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Le petit manchot

Le petit manchot

As you may have guessed, the title is French, and manchot means penguin, but what does the word ‘penguin’ mean, and where does it come from? The intellect who gave me insight into this etymological mystery was the legendary David Attenborough. It was a dark, moody day and a light drizzle drifted playfully with the gusting squalls that moved alongside the cliffs. Every so often a stream of sunlight would break through the clouds and a rainbow would materialise over the wild seas. I was sitting next to my macaroni study colony and observing their ways whilst being audibly entertained by Sir David's intriguing stories. One particular story involved the now extinct Great Auk; a large flightless bird with a black back, white belly and upright posture, similar to the penguins we know today. Its distinctive features included a grooved bill, the sides of its neck and head were brown, and it had a large white patch in front of its eyes.

Like penguins, the Great Auk spent most of its year foraging at sea and returned to offshore islands in the Boreal summer to breed. As naval exploration began to radiate in the 16th and 17th centuries, encounters with these birds became increasingly common and by the beginning of the 19th century they had been hunted to extinction for their meat and feathers. During those times the Great Auk was known to sea-farers by another name - 'pengwyn'. It is of Celtic origin and when dissected composes of two welsh words; 'pen' meaning head and 'gwyn' meaning white. This may be an odd description for a bird whose head, apart from a white patch in front of the eyes, is predominantly brown or black, but there are further traits about the Great Auk which I have yet to mention. During the winter months these birds underwent a plumage change similar to that experienced by their relatives, the guillemot and the razorbill, in which their fore-neck, chin, and head feathers turned white. This must have made a significant impression on many a sailor, as the name spread throughout Europe.

When these sea-farers eventually ventured further South and encountered similar birds on sub-Antarctic Islands, the name 'pengwyn' was copied and pasted into log books and journals. Interestingly, over the ages the name stuck for those tuxedo-clad birds in the South, whereas those in the North were reclassified as auks, puffins, guillemots and razorbills. In some languages, the remnant of the Northern Hemisphere's 'pengwyn' still lingers in the French and Spanish words for Great Auk, which are 'Grand Pingouin' and 'Gran Pinguino', respectively.

Two hundred years after the extinction of the 'pengwyn' I've found myself amongst four species of their etymological descendents. Marion island is home to the king penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus, the gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua, the macaroni penguin Eudyptes chrysolophus, and the southern rockhopper penguin Eudyptes chrysocome filholi. Regarding my MSc, I came to Marion to collect data on the foraging ecology and diving behaviour of the latter two, the crested penguins. Eudyptes is derived from Greek and means 'good diver', and chrysolophus and chrysocome mean 'with a golden crest' and 'with golden hair', respectively.

9th December:

"... My summer days at Funk have begun with a bang. Each sunny day tweaks my smile a little further up my cheeks and today is no exception. The kings are trumpeting on the beach, some incubating and some parading up and down in pairs. The maccie colony is radiating brays and testosterone; the males are incubating whilst the females are foraging at sea. I'm waiting for their eggs to hatch and for my three logger birds to return so I can oooh and aaah at their magnificent tracks and deep dives. The sky is a deep blue and the wind is calm; there's a little swell wrapping round from the South and the two-foot waves are clean and clear; a perfect day at the beach."

Over the past few summer months I've spent a vast amount of time at Funk Bay, my macaroni study colony, as well as at my rockhopper study colony near Whalebird Point, equipping birds with GPSs and TDRs and sitting, waiting, wishing for them to return. The GPSs record position (if they're at the surface) at a programmed interval and the TDRs record temperature and pressure, which in turn equates to depth and is used to analyse their diving behaviour.

Macaroni and rockhopper penguins live very similar lives. The only difference is that the rockhoppers arrive at Marion Island two to three weeks later than the macaronis. As a result, their breeding cycles differ by the same margin, which could be to reduce interspecific competition for resources.

The breeding, or chick-rearing, season of each species is divided into two stages; the brood-guard and the creche stage. During the brood-guard stage the female does all the foraging at sea whilst the male remains in the colony to brood/guard the chick, feeding only on his fat reserves. When the female returns from her foraging trip she takes over from the male and regurgitates a meal of krill for her little chick.

The brood-guard stage usually ends after 20-24 days, after which the chick is able to fend for itself. The chicks then stand together in creches while both parents head off into the deep blue to forage.

11th December:

"... I wanted to observe some nest dynamics so I marked a female that was on a chick by smearing strawberry jam on her back (I had run out of provitas to smear it onto). Later on I noticed that her partner was on the chick and that she had disappeared. I then saw her hopping down through the colony from the waterfall pond where she must have had a little drink of fresh water (as they surprisingly do). She and her partner had a greeting dance (flippers back, necks extended, heads up and waving from side to side whilst braying away) then hopped down to the beach where she waded through the loafers and the kings, and dived into the sea. I saw her porpoise a few times; she was heading ESE."

28th December:

"... So tired! Woke up at 04:00 to head down to Funkytown to see whether any of the loggers I deployed on the 26th were back. Beautiful sunrise but no logger birds around. I reckon they're taking longer foraging trips because their chicks are getting larger and can thus go longer without food. Central Foraging Theory predicts that birds will forage as closest to the island as possible, so if they encounter prey they will catch it. However, because of the large concentration of penguins diving for food there is a massive consumption of resources, and so the waters nearest to the island become depleted across the season. This may force them to travel further and take longer foraging trips to search for well stocked waters."

30th December:

"... The maccie chicks are so cute. They're really big now and are even standing next to their parents, sometimes looking like they're just about to fall over... They look as if they're trying so hard to be mature when they preen themselves, mimicking their parents."

After 60-70 days of life, the chicks eventually lose their fluffy down, whereafter they head to sea for the rest of the year until returning for the next summer's madness. At the same time, the parents, now with no responsibilities, head to sea for two weeks to indulge themselves and fatten up for their one month long moulting period which they will spend on land developing a slick new set of feathers.

Before I came to Marion these creatures were but a fairytale to me, only to be seen on BBC Wildlife documentaries and in my dreams. I've since had the opportunity to watch them build their nests, mate and nurture their eggs. I've watched them peck at each other furiously as well as prune and snuggle. I've watched as a shell broke open and a little chick let out its first chirps. I've watched parents come home from a hard day's work at sea and greet their partners with a brilliant display, shouting to the rooftops, before saying a little hello to their chicks and giving them a meal. I've watched the same little chicks grow and stumble around in all their cuteness, and I've watched an unlucky few get carried away in the beak of a skua. I've watched them lose their down and become penguins, penguins that will someday nurture their own eggs and feed their own chicks. I've watched, and I've experienced, and that is something I am truly grateful for, and will never forget.