Pacific time)

The birds have no natural fear of humans and so Evans sat on the ground in front of the penguin. Other naturalists on the ship said the bird had been spotted on other trips, which means it is been around awhile. There are some black penguins, about one in every quarter million, scientists say. This is the only one known to exist that is all black. King penguins are only different from this. Legal advance funding

John Yunker January 24, 2010 1:58 pm (Pacific time)

Thanks for the article. If you want to learn more about Magellanics, check out the Penguin Project web site: http://mesh.biology.washington.edu/penguinProject/home The head of the program, Dee Boersma, has been studying Punta Tombo for more than 25 years.

gp January 20, 2010 3:23 am (Pacific time)

The walkway was not paved, that was the natural desert meets the sea rocky soil, the trail was merely marked by stones painted white. As seen in some of the photos, the penguins were free to walk on the marked path but the humans were supposed to give them right of way. And of course the humans were not to leave the path or smoke cigarettes or leave food or touch the birds. Actually, though they seemed harmless, that little beak could inflict a nasty wound if a penguin was molested. There are a few shots of bloodied penguins, this was the result of territorial disputes among males.

Jeff Kaye~ January 19, 2010 5:21 pm (Pacific time)

Great story and pics, Gail! I agree with you in that the oxymoronic phraseology "eco-tourism" could be changed to "bio-terrorism", but your stories and photos bring much-needed attention to the plight of our avifauna, their habitats, and the world's ecology in general. As long as you don't anger the Park Rangers, (like that paved walkway was good for the penguins?) I'd say keep up the good work.

gp January 19, 2010 4:29 pm (Pacific time)

those llama like creatures who graze on the penguin colony grounds are guanacos.

Josh A. January 19, 2010 3:54 pm (Pacific time)

That's interesting, some of them have such a unflappable expression in their eyes almost like an eagle.

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