By Michael Hutchins
As we here at ABC look back on our 20 years of working to bring back the birds, I've been reflecting on my own experiences in bird research and conservation.
One of my favorite experiences took place in 1988, when I helped with research at Punta Tombo in Patagonia, Argentina. There I assisted in the banding of over 2,000 Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) as part of the long-term research of Dr. Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, who is often referred to as “the Jane Goodall of penguins.” At the time, I was working as a conservation biologist at the Bronx Zoo, administered by the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society).
You don't normally think of penguins as residents of arid regions; often people think about cold-region species like the King Penguin. But several species have adapted to warmer climates, and in great numbers: back then, over one-half million pairs of Magellanic Penguins courted, bred, and built their nests at Punta Tombo.
This arid peninsula is 3 kilometers long, 600 meters wide, and covered in sand, clay, and gravel, with only sparse vegetation. In 1979, the Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve was established to protect the penguin colony as well as other wildlife in the region.
Beginning in September and throughout the Patagonian spring, hordes of penguins begin to arrive on the coast from southern Brazil, congregating to court, mate, and build nests to rear their young. When laying eggs and rearing chicks, pairs of adult birds dig a shallow nest in the ground, which the Argentine biologists refer to as cuevas or caves.
Dr. Boersma's work has focused on the breeding biology and behavior of the penguins, as well as their ecology and population dynamics. Our research group's role was to capture, tag, and obtain physiometric measurements from as many penguins as possible during our 10-day stay.
We set up our tents in the midst of the huge penguin colony. Magellanic Penguins vocalize constantly, so sleep was only possible with a good set of ear plugs. In fact, a pair of penguins was living right under my tent, and they frequently began their loud “braying” in the middle of the night.
Each morning, we would rise at the crack of dawn, have a quick breakfast, and then begin working in the hot sun, only stopping for lunch. Since the work involved tagging and measuring the birds, each of us had to be trained in proper penguin capture and handling. Because they are adapted for fish-eating, the birds have sharp, powerful beaks that can deliver a painful bite, often breaking the skin. Consequently, they must be handled with care.
After carefully removing a penguin from its cueva, we measured the bird with a flexible tape measure and weighed the bird by placing it in a sling on a scale. Before letting the penguin loose again, we attached a metal tag with a unique number to a flipper using a special application tool. The entire procedure took about 5-10 minutes per bird. Using this method, our group tagged, measured, and recorded data on over 2,000 individuals during our brief time there.
Dr. Boersma has learned a great deal about these birds and applied this knowledge to penguin conservation. In fact, she found that the Punta Tombo colony has declined over 20 percent since 1987, primarily due to changes in the availability of prey. In addition, during the last decade, the birds were swimming about 25 miles farther to obtain needed food, possibly because of commercial fishing and climate change.
Oil pollution is also a problem. In the 1980s, 80 percent of dead penguins found on the beach were covered with oil. In 1994, these findings resulted in a policy change, with passing oil tankers being moved farther away from the coast, and this has helped reduce oil-related mortality.
I was fortunate to have an opportunity to see and photograph many species of birds and mammals – and of course, to have many a close-up encounter with the Magellanic Penguins – during this trip to Patagonia. It was an incredible experience for a young biologist, and one that I will never forget.
Dr. Michael Hutchins is ABC's National Coordinator of the Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign. He has traveled to over 30 countries and six continents to pursue his passion for wildlife and nature conservation. Prior to joining ABC, Michael held leadership roles at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and The Wildlife Society. He has authored over 220 articles and books on wildlife science, management, and conservation – including many on birds.