Pretty Pleased with a Penguin

The birding year had started off pretty well.  The Baillon’s Crake had given all our lists a bit of a lift (see blog here) but it just felt as if something really good had to come along soon.

I was sitting at my desk on Wednesday afternoon entrenched in some deadline financial returns when my cellphone rang.  The name on the screen was Dominic Rollinson.  I met Dom about 8 months ago, shortly after his arrival in Cape Town last year to embark on his Phd at the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute.  Although Dom and I had a far more likely birding bond, our first few outings together involved frog searches in the darkness of a wet Cape Town winter – Dom’s frogging skills brought down from KZN were a great help to my initial forays into this pastime.

Over the months, though, we went on a few twitches together and we both committed to keep each other in the loop if either of us heard of a rarity.  Having rarities covered from more than one side is definitely useful, especially when time is of the essence.  But, to be absolutely blunt, Dom was definitely getting a raw end of the deal here.  Since I spend most of my weekdays in the office and weekends with the family, the likelihood of me turning up a rarity is particularly slim, whilst Dom spends plenty of time in the field and with his young, keen and experienced eyes he is always far more likely to find a few good birds.  I am waiting for him to see that he really has no upside but I’ll milk it while I can.

So, when his name lit up on my phone I knew it would be worth answering.  In an excited voice he told me he was in the car with a fellow student, Chevonne Reynolds, and they were heading south on the M3 following up on a sighting earlier that morning of a “weird” penguin near the Kommetjie lighthouse.  It was most likely a Rockhopper  or Macaroni but the details were a little sketchy.

This was all too much for me to take in.  I had a colleague at my desk and our deadline was getting close but this was important.  I asked Dom to say it all again and whilst confirming a few important words like “Soetwater”, “beach”, “kelp”, “lighthouse” and “moult” I got some very strange looks from those around me at my open plan desk.

From what I could gather a “Fitz” colleague of Dom’s, Dane Paijmans, had been counting Oystercatcher nests earlier that morning and had found one of the Eudyptes penguins on the beach near the Kommetjie lighthouse.  The minute Dom heard the story he dropped everything and headed for Kommetjie.  He didn’t have a positive ID but if it was a Rockhopper it would be a real biggie.

I was completely stuffed now.  I had to make my deadline by 5pm and I needed to be at a school function by 6.  At 3:30 when Dom was chatting to me on the phone there was still too much uncertainty and to make things worse I had no walking shoes, no bins and no camera.  I reckon Jeanie may have forgiven me for a guaranteed addition to my list, but if it was a shot in the dark and I came back with nothing I was likely to be in big trouble.

So, at 5:30, when I chatted to Dom and they were still trudging the beach to get to the supposed spot I made a family call and decided to head north from my office instead of south.

The rest of the evening went by with no word from Dom but that was mainly because my phone was tucked away in my pocket on silent whilst I socialized with the Grade R parents.  I’d been told to put in a little more effort with Jacky’s class and so I was on my best behaviour – no rarity distractions allowed.

When we headed home my heart had a little flutter as I saw a missed call from Dom at 7:15pm.  A quick call was made and with a buffeting wind making conversation pretty difficult Dom shouted across the phone that Chevonne had found the penguin and they had tentatively identified it as a juvenile Rockhopper or Macaroni in moult.

This was going to be a big birding event.

It was now dark so there was nothing I could do about it right then and so I was going to have to endure a night of stress worrying that I had missed my opportunity and would be paying for it.  Soon thereafter Trevor Hardaker sent out a note confirming that it was, in fact, a Northern Rockhopper Penguin.

I made a quick call to Dave Winter and another good mate, Paul Lewis, and we put a plan in place to be there at first light the next morning.  We had been warned that the gates would only open at 8am but there was no way I could wait that long.  I needed to be at my desk by that time.

So, we headed out bright and early, parked at the lighthouse, met up with Bruce Dyer and walked south along the beach towards the marked spot.  Dom had told me to look for the pink toilet block and then search the beach just north of that.  I had also been told that it would be quite tricky to find in amongst the kelp.  We walked to the spot at the toilet block and since we were the first to arrive there was no one there to point it out so we set about our search.  It didn’t take us long before we picked it up and got our first views of this very rare vagrant.  We settled in the grass next to the beach, keeping our distance so as not to distress the bird, and started taking some pics.

Northern Rockhopper Penguin

I was not yet that trigger happy as the sun was still tucked away behind the mountain, but I wasn’t stressed as we had got there early, found our bird and I would have enough time for the sun to rise before heading to the office.

