Friday, March 11, 2016

Make Way For Penguins

11 March 2015

I will warn you ahead of time - I have 125 photos of penguins.  They will not all be in this blog.  But that gives you an idea of how adorably photogenic they were.  And warns you that there will be a lot of penguin photos.

However, there are NO SELFIES WITH PENGUINS.  None.  The cardinal rule of visiting animals in their natural habitat is to leave them alone.  Visit them.  Watch them.  Talk to them.  Take photos from a distance, be sure your FLASH IS TURNED OFF.  But DO NOT TOUCH THEM.  Do not take baby dolphins out of the ocean, do not drag swans out of the lake.  Leave them alone.  There are signs all over Punta Tombo advising visitors to NOT touch the penguins.  Yes, they are cute and look cuddly and adorable.  Yes, they look huggable.  But these are wild animals and they don't want to be hugged by you.  They want to live their animal lives.  (The exception might be koalas in reserves, where you pretend to be a tree and hold an adult koala who has been trained to be held by people.  To raise money for food.)  

Besides, if you are taking a photo of the animal, obviously you are seeing it.  You don't have to be in the photo with the animal.  We know you are there without seeing you there.  Are we clear on this?  Thank you.

Okay, we're in Puerto Madryn.  We came here because this is the jumping off point for visits to Punta Tombo, a peninsula some 170 km (120 or so miles) south.  Punta Tombo is home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America - although the Punta Tombo penguin center claims that this is the largest colony of these penguins in the world.  Very possibly true, we've only met small groups of them elsewhere.

Anyway, Puerto Madryn is a nice town and regional capital on the Golfo Nuevo (New Gulf).  There's a huge protected animal refuge peninsula north of here, the giant colony of penguins to the south, and right whales come through in the summer months to bask in the warm gulf and give birth to their young.

People also scuba dive here.  I tested the water and no, we're not doing that.  Way too cold, despite the fact that this is late summer.  Days in Patagonia are bright and sunny, and by late afternoon the air is toasty warm.  But there's a constant wind that blows cold air from the ocean, or maybe from Antarctica.  Nights are truly cold and the wind howls wildly and fiercely, and even mornings are chilly.  I can't imagine how cold it might be in winter.  Beautiful, but way too cold for these Caribbean-spoilt travellers to dive.

Quite the place to visit in Patagonia!

We found a hotel (over a local butcher shop, which I find amusing - but it's a nice small hotel with a local feel), and settled in.  We keep finding more to do in town and in the region, and our few day stay is lingering into a week.

Yesterday was our pilgrimage to what Richard calls Penguin Point.  We headed south in our little rental car.  Oh, if you drive to Punta Tombo, DO NOT follow the Google Maps directions.  They say to drive to Gaiman and get onto Ruta 75.  No no no, follow signs south on Ruta 3 toward Rivadavia (a city way south of here) - then there are signs on Ruta 3 for Punta Tombo, and this is where you find Ruta 75.

So after getting a bit lost using those wrong directions, we backtracked and were well on our way.  On Ruta 75, we saw a guanaco - pronounced gwah-NAH-coe.  So we stopped and watched him as he walked a bit, ate, and kept an eye on us.  Soon he and his lady friend were bounding off into the bush, but these are wonderful animals.  

Guanacos are part of the camelid family, related to llamas and alpacas, but they live in the deserty areas of Patagonia, and not so much in the Andes like their cousins the llamas and alpacas.  (They also live in the low plains regions of Bolivia, Peru, Chile, as well as here in Argentina - but they seem to try to prefer the dry plains to the mountains.) 

Guanacos are the largest of the camelids, and seem to always be sort of a russet-brown color, with white on the belly and insides of the legs, and dark grey to black edging on their faces.  Charles Darwin described them as an elegant animal, and they really are.  They also run like giraffes do, with straight legs and long graceful strides, galloping along.

We later saw another guanaco family, with a youngster, and we took time to watch and photograph them as well.  And then we met even more once we arrived at Punta Tombo Penguin Center, where the guanacos greet visitors at the front gate (or ignore them so the guanacos can just keep munching the grass).  The males seem to be more alert to potential danger, although we never sensed any challenge from them.  Rather they just moved away if a human seemed to get too close.

So, Penguin Point!  Punta Tombo!  Their website:

There's an entrance fee, just so you know.  This is also a penguin research center.  Visitors are asked to stay on the paths, and not touch the penguins.  Most of the paths are gravel, but the beginning section is a boardwalk for wheelchair accessibility.  

The trails stretch through the area where the penguins nest in burrows, mostly gravel covered plains with all kinds of scrubby plants and bushes.  Very dry and arid, all the way to the turquoise ocean waters.  The paths don't lead to the beach, or at least they don't at this time of year.  

Because March in Patagonia is Magellanic penguin molting season.  (That word always looks wrong to me.)

