The Quest for Penguins.

I love penguins. They are my very favorite bird family (with Albatrosses a close second). There are plenty of bird families that are more colorful, less stinky, and more accessible, than penguins. Hummingbirds, Tanagers and Trogons come to mind. There’s just something about that tuxedo, their waddling gait, and their personalities that make me want to go back to see penguins again and again.

I’ve had the privilege to see 15 of the 18 species (or 16 of the 19 species, depending on which authority you listen to) in the wild. Not all penguins live in Antarctica. In fact, only 4 species breed on and around the Great White Continent. So the quest to see the different species has taken me not just to Antarctica, but other far-flung locations in the Southern Hemisphere.

My first encounter with penguins was African Penguins in the Kansas City zoo when I was about 4. And I have a snapshot of the event to prove it. My first wild penguin encounter was some years later, in New Zealand in 1989. I took a sightseeing boat trip in the Milford Sound on South Island, and I was astonished that we saw a group of Fiordland Crested Penguins basking on the rocks. I wasn’t in to birds at all then and knew zero about penguins. I did photograph them, but no longer have a way to scan the slide. I’m not sure I’d want to show that photo to anyone, anyway. That sighting alone wasn’t enough to spark an interest though, my big goal at the time was to go on an African safari.

Fast forward to 2005 and a return trip to New Zealand. By this time, I was a birder, and made a point to seek out the 3 penguin species that breed on the South Island. Fiordland Crested was my first target. They’re found on the west coast of the South Island. I found a tour on a small boat called Round About Haast and signed up. I was the only passenger on the boat that day, and the captain did a great job of getting us in position for me to photograph the penguins. All of “Mainland” New Zealand penguins nest in the forest in loose colonies. These birds were coming in from the night’s feeding. Not exactly what you’d think of for penguin habitat, what with no snow or ice! These are among the smallest penguins at just over 21” tall.

Fiordland Crested Penguins

Yellow-eyed Penguins are in a family by themselves and are among the largest penguins at 28.5”. They are one of the 2 rarest species, and possibly the shyest. Viewing is typically best from a blind.

To see them, I visited Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s just up the road a bit from the Southern Royal Albatross colony. This private reserve has done much to create habitat for the penguins and has a good blind setup for viewing. There, I was able to watch the penguins come in from the sea and cross the white sand beach, headed for their burrows. The views were a bit distant, but still was pretty exciting.

Several years later I returned to New Zealand with a friend and we visited a different public blind near a lighthouse. To our amazement, there were penguins near the parking lot that were unafraid of us, and we got some nice close portraits. It turns out that particular colony had been established with birds released from rehab, so they were more accustomed to people. I heard this past year that the number of Yellow-eyeds on South Island has declined significantly since that time, so I don’t know if they’re to be found in either of these spots any more.

Yellow-eyed Penguin

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Little Penguin

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Little Penguin “wins” for having the most common names: Little, Little Blue, Fairy, and White-flippered. They are truly little birds, at only 16 inches they are the smallest penguin by quite a margin. They’re found around Australia as well as New Zealand, and some of the smaller islands in that area.

The most common way to view Little Penguins is at night when they come in from the sea, using the darkness to help evade predators. At the Penguin Place, their blind- actually a tunnel- went near their burrows. The guide opened up covered windows to look for them and found one right at the opening- I had to back up to focus my wide-angle lens!

When I visited Tasmania a few years ago, we went out at night to see them coming in from the sea. It was even harder to photograph them with just a dim flashlight for illumination.

In early 2007 I went to Antarctica. Well actually it was a Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Antarctic Peninsula trip. It was a 19 day voyage on a nice small ship called the Clipper Adventurer. I think it’s safe to say that this trip, seeing 7 different penguin species, is when I truly became hooked on penguins.

Our first landing of the trip was at Sea Lion Island in the Falklands. Excursions off-ship on this type of voyage are accomplished by shuttling to a beach in a 10 person Zodiac- a motorized, inflatable, open craft. We had a beautiful sunny day for this landing.

Not far from the beach where we disembarked we found Gentoo penguins coming down from their colony, headed out to sea to feed. I spent over an hour sitting on the beach photographing the penguins headed in to the surf, before heading up to the colony to see the young chicks. I later wished that I’d done some pre-trip study and known that Gentoos are some of the most ubiquitous penguins in the region, and spent more time looking at the other birds that are unique to the Falklands. Lesson learned.