Just then we noticed Pete Ryan, Dom and his dad, Paul, and brother, Patrick, heading towards us at a reasonable pace.  Their pace was seemingly being forced a little by a determined security guard who was talking animatedly on his walkie-talkie about 50m behind.

They all arrived, sat down and started taking pics immediately despite the relatively poor light.  It seemed as if our stay with the penguin was going to come to a very abrupt end.  Our suspicion was that we had breached the opening times of the reserve and that seemed to be a grave act of criminal activity and it was likely that we were going to be asked to leave.

We weren’t far wrong.

When the rather serious looking security guard arrived amongst our group he was still in the midst of a conversation with his superior and there were far too many harsh words being shouted from the other end of the call.

We all heard the following: “tell those people that they are trespassing and if they are still there when I get there I will call law enforcement and they will be locked up”.

Wow.  That definitely sounded serious.

Essentially we were sitting on a beach in a municipal reserve that would be officially open in less than 90 minutes and aside from the large lenses some of us were carrying there didn’t seem to be too many threatening items amongst us.

It did not make any sense.

I was sure there would be some way to quell the situation, but I was wrong, and the voice continued to get louder and more aggressive.  I could just picture this man on the other end of the walkie-talkie getting more on more purple in the face no matter what we said.  After a short while of considering our options we decided we would avoid any further conflict and depart the scene – we certainly did not want to mess this up for the likely hundreds of birders heading there a little later that morning.

To add to the ignominy the security guard essentially frog-marched the lot of us the entire way back out of the reserve.  The penguin had not quite been forgotten but we would have to leave it alone for the time being.

I am still a little frustrated at our removal from the reserve.  I believe there are perlemoen poaching issues in Kommetjie which requires that the security is pretty tight, but surely our lack of wetsuits, sacks of perlemoen and scuba gear would have eased their concern a little?

Over the course of our visits we were also rather disappointed at the complete inflexibility of the gate opening hours.  The penguin would clearly have generated a considerable amount of additional revenue for the reserve and a little bit of compromise would have been welcomed.

On that rather disturbed Thursday morning Dave, Paul and I decided to wait for opening time just so that we could get a slightly more relaxed view of the bird and to take advantage of the improved light.  It was well worth the wait and we satisfied our needs.

Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Northern Rockhopper Penguin

Anyway, enough complaining – more about our special visitor.

The history of Rockhopper Penguins in Southern Africa is a little scant.  I have not done much research on this and so my references are largely anecdotal.  You will just have to live with any inaccuracies.  I believe the last twitchable Rockhopper was about 25 years ago.  From what I heard it was collected off the beach in a box, rehabilitated and then released.  It was only when it was set free that it was ticked by many birders that had gathered for the release, specifically for the purposes of ticking it. For the purists, that kind of tick does not quite cut it so it seems many of those that ticked it 25 years ago may have done so just a tiny bit controversially.  This one was hopefully going to erase much of that controversy.

It is also interesting to note that most penguins that are found on beaches do not find their way onto twitchers’ lists despite their relative immobility.  The reason for that is that many of these vagrant penguins that come ashore find themselves in boxes before any birders can get a look.  Moulting is a process that takes about 18 days and is simply the loss of one set of feathers for a fresh clean set.  During the moulting period these penguins generally look very scruffy and you won’t find many people that would describe penguins as being particularly agile on land.  So, a shore-bound penguin found on the beach doesn’t look so good and most uninformed, well-meaning beachgoers will contact SANCCOB who will arrive on the beach, assess the health of the bird and if emaciated they will put the penguin in a box and carry it off for rehabilitation.

Twitching has become far more popular these days and so birding “rules and ethics” are seemingly a little more noticeable.  Ticking a rehabilitated penguin is frowned upon and so once the penguin has been put inside the box, the tick disappears just as quickly as the bakkie that delivers it to the SANCCOB facilities.  I have also heard that work being done on vagrant penguins has revealed that they may carry diseases that may be harmful to our endemic African Penguins and so collected penguins generally live the remainder of their days in zoos or at the Waterfront aquarium in the fear that they may transmit diseases to the African Penguins.

What all this means is that our chances of twitching vagrant penguins (there are about 5 or 6 possible species) are very, very slim unless you stumble upon one yourself or the bird is found by a birder who knows that the penguin may not be about to die no matter how dodgy it looks.  So we all were extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to add this one to our lists.

The final “educational” word here relates to which Rockhopper Penguin we were looking at.  A number of years ago the Rockhopper Penguin was split between Northern and Southern.  The Southern was then further split between Eastern and Western.  Yes, confusing.

