Penguins are in trouble and, quite frankly, we are the only ones who can help them. Fully two-thirds of the seventeen penguin species are showing signs of population pressure and a resulting decrease in numbers. Some of the causes contributing to these losses are known (over-fishing that alters the availability of food sources, oil spills, etc.) but much is unknown and that is the dilemma we face. A problem cannot be solved until we know all of its parts. Documenting the unknown world of crested penguins along Chile’s southern coast is the focus of Feather Link’s research and why your support is so critical. Working as partners we can assure their future survival.
The Southern Rockhopper Penguins (Eudyptes c. chrysocome) and Macaroni Penguins (Eudyptes chrosolophus) in Chile are restricted to a few small coastal islands. Their numbers have declined by at least 30% over the past 30 years and because of this both taxa have been classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN/BirdLife International Red List 1
This designation, vulnerable, is both a vague and foreboding term? Everything appears to be fine on the surface and if nothing changes all may remain that way. But like the proverbial house of cards if one card is dislodged or removed the seemingly strong house collapses in an instant. With regard to these two penguin species and their ecosystems we cannot sit back and think that nothing will change. After all, in today’s world, change is synonymous with progress and, in all likelihood, undetected changes are already underway.
Far too many endangered species have fallen victim to people reacting too late with too little knowledge of the circumstances. At present, there is no comprehensive program in place to monitor long-term penguin population trends among the coastal islands of Chile 2,3. Feather Link’s approach to this is proactive and designed to fill the critical gap in what we know. We are working with the government of Chile, to provide unbiased information and future recommendations on how to conserve the Rockhopper Penguins and the resources they need to survive.
Rockhopper penguins are nearsighted on land. Their basic black and white “coloring” is easier to see.
Eudyptes chrysocome, the Latin name for the rockhopper, translates to “good diver with the golden hair”.
Approximately 35% of the world’s total population of Southern Rockhopper Penguins nest on Isla Noir.
The area of our research
The oceans at Cape Horn’s are extremely dangerous. Reaching Isla Noir is similar to double-dutch rope jumping. “We wait for a break in the almost constant turbulent seas then dash to Noir’s rocky coast.”
What We Know
The population trends of the Southern Rockhopper Penguins on Isla Noir appear to mirror other documented increases along the coast of Argentina. 4 Previously published estimates of 70,000 pairs of Southern Rockhopper Penguins on Isla Noir (Venegas 1984) are significantly lower than Feather Link’s initial count of 158,200 [139716,176700] pairs of Rockhoppers present in November of 2005. However, site inventories by Venegas (1984) did not encompass the entire island and occurred during the later portion of the breeding season (December). Inability to access all of the colonies and attrition due to nest failure could partially account for the lower counts in 1983. While the initial survey by Venegas (1984) described a significant population of Southern Rockhopper Penguins on Isla Noir, those results may have underestimated the population size and thus cannot reliably be used to demonstrate an increase in the population since 1983.
Macaroni Penguin populations along South America may be stable although sufficient data are lacking to identify trends. Small colonies of Macaroni Penguins have been described on Cabo Pilar, Isla Desolacion, Isla Diego Ramirez, Isla Deceit, Isla Terhalten and Isla Recalada, Chile. 5, 6 The population on Isla Recalada declined from 559 in 1989, to 421 in 1990 with no Macaroni Penguins observed in 1991 and 2005. 7, 8, 9
Total number of pairs on Isla Noir has been estimated from 12,500 to 25,000.
Reports by Kirkwood (2007) estimated the Rockhopper population in Islas Ildefonso at 86,000 (54,000 to 135,000) and 132,721 (88,869 to 185,665) on Isla Diego Ramirez.
What little coloring penguins have is concentrated around the face and head and can best be seen by another penguin at close range.
Baseline research is possible on Isla Noir. There is a fairly intact and stable population of rockhoppers here living normal penguin lives. This is the logical, perfect place to begin research. Waiting any longer would be tempting fate.
What We Have Accomplished
Our work began in 2005 on the island of Isla Noir where approximately 35% of the entire Southern Rockhopper Penguin population was known to nest each year. 10 A detailed survey was initiated, making this the first complete inventory through direct observation of these individual colony using standardized methodology. We calculated the total area of all colonies was 31.61 hectares (78 acres), producing a population estimate of 158,200 (95% CI 139716,176700) Rockhopper Penguin pairs on Isla Noir. For occupied nests in random quadrats within the colonies, 98% of pairs were incubating eggs, with the remainder attending empty nests. Feather Links research has been critical in establishing protection for this tiny island and its inhabitants and the Chilean park system has recently extended a degree of protection to Isla Noir. This along with the island’s remote location offer the birds some degree of protection. In addition to this first penguin census for Isla Noir a complete list of other avian taxa on the island was documented.
We use the same quadrats from the Rockhopper census to estimate a total of 1,649 (95% CI 386,2913) of Macaroni nests within the Rockhopper colonies. In the main Macaroni Penguin colony on Isla Noir, direct counts recorded 1,816 (±55) occupied nests. Combined with the estimated numbers within the Rockhopper colonies, we documented a total of 3,470 [2157,4784] Macaroni Penguin nests on Isla Noir. 100% of Macaroni Penguins on nests within the mixed colonies were incubating eggs. Within the main Macaroni colony 96% were incubating eggs on nests, with the remaining pairs attending empty nests.
Our survey in 2005, documented a previously unrecorded colony of Macaroni Penguins on Islote Leonard (four nautical miles southeast of Isla Recalada). Direct counts recorded 132 (±4) occupied nests and 96% of Macaroni Penguins on nests were incubating eggs, with the remaining pairs attending empty nests. Likewise in 2005, a yacht-based census of Isla Terhaten yielded approximately 1000 Rockhopper Penguins within its colony. More definitively, our 2007 land-based observations indicated that there were approximately 3000 nests on this island.
