Fieldwork with penguins: A fishy business
by Nataly H. Aranzamendi
An island that smelled like fish
In 2007, I visited Ushuaia in south Argentina to spend some time learning about whales and seabirds. The view at the “end of the world” or Fin del Mundo as it is locally known, was breathtaking. This corner of the world where mountains meet the ocean, is a fantastic place to find occasional whales and seabirds circumventing marine waters.
Moreover, the surrounding islands in the Beagle Channel are excellent breeding places for Magellanic penguins. As soon as I heard that researchers were studying penguins nearby, I signed up for the adventure.
The day to visit the island finally arrived. We were three people including the main researcher. The first thing I noticed when disembarking was the strong smell of fish and guano that came from the island. It was the middle of the breeding season and fish was the main food item.
We settled our camp and started the hard work. Turns out that when daylight lasts for over 20 hours and there are hundreds of nesting penguins, work days can get pretty full. Our routine started around 9am and finished around 8pm. Every day we visited more than 60 nests.
Penguins on the beach near a penguin breeding colony.
First, some facts about Magellanic Penguins
Magellanic Penguins are birds that live in coastal Argentina, Chile and the Falkland islands. They are medium-sized penguins reaching 61–76 cm (24-30 in) tall, weighing between 2.7 and 6.5 kg (6 – 14 lbs), in which males are larger than females. They breed in underground cavities, where they generally lay two eggs. Incubation lasts 39–42 days, a task that the parents both share in 10- to 15-day shifts. The chicks are cared for by both parents for 29 days and are fed every two to three days1.
The purpose of our visit was to put GPS trackers on some parents to find out how far and how deep they go to find food. We also needed to record how many of the chicks will survive at the end of the breeding season. Generally, parents have two chicks but often only one survives2.
What’s it like working with penguins in the wild?
Each person had his or her own task. We would slowly approach the nest and one of us (the most experienced one) would take the male, the second person restraining the female (if both present) while the third person dug in the nest to extract the chicks, measure them and mark them. All of us worked as fast as we could.
My first unexpected surprise was that parents were extremely strong. Their serrated bills, which are adapted to hold slippery fish, were a real danger for our hands. Since our major concern was always the penguins’ safety, we had to do everything as calmly but as fast as we could, so protecting our hands was not a priority. The second unexpected surprise was the penguins’ defense mechanism, which is called “defensive vomiting.”3
Defensive vomiting is a mechanism used by several animals to scare-off attackers or predators. We discovered that not only parents knew how to make us flinch, but the chicks also joined in on their vomiting act. After visiting the first two nests, I realized that this work was not for people with sensitive stomachs.
Our three-day experience continued just like that. Since we were in a protected penguin sanctuary, there was no real accommodation for humans. The island belonged to the penguins and we had no facilities besides our tent to clean ourselves properly. Those were the “fishiest” days I had to endure in my entire life. Although it was summer, temperatures were close to zero degrees Celsius (32 F), so that was just one more factor restraining us from dipping in the ocean which looked more and more inviting the dirtier we got.
And those penguins never stop making noise!
In the summer, penguins have limited time to breed, so they do not stop their activities. Even when it’s dark, they continue calling their partners as they return from foraging. This means that there is a constant loud concert of hundreds of penguins when you are trying to sleep.
I think those days were the hardest, smelliest days of fieldwork that I have had in my whole career. Despite all the challenges, however, it was amazing to experience such an adventure. We were fortunate to access such a plentiful colony. Magellanic Penguins are protected species and not everyone is lucky to look inside their lives. At times we were so smelly and covered with dirt, that in a certain sense, we felt part of the colony.
What do you think about Magellanic Penguins, their lives, and more? Are they your favorite penguin? If not, what is? Would love to hear what you think, what you learned, and more!
Visit our other recent blogs to read more about penguins:
2. Scioscia, G., Rey, A. R., & Schiavini, A. (2016). Breeding biology of Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) at the Beagle Channel: interannual variation and its relationship with foraging behaviour. Journal of Ornithology, 157(3), 773-785.