The Western occurs in South America and the Falklands, Eastern appearing in the Southern Indian Ocean and New Zealand and Northern being found on Gough, Inaccessible and Tristan de Cunha Islands.  The bird that had appeared on our shores was identified as a Northern Rockhopper based on the more extensive black markings on the underside of the flipper.  It was a huge relief to me that we were able to pin an ID on this bird as it would have been awful to have such a rare bird amongst us but not being able to tick it for failure to assign a specific identification.  (Note: my thanks go to John Graham for the above enlightenment.

Extensive black on the underside of the flipper

I suppose regular readers are wondering how I got this far into one of my blogs without a single mention of my birding-mad boys.  Well, that was a big problem as it was going to be a few days before we could get out there to make sure they added it to their lists.  The school calendar was chaotic and Tommy, in particular, was caught up in his sports day on Friday, running in the finals of the 800m, and he had one of his first big cricket matches for the under 10A cricket side as the opening bowler on Saturday morning.

His performance in both of those events far exceeded my expectations as he came fourth in his grade in the 800m and he had bowling figures of 1/13 in his 4 overs as well as scoring a not out 8.  Since he had done so well how could I deny him a visit to Kommetjie on Sunday morning?

Tommy at the 800m start
Making a surge
Does that remind you of Dale Steyn?

We were delighted to have Dom join us on your trip out to Soetwater and in addition to getting views of the penguin we would spend some time turning over some rocks for some lizards, snakes and frogs.

Dad, help me with this one?

Once again we were disappointed to sit at the gate waiting for opening time.  It was listed as 8am and there was no way on this green earth that the ladies manning the gates were going to open them 1 second early.  The queue of anxious birders and other weekend visitors would not move them and so at 8:03 we finally paid our entrance fee and headed straight for the pink toilet block.

Waiting again

The penguin was not hard to find this time.  It was “perched” on one of the rocks below the high tide line and had apparently just had a bit of a bath as its feathers were glistening in the early morning sunshine.  It spent most of its time sunbathing and preening with the occasional dip in the water while we were there.  I also have to say that the condition of the bird seemed considerably improved from when we first saw it on Thursday.  A few days had been enough for many of its moulting feathers to shed, revealing a much smoother and cleaner back.  It seemed a lot more energetic as well and although cumbersome on the rocks it did not look like it was about to die.

Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Northern Rockhopper Penguin
Tommy photographing the penguin
The three boys

Once we had had our fill of the penguin we moved on to a bit of herping.  In a very short space of time we all added to our life lists.  Tommy, Adam and I added a Cape Sand Frog (albeit it a very young one) and a Common Slug-eater whilst Adam managed to find a Short-legged Seps which was a full lifer for Dom.

Cape Sand Frog
Common Slug-eater
Short-legged Seps
Tommy with the slug-eater
Photographing the seps

The 30 minutes of herping just showed how much we would be missing if we had just focused on the penguin.

So, another great few days resulting in a great new bird being added to our lists.  We made sure we made the most of it as it may be some time before we get a chance for something as good.  Subsequent to writing most of this blog I heard the news that the penguin had disappeared sometime overnight on Sunday and I breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that I had got the boys there just in time.

7 comments on “Pretty Pleased with a Penguin

  • Great blog Mike! Glad you managed to get the boys there in time – you would’ve certainly lost a huge number of brownie points that you have built up over the last few months with them if they had missed this bird…:)

  • Marlene Hofmeyr says:

    We have just read your story and loved it. Thank you for taking the time to write it, for people like us to read it. We just love the fact that your boys are so enthusiastic about wild life, including frogs and insects. It’s so refreshing. Our grandson who turns 3 in April, can identify more birds, especially owls and raptors than we could 20 years ago.
    Keep up the good work, and we look forward to reading more of your fantastic experiences and seeing your beautiful photographs.
    Regards Jo and Marlene

  • He is very dear and much smaller than what I thought he would be. What a great one to add to the list! Thanks for sharing.

  • So exciting for you all – another successful Sunday morning out in the field and so glad Tommy and Adam got to see the penquin.

  • Jill Mortimer says:

    Thanks Mike for a really interesting account – as usual. I so envy you with the enthusiasm with your boys. Can you tell me if it is an adult? I thought that it was, but some Tygerbergs there with me on Sunday said it had been confirmed as a juvenile.
    I hope it makes it home………….such a sad little thing it looked.

    • Hi Jill
      Thanks for the comments. Yes, I am very lucky to have two super-keen companions. I am making the most of it while it lasts but at some point they may not find it so much fun being with dad.
      As far as I know it was a juvenile penguin. I know the yellow eyebrow feathers are also not evident on a non-breeding adult but the word was that this was a juvenile bird. I was quite pleased to see how spritely it looked on Sunday morning. We can only hope that it makes it out there in the ocean.


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