In the Falkland Islands, we encountered our first penguins, a colony of Rock Hoppers. The name is self-explanatory, except that most of the other penguins we saw were also able to hop up and over rocks with energy and skill. The Rock Hoppers are two feet high, and can hop up a rock face about half their own height. Try it. No hands. Standing start. It helps to have very strong claws and sandpaper feet to grip.

Penguins on land remind me of my niece at age two, still learning the finer points of walking. She’d pull her arms back, thrust her chin forward and toddle down the sidewalk slightly off balance in the forward direction. She, however, could not hop up half her body height.

Rockhoppers in Tussock Grass Steve Pearson

On Westpoint Island, the Rock Hopper rookery was on a cliff face theyshared with nesting black-browed albatross. We snuggled in the tussock grass out of the wind to watch the penguin path at a point where it wound outside of the clumps of waist-high tussac grass on the other side of a small meadow. We were at the top of the cliff, and by the time the penguins trod this stretch of path, they had hopped and plodded their way up about five hundred vertical feet from the sea. When the penguin in the lead of a cohort spied us, it stopped and examined what he found. Usually, it turned back for a moment, uncertain. Sometimes it just forged ahead. When sensing no threat, they all continued single file toward their nests further up the cliff.

Rock Hoppers weight about six pounds, the size of a good-sized chicken. They have red eyes, red bill and pink feet. A crest of starched feathers crowns the back of their head, like a crew cut and on either side, a rakish swish of bright yellow feathers casts back from above the eye to a fetching droop. As we watched the parade of Rock Hoppers plodding their way back home, one friend said, “They look like a bunch of punk rockers on their way to a Halloween party.”

Rock Hoppers will plod up and down hills of rock, snow, moss or stumpy grass to their nests. You’d think a nest by the sea would be more convenient and limit the awkward land-bound toddling. Though swift and graceful in the water, on land, penguins must deal with gravity and a body not designed for upright mobility. It’s the marching up and down the cliffs that amazed me. After leaving Westpoint Island, the ship sailed around the island and very close to where we had been sitting. From the sea, we could see the faint trail made by centuries of penguin toenail scratches, winding its way up into the crown of grass. The diligent birds working their way up and down were just tiny black and white dots.

Penguins walk in a half crouch, their thighbones relatively parallel to the ground. Some information indicated their knees were fused. Imagine your knees fused at a right angle. You have to squat and tilt forward to get your center of gravity over your feet. Now drape a lot of flesh between your ankles. Now try to walk. No wonder they look awkward. Going uphill, they thrust their beak at an intended step, balanced by flipper-wings back even further, maybe to examine the next spot before leaping. Then, a hop that looks easy, and they grab the new rock with amazing sureness. If the climb gets tiresome, a bit of a nap is in order. Climbers congregated where the trail flattened a bit, and stood to rest, or flopped on their fish filled belly. Then, onward and upward. Coming down hill required more head thrusts, some slipping was expected, but they rarely fell all the way down. If the slope was snowy or muddy, sledding was in order, an easy belly flop followed by placid oaring with the feet.

Chinstrap Penguin Steve Pearson

No penguins live north of the equator, but when they are not nesting, they range widely in the southern hemisphere. In the southern spring, some species return to the Falklands or the Antarctic shores to set up house again. The snow was long gone in the Falklands, and the stone nests were repaired and ready for the eggs when we visited. Our December visit to the Antarctic occurred early in the nesting season there, and we saw the colonies in their first stages. When the penguins arrive, the snow is often not yet melted off last year’s sites, but each Adele penguin-couple knows where their own pile of special stones is. They wait nearby for the snow to melt. Spontaneous calls erupt to ensure neighbors understand who owns that spot. When a partner returns from dinner in the sea they renew their bond with snaking necks and cheerful greetings shouted to the sky.

We learned later that the melting snow in the Antarctic defined the pattern of concentration of nests in any colony. Early chicks grew quicker and were the most likely to survive. The first areas to be exposed were taken by older, more senior couples. The places where the snow melted later were left to the younger pairs or ones who had to find another mate due to the death of last year’s mate.

Macaroni Penguin Anna King photo

The ample flesh under the belly is important for incubation, and thenaked brood spot in the middle of the fold is rich in blood vessels. When a penguin returns to the nest, it straddles the egg and adjusts its baggy lower regions around the orb so the brood patch is properly positioned for maximum warmth, and then it lowers itself into a squat. It can also lie down without disturbing anything but cannot preen while incubating. Preening must be carefully done for warmth and buoyancy in the icy water, so when a penguin leaves its egg duty, it first takes the time to revive the oil on its feathers.

I mentioned to someone before going that I wanted to bring back rocks. She replied, “Oh, you can’t do that. There are so few rocks that the penguins steal them from each other.” That wasn’t quite the case. In the colonies we saw, the nests were crowded as close as possible, leaving only enough room between each personal rock pile and the next so the neighbors could not conveniently steal the stones that kept the egg off the wet ground. At one colony, we walked around several unused nests with the same size stone as in the active nests. The penguins prefer to steal the stones from active nests, and it was even better if there was someone on the nest who objected to the pilfering. Maybe this gives the stolen stone higher value as a gift to the sitting parent and seemed to be more like a proof of pairing, lest I say love, than what was required for construction.

One of the hazards of living close toyour neighbors is getting hit by their explosive excrement, which can shoot up to ten feet from the source. Nests are three to six feet apart, so many penguins sat for hours with white or pink streaks across their back. Early in the season, the pink dashes radiate out from each nest, making a rather Jackson Pollack-like design. Later, I understand, the patterns disappear as the guano builds to a pungent, knee-deep stew.

In a protected part of a southern bay, we watched a hundred birds bathe much as a robin will do in a puddle, throwing up water in sprays, picking and preening to clean stubborn stains. Because they were floating, they could swish their tails with vigor to clean their nether regions. They would lie on one side and swish and splash, the upward wings in the air, and then turn to the other side for a good swish, until they were properly cleaned. The water was very clear in that bay, and when the penguins tired of their bathing, they slid underwater, to swim fast as a bird can fly. They streaked among the others, or zipped away into the bay, surfacing with a brief jump out for a breath of air, and then down again. They use their flippers to give them momentum by stroking in both directions. Several times on the ship, I noticed boiling water ahead of us. As we drew closer, I could see leaping penguins amidst the boil. These were the ones coming ashore after feeding, or headed out to sea. There is safety in numbers when leopard seals lurk along the coastal colonies.

Choose your Neighbors Well

We saw six species of penguins on the trip. In the Falklands, we saw a few Magellanic penguins, that nest in holes under the tussock grass. The colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula were primarily Adeles, Gentoos and Chinstraps. All had the characteristic white front and black back coloring, which protects them from predators at sea. Adeles breed furthest south and have a black head with a white circle around the eye. Gentoos have a white swish back from their eye, while the smaller chinstraps have the thin black line under their white chin. A few Macaroni penguins were mixed into one of the colonies, and stood out with the yellow-feathered swish more prominent than the Rock Hoppers.