Poor little penguins.  Turns out that penguins actually have more feathers per square inch (or centimeter) than most other birds.  Penguins have about 100 feathers per square inch!  (About 2.5 cm sq.)  Their feathers wear out and also lose their waterproofing, so penguins molt.  And, unlike most birds, penguins molt all over all at once.  Not a few feathers here and there, but ALL their feathers at one time.

New feathers grow in under the old feathers, pushing them out so the penguins look all fuzzy and plush.  But they can't swim at this point, the new feathers aren't immediately waterproof.  So the poor penguins eat up prior to molting, and then stay on land for the several weeks it takes for the new feathers to grow in.  The old feathers don't fall off until the new feather is completely grown.  And the poor little penguins are unhappy, and hot, and probably hungry.  (Baby penguins lose their baby feathers as they become the equivalent of teenagers.  But yes, adult penguins molt yearly as well.)

There was a whole lot of preening going on when we visited.  I imagine it must get itchy, growing in new feathers and having the old ones fall off.  Penguins were scratching with their feet, preening with their beaks, and sneezing when getting too many feathers in the nose section of the beaks.  

So the penguins were lying in their burrows, or in the shade of the brush around their burrows.  Others were standing in the sun, trying to warm up because the new feathers lack insulation as well.  Other penguins were hanging out with their partner, or with their friends, often under the bridges that go over penguin crossing areas.

None of the penguins looked very happy.  And no one was in the water.

Richard and I went on separate walks, because I stop to talk to every penguin I see.  They mostly look so sad and uncomfortable.  Hot and cranky and ready to get this molt over with, to be back in the water chasing sardines or anchovies or whatever.

So I tried to tell the little penguins that the molt would be over soon.  That their feathers would all fall out, they'd lose the fuzzy exploded pillow look and return to their streamlined torpedo shape, that their preening would stimulate and spread their natural oils to waterproof the new feathers.  That they'd be back in the water before they knew it!

Most penguins ignored me.  They'd stand and close their eyes to the sun, or continue ruffling their feathers to speed up the fall out, or maybe watch me out of the corner of their eye.

But a few penguins were friendly and curious.  One in particular would turn his head and look at me out of one mahogany brown colored eye, then turn his head the other way and look at me from his other eye - back and forth, one eye then the other, swiveling his head comically.  He seemed to be listening and taking in all my comforting words, reminding himself that this is just part of the penguin's life, and he'd survive.

A few penguins were hanging out on the beach, but not in the water, just sort of reminding themselves what their penguin life is all about.  

And then there'd be a penguin or two toddling back from beach to burrow, doing that funny Charlie Chaplin waddling walk, swaying to and fro across the gravel.

Some penguins had long walks home to their burrows in the sandy soil, over a few hills to higher ground, with penguins dotting the hills into the distance.  There actually were fields of penguins, I'm not kidding!  (Check some of the photos, look at the distant hills - those dark ovals are penguin burrows, those small dark triangles are penguins!)

This huge colony can measure up to 40,000 adult penguins at the highest part of penguin season.  I'm not sure there were that many penguins around right now, but we saw thousands of burrows and most burrows have two penguins.  Magellanic penguins mate for life.  These are also one of the species of penguins where both the male and female prepare the nest, keep the eggs warm, and feed/raise their offspring.  (And then I wonder if they give their burrow to one of their offspring for the next generation..........)

I was walking around, chatting with penguins, and out of the corner of my eye saw what looked like a rock running down the hill.  Turned out to be an armadillo - and they are truly ugly and a little scary!  They look like the love child of a rat and a potato bug (or doodle bug, depending on where you grew up) - like a rat with armor plating and random hairs!  I wanted to see one but ugh, they really are rather creepy.  They also tend to be nocturnal, which explains why this armadillo got confused, turned, and started running directly at me!  I of course gave a little squeak and sprang backwards and out of his way.

I walked to the end of the trail, supposedly 1.5 km (just about a mile) though I zigzagged across the trail repeatedly - and then walked back to the center, chatting again with the penguins along the way.  My little turning head friend was still there, and we had another little chat.

It really was a wonderful day.  Heaven with  penguins.  I'm sure Punta Tombo is more impressive at other times of the year when the entire colony isn't molting at once, when all the penguins are gathered on the beach or out fishing.  The sheer numbers of penguins all together would be staggering.

On the other hand, then I wouldn't be able to walk among the penguins in their homes, or see them standing sentry outside their burrows, or be able to talk to them as they try to comprehend what I'm saying.  I wouldn't be up close and personal.

So maybe molting season is a better time to visit.

Plus I think the penguins might be happy to have visitors when they aren't feeling well, so that we humans can cheer them up. 

For people who haven't seen this wonderful penguin story on Facebook, a Magellanic penguin was saved by a fisherman living on a small Brazilian island.  The penguin goes off for several months a year, during mating season.  But then he returns to the island and spends his time with his fisherman friend.  Or father.  Here's the link, it really is a wonderful story:

And if you love penguins (who doesn't???), you might want to join the Global Penguin Society and support their efforts to save endangered populations of penguins as well as saving penguin habitats:


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