One of the alternate common names for the Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) is the Jackass Penguin. This less than flattering moniker comes from the sound of their song. When a Magellanic penguins sings, it tilts its head to the sky, opens its bill, and lets out a sound very similar to that of a braying donkey. While ornithologists prefer the common name Magellanic Penguin, I prefer the alternate common name of Jackass Penguin. These penguins really do sound like a braying donkey, and “jackass” is a more lively and interesting word than “magellanic.”
While travelling southward in Argentina, I visited the largest nesting colony of jackass penguins in all of South America. This massive colony of braying marine birds and their fluffy young was located at Punta Tombo, a stretch of arid land along the Atlantic Ocean. The penguins’ nesting habitat was protected within a park called Reserva Provincial Punta Tombo, which was created in 1979.
I visited Punta Tombo as a day trip from Puerto Madryn, Argentina, a seaside city a couple of hours to the north. I arranged the trip through one of the many tour companies in Puerto Madryn.
The morning of the trip, a white van picked me up from the hotel. Excluding the driver, there were only three other people on the trip, an older couple from Spain and a young woman from Switzerland. I wasn’t feeling that great. A couple of days prior, I caught a stomach bug. My intestines were brewing butt coffee. Not fun. Before getting on the van I took some diarrhea medication and hoped for the best.
As we approached the outskirts of the reserve, travelling on a dusty dirt road, our driver spotted a group of guanacos. He stopped the van close to the guanacos so we could take pictures. Guanacos are members of the camel family. Unlike camels of the Middle East, which I find to be a bit ugly, Guanacos are gorgeous. Judge for yourself from the pictures.
Soon after the Guanaco encounter, we arrived at Punta Tombo. Next to the reserve’s administrative office, there was a small museum. While our driver secured our entry tickets, we briefly checked out the museum. Inside there were penguin skeletons and stuffed penguins and information about penguin biology and ecology. A nice primer on jackass penguins. I found out that unlike many other birds, jackass penguins nest underground. Using its bill, the jackass penguin excavates dirt to create a burrow, which is used to raise its young.
After checking out the museum, we got back on the van and headed to an area closer to the Atlantic. The landscape was semi-desert. Low, rugged looking vegetation grew in clumps from dry, sandy soil. We stopped in a dirt parking area near the entrance to the penguin habitat. Our driver pointed us toward a wide path of white, hard-packed soil that wandered off into the arid terrain. He told us we had about 90 minutes to walk the reserve and be amongst the penguins. He said that we could get as close as we wanted to the penguins, but not to touch them. He cautioned that if we approached too close to a penguin, we might get bitten.
The best part of Punta Tombo was that there was nothing separating you from the Penguins. No fencing. No enclosures of any sort. The path took us right through the heart of penguin territory. Penguins going to and from the ocean waddled across the trail, passing within arm’s reach. Other penguins loitered on or near the trail, and I was able to get within inches of them. I was also treated to the sight of some juvenal penguins, still sporting their silly looking gray coat of youngster down. I had close up views of penguin families hanging out by their burrows – holes crudely dug in the pebbly ground.
The trail terminated close to the ocean but did not venture onto the beach. From the terminus we saw hundreds of penguins congregating on the beach. The ocean was rather rough that day. Sizeable blue-green waves curled high and crashed onto the sand. We watched penguins jumping into the surf to head out to hunt for fish, launching themselves like missiles into the rushing waves. We watched penguins coming out of the ocean, propelling themselves with such momentum that many flew through the air before touching down on the sand.
Watching the penguins in their natural habitat was highly entertaining. Seeing them waddle on by was comical. I couldn’t help but to laugh when one of the penguins tilted its head back and began braying while flapping its funny little wings. But the penguins were more than just waddling, braying animals seeking food. The penguin families showed great affection and care for each other. Couples used their bills to caress each other and their young. They cuddled together on the ground, their little wings resting on one another. It was touching.
Fortunately my stomach waited to cause me grief until after the penguin experience.