I’ve since seen many Gentoos in many locations and had some fun and memorable interactions with Gentoo chicks. They seem particularly fascinated by zipper pulls attached to jackets and backpacks. Sit quietly in one spot and they’ll come over to investigate.

Gentoo Penguins

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On that first Sea Lion Island landing, I finally tore myself away from photographing the Gentoos when I heard there were other penguins nearby, which we would only see at this place. They were Magellanic Penguins, one of the family of “banded” penguins. As with other banded penguins, Magellanics are sometimes referred to as Jackass Penguins, because they bray like donkeys (not because of their behavior). 2 years after this voyage, I returned to the Falklands for a 2 week visit. We stayed in a farm house on Carcass Island, and in the morning I woke up hearing donkeys bray. Strange, I thought, I remember seeing horses but no donkeys here. Then I realized, a Magellanic Penguin was outside my room, braying loudly.

Magellanics nest in burrows (appropriately, I guess??) so you don’t see the young until they are old enough to venture to the entrance. In addition to the Falklands, they nest along the coast around the southern tip of South America.

Magellanic Penguin

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Southern Rockhopper Penguin

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Our other stop in the Falklands was at Bleaker Island, where we visited a colony of Southern Rockhopper Penguins. Rockhoppers are among the smallest of the penguins, at just over 21” tall. They are also the species that still doesn’t have consensus as to whether there are 1, 2 or 3 different species throughout the wide-spread breeding range.

Rockhoppers may not be big by penguin standards, but they are feisty as can be, prone to frequent squabbles. Their bright red eyes give them a somewhat demonic appearance to go along with that character. They nest on high up cliff faces, often in a mixed colony with either Cormorants or Albatrosses. When you watch them scramble and hop their way straight up the rocks to get to their nests, you can see that the name is quite appropriate. Tough little birds, indeed.

After two days voyage from the Falklands you reach South Georgia Island. South Georgia is basically a long mountain ridge that’s covered in snow and glaciers; it’s a unique combination of spectacular scenery and abundant, approachable wildlife. Safe harbors are virtually all on the eastern (leeward) side of the island.

Our first landing was at Salisbury Plain, home to the second largest King Penguin colony with 60,000 pairs of birds. Kings are the second largest penguin and are over 3 feet tall. Their young take a year to fledge (leave home), the longest of any penguin. The young wear a shaggy brown coat and stand nearly as tall as the adults, and were once thought to be a separate species. I stayed on the beach too long (again) and missed the organized hike up the hill to the colony overlook.  I attempted to do it by myself.  This was my  introduction to tussock grass-  thick clumps of 3+ foot tall grass surrounded by boot-sucking muck.  It proved to be extremely difficult to navigate through and turned me back toward the beach.

Like their cousins the Emperors, King Penguins lay a single egg which they incubate on their feet. On subsequent trips to the Falklands, I’ve had the privilege to watch eggs hatch and chicks get their first meal. Talk about special experiences.

We visited 2 more King Penguin colonies on South Georgia, and I just couldn’t get enough of the Kings and the scenery. An early morning (meaning 3:30 AM) landing at Gold Harbor was spectacular. In addition to the Kings, there were plenty of Gentoos, along with Fur Seals and Elephant Seals. I’ve since returned twice to South Georgia, visiting more of the colonies including the huge St. Andrews Bay colony which is more than double the size of the Salisbury colony. I think it’s pretty safe to say that by the time we left South Georgia on that 2007 trip, I was totally hooked on penguins.

King Penguin colony at Salisbury Plain

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Macaroni Penguin

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You remember Yankee Doodle Dandy, who “stuck a feather in his cap and called it Macaroni”? Well, that’s the same use of a slang term that gave the penguin its name. It seems that way back in the late 1700s, “macaroni” referred to flamboyant or excessive ornamentation. The bright yellow crest of this species fit the description, to the English sailors that named it!

