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Patagonia - Penguins and More

Mondo Verde Expeditions
November 2-18. 2023

Photos by Bob Gress

King Penguins, Bahía Inútil, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

My last PhotoBlast was about Patagonia’s pumas and guanacos. Wild animals like these are sometimes referred to as “Charismatic Megafauna.” Tourism can develop around big, wild animals with compelling charm. Chile’s pumas have joined Yellowstone, Alaska and Africa as just a few of the places linking tourism to wildlife. Without tourism, and the economic reason to protect wildlife, some of our most charismatic megafauna would already be gone.
This Patagonia PhotoBlast includes penguins. Most people find penguins charismatic. What is opposite of charismatic megafauna? Would it be “Unheralded Little Animals?” Patagonia has obvious but unheralded birds and mammals as well as seldom seen, shy, secretive skulkers. I champion the unappreciated. In this PhotoBlast, along with three species of penguins, I’ll share a few of the unheralded species.

The Tepuhueico Lodge was our lodging while exploring the Valdivian temperate rainforests of Chiloé Island. 

These rainforests echo the surprisingly loud calls of the Chucao Tapaculo.

The Pudu, standing about 16 inches tall, is the world’s smallest deer.

Austral Parakeets (above) flying over the lodge were nearly always heard before seen.

The Slender-billed Parakeet (below) is featured on the back of the $2,000 Chilean Peso bill (U.S. $2.45). It inhabits the southern beech forests of Chile.

A two-hour drive north took us to Chepu for a boat trip on the Chepu River. This river is the second longest river on Chiloé Island. Here we visited a breeding colony of about 2,500 Brown-hooded Gulls. (above)

The Chiloe Wigeon (below), like Chiloé Island, takes its name from the word in the Huilliche language meaning “place of seagulls.”

The Great Grebe (above) is the largest species of grebe in the world.

Rufous-tailed Plantcutter… (below) what a cool name!

After a drive to Queilén, on the east side of Chiloé Island, we took a boat about 20 miles toward the mainland into the Sea of Chiloé searching for pelagic (ocean) birds.

Before we left the harbor we saw pairs of Flightless Steamer-Ducks (below). The bird on the left shows its characteristic under-sized wing feathers making the species unable to fly.

Over deep water, a Black-browed Albatross (above) flies close to inspect our boat.

Pincoya Storm-Petrel (below) may be one of the least known seabirds in the world. It is named after La Pincoya a mermaid-spirit which personifies the fertility of marine species.

Magellanic Penguins swim close to inspect the boat. 

The western seaboard of Chile is about 2,700 miles long, running parallel to the Andes Mountains. About 14% of the country is located on over 43,000 islands, some large and many tiny. At Puñihuil (above), on the northwest side of Chiloé Island we took another boat excursion around the Metalqui Islets and Puñihuil Islets.

Two species of penguins nest on the Puñihuil Islets. This is the Magellanic Penguin (below) identified by two black bars across its chest.

The similar Humboldt Penguin (above) has one black bar across its chest and a border of pink between the face and the bill. This one is dirty and is standing at the entrance to its nest burrow.

Several pairs of Kelp Geese (below) also live on the islets with the penguins. The female is dark and the male is white.

The Metalqui Islets are known for the colony of South American Sea Lions.

Southern Lapwings (above) were seen in all of the areas we visited in Patagonia.

With common names including words like Austral, South American, Chilean, Southern, Magellanic, Humboldt and Chiloe, we know we are dealing with species from the far southern hemisphere.

Austral Negrito (below) , Estancia Laguna Amarga, Torres del Paine area, Chile

Upland Goose family (above), Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

South America has more species of birds than any other continent. But species diversity decreases greatly closer to the South Pole. In Patagonia we saw about 125 species of birds and about a dozen mammals, few in number when compared to countries like Colombia, Brazil and Peru.

Chilean Flamingo (below), Torres del Paine area, Chile.

Plain-mantled Tit-Spinetail (above), Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Sometimes it takes a bird nerd to appreciate the uniqueness of some birds with funny names that are part of the “unheralded little animals.”

A two-hour flight south from Chiloé Island to Punta Arenas then a drive and ferry across the Straits of Magellan took us to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. Here we were about 620 miles, across the Drake Passage, from the Antarctic Peninsula. Few trees, some shrubs and cool semi-desert steppe habitat are characteristic of Tierra del Fuego.

Scale-throated Earthcreeper (below), Tierra del Fuego, Chile.

King Penguins

In 2010, a breeding colony of King Penguins was reestablished at the far eastern end of Bahía Inútil. Bones of King Penguins have been found in local archaeological sites of 6,000-year-old human settlements. The historical colony is believed to have been eradicated then. The current colony is the only colony outside the Sub-Antarctic Islands including South Georgia and the Falklands. They are not found in Antarctica. King Penguins are the second largest of all penguin species and may stand three feet tall and weigh over 35 pounds. They are similar to Emperor Penguins and are among the most beautiful of the penguin species.

After an orientation at the small visitor’s center at “Parque Pingüino Rey” (King Penguin Park) we were allowed to proceed to the viewing blind, seen in the upper right of this photo (below).

No other bird has a longer breeding cycle than the King Penguin. Each pair takes 14-16 months to fledge a single chick. Adults can raise a maximum of 2 chicks every 3 years. Chicks are covered with thick down that remains dark brown until they begin molting after 10-12 months. Unlike other nesting colonies of birds, King Penguin colonies are active year-round, and pairs are always in various stages of egg incubation or chick rearing.

King Penguins are known as serial monogamists, meaning they have only one mate and work together to hatch and rear their chick. In the following year however, they are unlikely to return to the same partner.