Saturday, November 25, 2006

 

Ours were Magellanic Penguins


We finally watched the "March of the Penguins" on Hallmark Channel. Wow! Who knew how rough they had it? We got such a kick watching them slide along on their bellies.

About two to two and a half hours' drive - no enforced speed limit :) - north on Ruta 3, from where we lived in Rada Tilly is a small sign indicating a turnoff to Cabo dos Bahias, near Camarones. After a 15 minute drive east, the paved road ends at a gate that is usually open; beyond, the road is sand. In the open desert beside this track we usually see guanacos, ñandues, maras (a rare large relative of the guinea pig), occasionally a zorro, and rabbits. At another gate and we stop to greet the park caretaker - if he's around (he takes care of a few orphan baby guanacos and sometimes he lets us pet one), and then we continue a few more kilometers to a parking area a quarter-mile from the coast.

If the season is right, between us and the coast are tens if not hundreds of thousands of pinguinos. A rundown fenced-in boardwalk leads down to a viewing area just behind the beach itself. The surrounding fields are completely filled with burrows dug a foot or so into the sandy soil with one or two (sometimes with an egg, sometimes with a baby) penguins at each hole. As far as you can see, are nests with one penguin sitting halfway out of the hole and another standing beside it. And everywhere you look there are penguins on the move, heading toward or away from the beach. At times a handful of the somewhat larger ñandues would wander completely unmolested through the colony, carefully stepping around the burrows and any marching penguins.The ammonia smell is almost overpowering. The noise is almost deafening. Unlike the Emperor Penguins, which appear to hum, the Magellanics bray more like donkeys - and just as loud.

As we walk down the boardwalk to the beach occasionally one might step into our path and prepare to defend its nearby nest from all intruders. After braying and preening, it snaps its beak and might even nip at our clothes as we gingerly ease past. The path ends at a point overlooking the rocky beach and small bay with several rock islands just offshore. Long lines of penguins waddle to and from the beach, sometimes crossing the overlook right beside where we are standing. On the beach itself, are thousands of penguins right up to the waterline. In groups of five to ten, they fall into the water together and swim away. For every group that jumps in, another group staggers ashore. On one visit, we notice that the beach is unusually crowded and none of the penguins are in the water. Then we see a group of "lobos marinos" (literally "sea wolves", but we know them as sea lions) laying on one of the rocky islands just offshore. Nobody wants to be eaten, so they just patiently stand waiting until one of them is dumb enough to blunder into the water and satisfy the hungry sea lions or the sea lions finally give up and move on.

This preserve is so "off the map" that few people even know about it and many times we are the only one visitors. How strange to be alone with this noisy pulsating colony of unusual creatures! We couldn't get enough of it and used any excuse to go back again and again. A larger, more "touristy" rookery is located further north near Punto Tombo just south of Puerto Madryn. Just north of Puerto Madryn we can sit
on the beach and watch the ballena francas (southern right whale), one of the largest creatures on earth, swimming just a few yards offshore, sometimes rolling to show their fins, sometimes turning out to sea with a slap of their tails as they dive deeper for food. They gather by the hundreds in this bay annually for mating. On the northeast side of the bay is Punta Piramedes, where we see large colonies of lobos marinos and elefantos marinos along the shore. In an interesting turnabout often some of these colonies are huddled on the beach, afraid of the orcas waiting just offshore for their meal.

Once in a while, during their migrations to and from their colonies along the coast to the north of us, some of the penguins would pull into our bay at Rada Tilly and wander onto the beach. They'd rest for a bit near the waterline, then turn around and head back into the water to continue their trek. But one fall afternoon we noticed a distant small black shape come out of the water at one of the extreme low tides and slowly meander up the beach to the road and cross it right into our driveaway and up onto our lawn. Then it stopped and stood motionless. To keep any curious dogs away I carefully closed the gate on the driveway and we called animal rescue. A roll of film and one hour later, the penguin remained unmoving until the rescue group arrived. They carefully approached the little guy with a net and gently herded it into a cage. They said they would transport it to the Cabo dos Bahias preserve. What an experience for 6-year-old Z (and for this 48-year-old)!

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