Freek Spark is looking for his favorite birds… and finds them

Biologist Prof. Dr. Freek Vonk writes about his experiences in nature every two weeks. This week: King penguins!

It is March and I have packed myself well; also in late summer it is cold on the windy Falkland Islands, east of the southernmost tip of Argentina. An amazing place to see animals, certainly one of my favorite birds: King penguins!

The Falkland Islands lie along the northern border of their spread. King penguins spend most of the year at sea; only in the breeding season there are 500 to 700 breeding pairs on land.

The birds don‘t all arrive at the same time. Depending on how they passed the previous season, they can be divided into early and late brothers. Early birds lay their eggs in November that comes out in January. Late brothers lay their eggs in January and welcome their chick in March.

It is quite normal to see in the colonies both eggs and chicks and older pups. Especially the chicks and the young are very curious. I sit still and make sure I don’t just walk into the colony; that‘s how the birds come to me. The closer they get, the more impressive they become.

On the Falkland Islands, king penguins are by far the largest penguin species of almost a metre long and weighing over ten kilograms. Yookels! On land, they may seem clumsy, but make no mistake: penguins are the best birds of prey in the southern oceans. Underwater, they turn into rockets that catch squid, fish and krill. King penguins come over 300 meters deep. At that depth they see no hand in their eyes, but then they hunt for lanternfish that emit light.

On land the colonies ensure safety, in the water it is every man for himself. Their speed is not only intended for successful hunting, but also for escaping marine def animals. Orcas patrol off the coast and sea leopards, sea bears and sea lions are lurking. When the penguins have filled their belly unscathed, they jump back into the country.

A lot of trapped food disappears into the stomachs of their fast-growing chicks. In the southern winter, from April to August, the brown chicks remain on land, while both parents go up to the sea for months and return to the colony less and less often. The young are waiting for months for their next meal. They lose as much as fifty percent of their body weight and can recover from a loss of seventy percent. Not many animals do they imitate!

When their parents choose the country for the time being around September, they cram their youngsters extra, in preparation for their moulting to the adult, waterproof plumage. Once the chicks have them, they’re ready for their first dive. They will go to sea and will not land for the next three years. King penguins are bosses!