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|Chinstrap Penguins (pygoscelis Antarctica)
The chinstrap is one of the three long-tailed species of penguins, the other two being the gentoo and adelie. It breeds as far south as Anvers Island in the Palmer Archipelago in the Antarctic Peninsula and there are good populations of them in the South Shetlands, South Orkneys and South Sandwich Islands. It also has colonies on the Bouvet Island, Heard Island and the Balleny Islands.
Chinstraps on Elephant Island
|There are about 80,000 chinstraps in Deception Island in the South Shetlands and about 120,000 at Bailey Head. This is an active volcano and the chinstraps breed along the edge of an old caldera.|
A Long Walk
|There are estimated to be over 6 million chinstraps world-wide and 5 million nest on the South Sandwich Islands.
It breeds high up on steep slopes, the more experienced birds getting the sites nearer the bottom. It can take one or two hours for the less privileged birds to reach their nests and they get there by walking not hopping.
| At Bailey Head on Deception Island there was a very well worn track, over rocks and through streams, which the chinstraps have probably been walking on for millenia.|
Smart Little Birds
|They are smart little birds with a black cap, thin black beak and the narrow band across its throat, which gives them their name. They have also been called the stone cracker penguin because of their penetrating call. It has reddish brown eyes with a black eye ring and pink feet. Its height is about 30inches (76cm) and weight about 4kg (8.8lb). The chinstraps I saw at the Polish Antarctic Station seemed to be smaller than the adelies there.
They can often be seen hauled out on icebergs or ice floes in the area.
A Chinstrap Nest Site
|Its incubation period is about 37 days with the eggs hatching in early February. They are quite aggressive birds, more so than the shyer gentoos and their nests are carefully spaced at a safe distance away from each other to avoid nasty pecks.|
Nests of Small Stones
|Nests are scrapes in the ground lined with small stones, pebbles bits of vegetation or bone fragments. Suitable nest materials are often at a premium and they will nick pebbles from other nests given the chance. Disputes are quite common and as the incoming birds wend their way through the colony to their nest they are often treated to a warning peck as they go by.|
|Two eggs are laid in Nov/Dec and both chicks normally survive to fledge in Feb/March.
The female lays the two eggs and after taking the initial incubation shift stays on the nest for the first week or so.
|When a parent returns home relieve its mate and feed the chicks there is a “honey I’m home” ceremony when the birds put their beaks in the air and make characteristic calls.
It takes about seven weeks from the time the eggs are laid till the chicks hatch. Chicks are light gray with darker backs, pink feet and black bills.
Feeding the Chicks
|They search for food among the pack ice which is rich in food at all levels of the food chain. They eat mainly krill and dive up to 100 m in their hunting trips, bringing back about 30gm of krill with which the chicks are fed once a day.|
Chicks Growing Up
|As the chicks grow bigger they become ravenous for food and will chase the newly returned parent so that quite a scrum develops. Sometimes the parent seems quite afraid and runs away with the chicks following but the chicks always get fed with regurgitated krill from the parents stomach.
When the breeding season is over and the chicks are fully fledged, after feeding at sea the birds, return to land to moult. This takes about three weeks. The birds are not waterproof at this time and cannot go back to sea so lose 1 or 2 kg in weight. The nest site then becomes covered with a “snow” of feathers.
A Courageous Little Bird
|I have two very special mental images of chinstraps which fill me full of admiration for these little birds. The first was at Cape Lookout on Elephant Island in the South Shetlands. In this picture in the centre is a fur seal beach master. These animals are very territorial, very aggressive and will attack humans without provocation. They will especially ferociously fight any other male fur seal coming into its territory. The one in the centre of this picture, in pursuing its enemy went right over the little chinstrap nesting on the rock to the seal’s right. As I watched in horror the chinstrap didn’t budge at all but stayed protecting its chicks and with beak pointing skyward kept pecking at the seal as it went over. What a little star! As far as I could see the chicks were alright.
A Determined Parent
|The second image which haunts me still was at Bailey Head on Deception Island where, on climbing to the top of the colony I passed a sick chinstrap heading back to sea. It looked absolutely exhausted and had a nasty wound looking like a bullet hole under its wing. It kept stopping to rest for a while then setting off again. It looked rather dirty with penguin poo on its back as though other penguins had passed over it. The determined little thing had obviously struggled to get back to its nest, feed its chicks and was going back for more krill. If it was a weaker or more inexperienced bird it would probably had a nest very high up the hill with longer to walk. When I came back down to go back to the ship it was a little further but still struggling. If it got back to the sea it would be in its natural element and I just hoped that the food and the curative salt water would heal and restore it otherwise its chicks might not survive either. As it was resting other penguins would give it a peck as it went by. Whether this was an encouraging peck or being mean to a loser I don’t know.
Great Skua on Watch
|Predators on chinstraps are orcas and leopard seals at sea and on land there is always a great skua or giant petrel which will take eggs or vulnerable chicks if the opportunity arises.|
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