The name ‘macaroni’ to most people means short, curved tubes of hollow pasta, or they may have recollections of Yankee Doodle Dandy sticking a feather in his cap. However, bird enthusiasts associate the name with one of the larger species of crested penguin that breeds at remote sites in the South Atlantic and southern Indian Ocean.
The connection between all these meanings of macaroni is the word ‘dandy’. In 18th Century England, a young gentleman who adopted flamboyant European dress style (including feathered hats) and ate foreign food (e.g. pasta) was referred to as a macaroni dandy. It is no surprise that the same term was applied to an extravagantly crested penguin.
The macaroni penguin is the most abundant penguin, yet is an inaccessible mystery species to most bird-watchers. The only breeding site remotely on the tourist track is South Georgia. However, almost all macaroni penguin colonies are on steep coastal slopes above exposed rocky coasts, unsuitable for zodiac landings.
The vast colonies are usually viewed from the deck of a ship, if at all. Cap Cotter on the north coast of Peninsule Courbet, Kerguelen Islands, is perhaps the only site where the species breeds on flat ground. But the site is a 3-day walk from Port aux Français, so few people other than researchers have the privilege to stand beside the vast, densely-packed colonies on this spectacular wild coast.
The three of us arrived by helicopter early on 19 Dec. The helicopter stays with the ship (which departed the following day), and so we knew we would be walking back via the eastern coast of Peninsule Courbet (approx 80 km) – which meant that we had to be prudent with what gear to carry.
The peninsula is mainly low-lying and covered with thousands of lakes and ponds. Its north coast is reminiscent of northern Chatham Island, with low basalt headlands, extensive coastal turf (mainly Leptinella plumosa), and one steep-sided small volcanic peak (Mont Campbell, 143 m), a tempting 2.5 km south of the huts at Cap Cotter.
The small cluster of tiny huts and cargo boxes is on an exposed headland, with the nearest macaroni penguin colonies 200-300 m each side, and clearly audible day and night. There is a 4-bunk sleeping hut, a cooking and living hut (gas oven and stove, solar-powered 220 volt electricity) and an even smaller work hut.
There are about 400,000 pairs of macaroni penguins spread along 10 km of coast, mainly west of Cap Cotter, the whole Kerguelen population being 2.5 million pairs. Each of the ten or so sub-colonies near the huts held 1000 to 40,000 pairs, and most pairs had a single newly-hatched chick in late December (there were a few late eggs yet to hatch).
But they were not the only wildlife there. Courting wandering albatrosses were building nests or incubating single eggs near the penguins, and performing their spectacular spread-winged ‘gam’ displays. Small colonies of gentoo penguins had fully-grown chicks, and a few king penguins were moulting on the fringes of the macaroni penguin colonies.
Several hundred Kerguelen shags were nesting about a kilometre east, and flew past the hut continuously, along with southern skuas (nesting inland), kelp gulls (nesting) and northern giant petrels. Light-mantled sooty albatrosses, white-chinned petrels, prions, Wilson’s storm petrels, Antarctic terns and Eaton’s pintails flew past occasionally, and the shoreline was littered with elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals (some breeding).
The individual wildlife highlight of the first day was a pale-faced ‘macaroni’ penguin. Its exceptionally large bill confirmed that it was a royal penguin (vagrant from Macquarie Island, south of New Zealand) rather than a pale variant of the local birds. We found a second much larger royal penguin a few days later.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique), France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) and Te Papa.
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