The Stalker: Excerpt from Curious Encounters with the Natural World

grumpy chickIt was my first day on the Falkland Islands, and our group of five headed to Volunteer Point. I felt as though I was not supposed to know the point’s location—and I didn’t—as we piled in the Range Rover at one thirty in the morning. It was pitch-dark. We bumped and bounced along a dirt track for more than three hours, seeing nothing but sheep in the headlights, and listened to our driver recount her Falklands War experience. Volunteer Point is a privately owned farm where sheep intermingle with penguins. The area contains a two-mile-long beach, and Volunteer Point is home to the Falklands’ largest king-penguin
colony—around one thousand birds.

Prior to our foray to the Falkland Islands, one of the books I read was The Moon by Whale Light, by Diane Ackerman. In it she describes an encounter with a king penguin while wearing a yellow sweat suit. The penguin followed her about until it was convinced
that she was not of its kind. King penguins have bright, graduated orange-yellow comma-shaped ear patches that extend down onto the breast. The penguin “saw” yellow and was likely hoping for a mate. After reading that, I quickly went to our local mall in search of a
yellow scarf that I hoped would mimic penguin yellow.

face preenWe arrived at Volunteer Point at four thirty, and as we crested the final hill, tall forms—initially mistaken for massive numbers of cruise-ship “explorers”—materialized into king penguins. Their erect white bellies glowed like a full moon against the brown-green hills. Our driver left us and romised to return twelve hours later. We were in the midst of organized penguin chaos. Colonies of gentoo penguins graced the tops of circular rises they had created by hundreds of years of accumulated penguin debris. Magellanic penguins brayed in pairs and small groups, poking their heads from within deep, mysterious burrows. Several large colonies of king penguins graced the gentle hillsides,
organized by age. The adults were in the center, surrounded by a moat of multiage chicks. The periodic trumpeting of adult king penguins sounded like tin New Year’s Eve horns. Young juveniles stoically stood on the edge of the colony, mimicking humans in furry brown coats. Older chicks sported newly grown feathers with bodies still laced with tufts of brown hair—like hairy men at the gym.

help, I'm a messThe weather was a mix of rain, sleet, and wind. I wore several layers, including a dark raincoat and pants, ornamented with my yellow scarf. From a distance, I could pass for a king penguin. For the first two hours, I was dumbfounded by the scene: What should I do, and where do I go? What was proper penguin etiquette? Finally, I accumulated nerve enough and “flirted” with the king penguins by leaving a piece of my yellow scarf to blow about. I sat down, watched, waited, and listened. The most curious chicks soon came to investigate, and penguins surrounded me. They soon decided I was not one of them, lost interest, and continued about their business. All, that is, except for one. As I got up to leave, a shaggy juvenile followed me. As I explored the landscape, my stalker was always just a few feet away. I had my companion for the day.

For more curious encounters, make sure to check out Curious Encounters with the Natural World: From Grumpy Spiders to Hidden Tigers by Michael R. Jeffords and Susan L. Post.

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