Macaronis are the most numerous penguin in the world, and with over 1 million breeding pairs on South Georgia, far outnumber the Kings. But where King colonies are easily accessible to visitors, Macaronis nest high up on cliff faces which drop to the sea. We visited the colony at Cooper Bay which is the only one I know of that you can get to. I’ve been to it twice now and I can tell you that in “dry” or in deep snow, it’s a challenging task to get up that cliff face to the birds. I have very few photos for the efforts!

We departed South Georgia headed for the Antarctic Peninsula. As we headed south, we passed large icebergs with increasing frequency, including one of the deepest blue, most beautiful icebergs I’ve seen. Upon those icebergs we started seeing Chinstrap Penguins. You can easily see how these guys got their name.

At the South Orkney Islands, we zodiac cruised among the icebergs and along the shoreline for our first look at a Chinstrap colony, where there were some really young chicks. We watched Chinstraps flying off rocks in to the sea, and photographed them standing on icebergs.

Later on the peninsula, we visited a colony on Half Moon Island that had much larger chicks on a glorious sunny day. Chinstraps are one of the most numerous penguins, and their distribution is Circumpolar, meaning they’re found all throughout the Southern Ocean. We even saw one somewhat wayward individual on Macquarie Island, south of Australia, on my trip last November.

Chinstrap Penguins

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Most people who travel to Antarctica visit the Antarctic Peninsula. There are numerous islands up and down the peninsula, and most landings visit these islands, which are technically not on the Antarctic Continent itself. So in order to really say you’ve set foot on Antarctica, you have to have a landing on the actual peninsula. On this trip, that landing was at Brown Bluff, which lies at the extreme northern tip of the peninsula. It was dark, dreary and snowing as we set foot on land and drank a champagne toast to being on the continent. Here was a large colony of Adelie Penguins, the 3rd of the Brushtail family (Gentoo and Chinstrap are the others). We’d now seen 3 of the 4 species that breed in Antarctica, the last being Emperor. Adelies are the quintessential penguin, with all black heads, blue eyes, and a white belly. There were large chicks waiting for parents to return with food. We notice here that the colony is stained pink. The main food source for Adelies is krill, a shrimp-like crustacean, which is…pink. It is substantially more odiferous than other places we’d visited so far, also thanks to that krill. Thereafter, they were known as the Smelly Adelies.

Adelie Penguin

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My next Southern Ocean voyage was in 2012, when I joined a Circumnavigation of South Georgia trip. Santiago, Chile was the departure point for the Falkland Islands, where we boarded the ship. I took advantage of a pre-trip extension, a one day birding tour from Santiago over to the coast at Valparaiso. My main motivation was the opportunity to see Humboldt Penguins. Humboldts are another one of the banded penguin family, and they range along South America’s west coast from Chile north through Peru. We did see a small group of the penguins, on a rock a little ways off shore. Not exactly the kind of views I was hoping for, given so many close encounters with all of the other penguin species I’d seen to that point, but it counts. Who would expect to see any penguin and a cactus in the same (un-Photoshopped) picture??

Humboldt Penguins

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Galapagos Penguin

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Who would expect to see a Penguin together with a Marine Iguana?? This happens with the Galapagos Penguin! Another banded penguin, this is the only penguin that ever comes close to crossing to the Northern Hemisphere. These birds breed on the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago which is right at the equator. I went to the Galapagos in 2018, where we had some great encounters with the penguins, including being able to snorkel with them. For as slow and awkward as penguins appear to be on land, in the water they are like little torpedoes. It was so weird to be baking in the sun and watching penguins! The water around the Galapagos is very cold, fed by the cold Cromwell current, which is what they need for feeding. Not to mention escaping the heat of the land! Galapagos Penguins are the second smallest species, and virtually tied with Yellow-eyed as rarest.

So after the Galapagos trip, I had seen 12 of the penguin species. Many of the remaining species are found only in the Subantarctic Islands south of New Zealand and Australia, so I went looking for a trip to the region. In November 2019, I joined a voyage that covered all of the main islands and had the potential for 3 or 4 new species (depending on how you count the Rockhopper) We did see those 3 (4) species, plus 7 more, for a trip total of 10 (11) penguin species- way more than is possible on an Antarctic Peninsula / South Georgia trip.

