FALKLAND ISLANDS - IV. Rockhopper Penguin
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About Rockhopper Penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome)

The English name "Rockhopper" is very fitting name for this penguin. When you see these little chaps (45 - 58 cm tall and 2 - 4 kg of weight) hopping on the rocks above the sea, then you know their name is actual mnemonic and that you'll never forget it.

The rockhoppers live on the rocks - as you can guess - above the sea, they're not eagles, they're penguins. It's not entirely true about the sea, of course, rockopper lives on the rocks above the sea but we saw it nesting often on originally grassy slopes quite a distance from the water. Almost always accompanied by other species like Black-browed Albatross, and mostly Rock Shag, the rockhoppers live among cormorants' elevated clay nests.
I wrote "on originally grassy slopes" because the colony transforms however originally grassy slope into entirely bare clay. Besides, great number of little penguin feet with sharp nails which travel up and down the slope, scratch all the clay away and leave just a bare rock-base.
Tučňák skalní. Kolonie. Saunders Island. Falklandy. 2009.

A colony

A united colony of cormorants and rockhoppers is an attack on the senses. Concerning smell it is quite clear that any group of living beings (people not excluded) on a limited area has a specific odour. I couldn't remember the last time I was looking for a place to photo by smelling.

We were looking for a penguin colony at a remote end of Sea Lion Island and we were about to give it up because the sheer cliffs we were passing seemed to be unsuitable for rockhoppers, not to mention we were quite a way from our lodgings. Then our noses caught the characteristic "scent". We followed the scent and reach our destination after some 300 meters. The colony was over hill.

The space in a colony is very limited, so the privacy of "colonists" suffer. There's not even a space to… Well it is more precise to say that everyone defecates on everyone. It is though surprising that after such a interference, the penguin involved is not angry at his neighbour's behaviour at all, it just shakes. Although the "action" carries some implications in a shape of pinkish spots, which come probably from well-digested squids and prawns. Some of the penguins look like they got into a hostile fire. I'm not sure, but I think it must affect their feathers, or it must burn them at least. So they go and bathe. The freshwater is not always available so they bathe in saltwater, for which they undertake a steep journey to the sea and back to their place in a colony. Because of the demanding terrain the rockhoppers use always one path to the nest and another from the nest down; with this they eliminate otherwise great traffic jam.
And they hop elegantly and amazingly, how else.
Tučnák skalní. Saunders Island. Falklandy. 2009.

Squeaker and tyke

The hearing is also under a trial in a colony. Rockhopper is a squeaker. It protects its territory in a colony with intensive, almost ecstatic crying with its head back and the beak straight up. Very often. If you saw penguins crowded one to another, crossing the colony to go bathing, look for a food or bringing the food to their offspring, and cormorants landing in that total mess for the same reasons, then you think the idea of penguins having their nesting territory, where you cannot trespass without punishment, a mere illusion. So a penguin shouting on a neighbour (from a human point of view) who have just carelessly disturbed the penguin's personal space: "Get outta here, or I claw you to pieces, damnit!", nudging, cheeking and occasional fights are understandable and more than common. On top of that a male and a female tune and synchronize their voices, how else than very loudly and after feeding of a nestling they often communicate, also very loudly, about how well they're taking care of it.
However they are rather small they can easily drive away big and strong Southern Skua, which are constantly patrolling "their" colony and waiting for an opportunity to snatch any food for themselves abd that might mean death of a penguin sometimes. I saw how a rockhopper drove away Southern Skuas feasting on a dead body of another rockhopper. The whole colony highly supported the one with mighty crying. The driven-away skuas returned after some time and snatch the dead penguin again. The penguin fighter didn't show up again, so the little episode happened quite quietly. The chaluhy were shortly after that chased out by Striated Caracara, who came to blows with flying-in Vulture and after fifteen minutes there was nothing left of the poor penguin apart of a small amount of indigestible feathers.
Excellent usage of food sources in this geographical latitude.
Tučnák skalní. Obrana. Saunders Island. Falklandy. 2009


Although the rockhoppers spend most of their time at the sea, they nest on the land. The males return from the sea sooner than the females, to prepare a nest. But I think it is more to demarcate the nesting territory, because the "building" of the nest couldn't take that much time. The nest is usually consisting of few little stones grouped together. Man can't often recognize the nest from its surroundings. On the "nest", that is to say in the space bordered by those stones, the female lays usually one smaller egg and after four days another bigger egg. She warms them both up. The first egg is often something like a trial. A nestling from the bigger has of course more chances to survive. The male is watching over the offspring for approximately three weeks, during this time the female goes for hunting food to the sea. After this they switch places. They go hunting in a synchronized groups to the distance of 25 or even 50 kilometres from the rookery. They dive to catch squibs and crustaceans to the maximum depth of 100 meters. Predigested food, a dense gumbo grounded from cephalopods covered in viscous saliva (among other things it slides better) they transfer from their throat to the beak of their nestling. And they rejoice at it very loudly and obviously, parents even with the nestlings.
Tučňák skalní. Krmení mláděte. Sea lion Island. Falklandy. 2009.

On the Saunders Island where the access from the sea to the colony is easier, we can see penguins returning from a hunt, how they group together, swim like ducks with their heads above the water and waiting for the best opportunity, as they were picking up their courage to overcome those few meters dividing them from the coast. When they finally make the decision the usual swimming at 8 kmph suddenly changes to a flight. Flight of a pack underwater.
If the sea is disturbed, that return of the penguins is better for a photographer. It is because the penguins use the waves, in packs they jumped over the waves and they fly out (they're birds after all) onto the rocks on the coast. The waves are usually nice to look at when there is a wind, but the wind is often accompanied by a rain. So there is considerable amount of water falling down on a camera and objective, a water which has no other desire than to reach the camera's electronic. A salt solution of a spray, brought horizontally with the wind, likes to settle down on a camera lenses and causes softening of pattern or even slows down the autofocus and makes it imprecise. The equipment suffers. Windchill is around zero, wet hands and faces go blue. All the same, we stay several hours, until the penguins keep returning from hunting, even after that when the sky goes dark enough that the shorter exposure needed is no longer possible.
Tučňák skalní. Skok. Saunders Island. Falklandy. 2009

Although the Falkland Islands are one of the main localities of the rockhopper and there live about 300.000 couples, in 30's it was approximately 2.5 million couples. Solely on the Sea Lion Island the population dropped from 150.000 couples in 1933 to mere 1.000 couples in 1992. There's no doubt that a reckless collecting of penguins' eggs did its bit. For example on Kidney Island 25.000 eggs from 12.500 couples were picked up during 1915... Another reason for penguins-loss was a famine. The main source of food for penguins - krill, is very delicate when concerning temperature swings. In 70's we were urgently warned against the global winter, but the temperature of the sea grew and it caused the amount of krill drop in the locality, which led to mass die-up of rockhoppers starving to death.
Despite all of this, the population of rockhoppers is slowly increasing recently.
Tučňák skalní. Sea lion Island. Falklandy. 2009

Bohdan Němec, Stanley (FI) and Pilsen(CZ), April 2009

Translation from czech original version by Tereza Němcová: gwareth@seznam.cz
Comments on article 'FALKLAND ISLANDS - IV. Rockhopper Penguin'
Comment 1-2 / 2
11.12.2009 10:35:23
Bohdan Němec
Vzdyt ses taky dost snazil, ne?
11.12.2009 09:39:28
Václav Bambula
Mas to moc pekne
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