Sadly, no active nest sites or individual crested penguins were found in any of the Rockhopper or Macaroni penguin colonies on Isla Recalada during our 2005 visit. Evidence of historic nesting colonies was present with clearly defined paths and remnants of individual nest cups within areas of tussock grasses.
Both flora and fauna play critical roles in making up the Rockhopper Penguins’ environment. Samples of all plant species within the selected quadrats on Isla Noir were collected, identified and catalogued.
The Striated Caracara is usually found in close association to colonial birds and mammals and acts more as a scavenger than predator on Isla Noir. The two nests found there are only the second and third reported in Chile.
Feather Link’s 2005 expedition to Islote Leonard uncovered a previously unrecorded colony of Macaroni Penguins.
Very little is known about the Rockhopper Penguins’ travels once they leave the nesting colony. The use of this small device, an archival geolocator tag, will gather some of the answers over the course of a year. When attached to a penguin’s wing it records details about the bird’s feeding habits and travels that can be downloaded later. Each one inch long device costs as much as a home computer.
Our data support designation of Isla Noir as an important nesting area for Southern Rockhopper Penguins. Even with the establishment of some degree of protection from the Chilean government Isla Noir is not monitored as closely as other areas containing penguin colonies. Sustainable management of Isla Noir for nesting Rockhoppers would require additional legal protection for the island. Developing such a management scheme requires detailed information on the population and further study into the biology of the penguins, including foraging areas and population recruitment from other colonies. Management of Isla Noir would offer protection for the existing population of Rockhoppers and provide a favorable breeding site that may attract birds from regions where populations are under adverse pressures. The need to establish procedures surrounding future collecting expeditions has also become imperative.
In November of 2007, we began the deployment of geolocator archival tags that will provide us with information on where these tagged birds go each day, the sea-surface temperatures and in some cases how deep they dive when foraging for food. The tracking of these penguins which will be completed by the end of the 2012-2013 season is the initial step of an international collaboration to record the annual movements of the Rockhopper Penguins after they leave their breeding sites on Isla Noir. Future investigations will couple the known movements of the Rockhopper Penguins at Isla Noir with genetic samples taken from birds within these colonies and those along the Diego Ramírez Archipelagos in Chile and the Falkland and Staten Islands of Argentina. To date genetic materials have been obtained from adults in the field at Isla Noir, Staten Island and the Falklands Islands and we are exploring the possible collection of biological material and the tracking of penguins along the Archipelago and at Diego Ramirez. Plans to collect additional samples from captive specimens, from Isla Recalada, are underway since the wild population no longer can be found on that island.
The primary objective of this tracking project is to examine the movement of Rockhopper Penguins along the coast of Chile and to determine if these birds incurred any recruitment from the Argentine populations. The genetic study will augment data gathered via the tracking of individual tagged birds. Populations of Southern Rockhopper Penguins at important breeding sites have declined substantially in the past 50 years, with the status of major breeding sites in southern Chile being poorly documented. In addition to providing foraging ranges and of rates of gene flow, the work is a necessary first step in the definition of conservation management units. This has important implications, as several Rockhopper Penguin populations, notably those at the Falkland Islands, have declined as a result of over fishing.
Geography is a double-edged sword with Isla Noir. Surrounded by treacherous seas and sculpted with terrain that is nearly impossible to negotiate, man has avoided the island. But the rockhoppers have learned to embraced it. Researchers must now find ways to study the penguins on their terms.
1 BirdLife International 2007. Species fact sheet: Eudyptes chrysocome & Eudyptes chrysolophus.
2 Venegas, C. 1984. Estado de las poblaciones de Pinguino de Penacho Amarillo y Macaroni en la Isla Noir, Chile. Informe Instituto de la Patagonia, Punta Arenas. Chile 33: 25.
3Schiavini, A. C. M. 2000. Staten Island, Tierra del Fuego: the largest breeding ground for southern rockhopper penguins? Waterbirds 23: 286-291.
4Venegas, C. C. 1991. Estudio de cuantificación poblacional de pingüinos crestados en isla Recalada. Convenio CONAF-UMAG. Informe de Investigación, Intituto de la Patagonia, Punta, Arenas, Chile 55:23.
5Araya, B. and G. Millie. 1986. Guia de campo de las aves de Chile. Editorial Universitaria, Santiago de Chile.
6Wallace, G. E. 1991. Noteworthy bird records from southernmost Chile. Condor, 93:175-176.
7Soto, N. 1990. Proyecto de protección y manejo de las colonias de pingüinos presentes en isla Rupert e isla Recalada, Reserva Nacional Alacalufes. Informe de temporada 1989-1990. CONAF-XII Region, Punta Arenas, Chile. pp 29.
8Venegas, C. and N. Soto. 1992. Estudio de pingüinos eudyptidos en isla Recalada, R.N. Alacalufes, Chile. Informe Convernio UMAG-CONAF, Punta Arenas, Chile. pp 32.
9Oehler, D. A., W. R. Fry, L. A.Weakley and M. Marin. 2007. Rockhopper and Macaroni Penguin colonies Absent from Isla Recalada, Chile. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119:502-506.
10Venegas, C. 1998. Pinguinos crestados (Eudyptes chrysocome Forster 1781, E. chrysolophus Brant 1837) y de Magallanes (Spheniscus megellanicus Forster 1781) en Isla Noir, Chile. Anales del Instituto de la Patagonia 26:59-67.
Stewardship - the belief that humans are responsible