First up was the Snares Islands with the endemic Snares Penguin. This is one of the Crested Penguins; actually all of the new species are members of this family, which includes Macaronis. We arrived at the Snares early in the morning to dismal weather conditions, drizzly rain and heavy swell that prevented our being able to get off the main ship in to Zodiacs. We cruised around the island and were eventually able to spot a colony on land. You could tell they were penguins but not much else. A few lucky people managed to see some swimming near the ship, but given the conditions they disappeared so fast I was never able to find one in the water. A reason to go back to the Snares someday, I suppose.

Snares Penguins

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Species or subspecies, that is the question. Is the Eastern Rockhopper a full species, or a sub-species of the Southern Rockhopper seen in the Falklands? It depends on which checklist authority you subscribe to. So if it is a full species, it is #14 of 19 species for me- I’m ready with my documentation to get that “armchair tick” when it happens in eBird!

A few days after the Snares, we were at the Auckland Island group. Sea conditions were much calmer and we were able to get out in the very early morning for a zodiac cruise. No landings were permitted at that island. It was quite dark and gloomy as we cruised along close to the shore. Finally we started spotting small groups of Eastern Rockhoppers as they were coming from their nests in the lush forest, to head out to sea. As the cruise went on, it did get a bit brighter, but I am thankful for the newer digital cameras that can capture decent images in low light. They are just as small and have the same fiery red eyes, but since we saw a few individuals and not a large colony the feisty disposition wasn’t as evident. There is a visible difference between these and the Southern Rockhoppers of the Falklands, their bill is outlined in bright pink skin which the Southern lacks.

Eastern Rockhopper Penguin

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One of the highlights of this voyage was the visit to Sandy Bay on Macquarie Island. Macquarie is the only Australian island we visited, the others are all New Zealand territory, so we had to have Australian visas and passports stamped to visit! One of the reasons this was such a highlight was it was the only landing where we had a high degree of freedom to explore on our own, not in groups or on boardwalk paths. We had plenty of time to visit the King Penguin colony at one end of the bay and the Royal Penguin colony at the other. (This time, I was wiser, and spent most of the time with the Royals and just a short visit to the Kings.) Royal Penguins breed only on Macquarie. It’s a large island and there are numerous colonies. These are very colorful penguins with the bright yellow crest and bright pink bill. They are the only penguin with a mostly white face, giving them a distinctive appearance. Royals are another very feisty bird. At the colony, as individual birds navigated between nests coming and going, they were literally running the gauntlet as they were nipped and squawked at by every bird they passed. They were also pretty curious. I was able to find a place where I could sit quietly and had several groups come over to investigate as they made their way to the sea.

Royal Penguins

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The last new species for the trip was seen in 2 of the island groups, the Antipodes and the Bounties. As was proving typical for the trip, our morning at the Antipodes was miserable, gray, drizzly conditions. Our captain had managed to get us there early and we got out in zodiacs for a nice cruise, before conditions deteriorated and we had to return to the ship. We found one group of Erect-crested Penguins and spent some time observing them on the rocks and in the water as they preened and bathed. The next day at the Bounties, the skies were clear but the swell was unmanageable, so again we cruised in the main ship. We could see huge penguin colonies all across the tops of the rocks, and did manage to spot a few in the water as well. The Bounties are huge, bare rocks sticking out of the water that are absolutely covered in nesting seabirds. There wasn’t a square inch of unclaimed real estate, between the penguins, albatrosses, prions, shags, and a host of other pelagic species. Somehow a number of Sea Lions were squeezed in there too.

Erect-crested Penguin

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What’s next? Hard to say. The 3 species that I haven’t seen in the wild are African, Emperor, and Northern Rockhopper. Of these, African is the most likely. At least they’re not incredibly difficult to get to. Emperors breed only on the Antarctic continent, far inland, which means that you have to helicopter off of a ship to get to them. Unless you get really lucky on a trip to the Ross Sea or find them in the water around the Antarctic Peninsula by happenstance. Or maybe another one will turn up on mainland New Zealand some day. Northern Rockhoppers, sometimes called Moseley’s Penguin, are also very remote. They breed on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Islands in the south Atlantic. Not exactly places that are frequented by cruise ships, but they are also home to other seabirds and occasionally you can find a birding trip that reaches them, so maybe!

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