The Scenic South Peninsula is again providing excitement for twitchers! This time the focus is on a Northern Rockhopper Penguin at Soetwater Resort near Kommetjie.
Years ago, when almost every bird to me was a “mossie”, I attended a Bird Identification course at Adult Education at Fish Hoek High School. Sitting at the back of the class furiously taking notes, I thought how aptly named the Rock Opera Penguin was. (It was my faulty hearing – no fault of the illustrious experts from UCT!) The fellow on the slide reminded me of Alice Cooper or one of those other olde worlde rock stars.
So it was with great excitement that I grabbed up my binocs and camera this morning after reading a MegaAlert email from Trevor Hardaker(http://hardakerwildlife.wordpress.com/) stating that a Northern Rockhopper Penguin had been found at Soetwater yesterday afternoon. I envisioned bringing home glorious pictures of a plumed and beautiful bird. Alas, the wind was blowing and I could not hold my simple camera still and the opera star was a ‘little grey man’, a youngster moulting desolately on his own. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to have seen this visitor from foreign shores and my hope is that he will find his way back to his colony in due course.
Trevor Hardaker writes: “The bird is showing obvious signs of active moult, but otherwise, looks to be healthy (from a layman’s point of view). The moult seems to have progressed a little bit, so I would surmise that it has probably been ashore for a day or two already. In other words, I wouldn’t leave it too much longer before heading on down there. They are normally ashore for 10 day to 2 weeks to complete their moult…, but one shouldn’t leave these things too long just in case…”
The Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes chrysocome is classified as endangered. It is found in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, breeding on just seven islands – mainly Gough Island and the Trista da Cunha Islands. Over the last three generations (32 years) the populations have declined by 57% (Birdlife International 2010)
There are three subspecies of Rockhoppper penguins – the Southern, Eastern and Northern. They are amongst the smallest species of penguins with a length of about 52cm with an average weight of about 3kgs. The adults have white underparts, slate grey upperparts, a bright yellow eyebrow and long yellow plumes behind the eye. Spiked black feathers at the top of the head add to their rock star appearance.
Adults congregate at the breeding colonies in late July and August. These colonies are very large, with up to 100,000 nests at a breeding site. The penguins return to their same nests each year, renovating them each time with sticks and vegetation found in the area. As the penguins regularly drink fresh water, the breeding sites are usually close to natural springs or fresh water sources. The female usually lays two eggs. The first egg is laid 4-5 days earlier than the second and is smaller than the second. It is uncommon for the Northern Rockhopper to raise more than one chick.
Incubation of the eggs takes about a month with the parents sharing the first ‘shift’, the female taking the second ‘shift’ and the male the third, during which time the partner goes to sea to feed. The male broods over the chick for the first 25 days while the female brings home the food – (certainly not bacon!) After this the chicks join the nursery while both parents forage for food.
Chicks have black bills and do not have the yellow markings of the adults. Pre-breeding young birds have a faint yellow strip above the eye and a reddish brown bill. Only mature birds have the crest.
The chicks are fledged at about 10 weeks. The adults moult for about 25 days each year before leaving their breeding sites to spend the winter feeding at sea. Studies have shown that the penguins can spend up to 70% of their time at sea underwater.
Rockhopper Penguins eat mainly krill and fish and also crustaceans and octopus.
In the past the penguin populations have been threatened as a result of egg collection, through being used as bait in crab pots as bait, and through predation by feral pigs and dogs. More recently they have been affected by fishing practices, climate change, pollution from ecotourism and the fishing industry.
Two photos received from Trygve Hvidsten of Noordhoek. Many thanks, Tryg!