Friday, February 21, 2014

Baby. Freakin'. Penguins.

Admit it.  This is the post you're hoping for every time you come here.

The penguins start showing up in early October, once the sea ice starts breaking up and the snow starts melting enough for them to find rocks and build nests.  Unlike the larger Emperor and King penguins of Happy Feet fame, the smaller Adelie penguins in our area don't hold their eggs on their feet to keep them warm.  Instead, they lay on doughnut-shaped nests made from piles of small stones.

The first month of spring will usually be spent trying to find a mate; while some penguins do mate for life, sometimes their mates may not show up, or many younger penguins might be mating for the first time.  The courtship process, as far as we can tell, involves mostly who flap their wings while making the most noise.

By the end of October everyone has usually found a partner, and eggs will start appearing by mid to late November.

"I made these!"

Adelies usually lay two eggs, and when they're laying on them they nestle them into a little bald patch in on their bellies to get them as close to their warm skin as possible.  They're quite well protected when laying down, but occasionally they'll stand up to stretch, or re-adjust their feathers, or just cool off a bit in the (relatively) hot mid-day sun.  You can often see their eggs, and their little bald bellies then.

An Adelie parent has to be eternally vigilant; their eggs are under constant threat.  Skuas, a flighted bird best described as a very large, VERY aggressive seagull, feed primarily on penguin eggs and chicks.  If a penguin wanders away from their nest for any length of time, there's a chance that a skua will swoop in and steal an egg.

It's difficult to see from this angle and slightly out of focus, but he's got a penguin egg in his mouth.  It's a really hard action to capture on camera because the skuas are unbelievably fast and stealthy.  By the time you even notice them, they're usually flying away at a very high speed and it's really hard to get a good shot of them.

That's the circle of life; baby penguins are eaten to feed baby skuas (who are a heck of a lot cuter, if I'm honest).

 By comparison to the hyper-protective penguins, skuas are almost absentee parents.  They let their chicks roam free, wandering about as they please.  I guess when your mommy and daddy are the meanest animals on the island, you don't have much to worry about.

Mother skua keeping a loose watch on her chick in the bottom-right

But the penguins do not allow their offspring such freedoms.  They are the prey here, so the parents alternate shifts on guarding their eggs, and then going out and feeding.  Always remaining protective of their precious little cargo.

Not all of the eggs will make it; some will get eaten by skuas, some might accidentally get broken, and for whatever reason, some may just not hatch.  The parents will usually sit on them for a while, but after long enough they will give up and abandon the egg.  That's just life.

And about a month later, in late December, when you're walking around near the colonies, a sharp ear can occasionally hear the first tiny peeps of a new life emerging.

C'mon out, little guy.  There's a big world waiting for you.

 Even when hatched, the chicks still aren't out of danger.  Their fluffy down doesn't yet provide enough insulation and they rely on their parents to keep them warm, as well as safe.  A little penguin chick is easily carried away for a meal by a skua, so the penguin parents must be always watchful.

The chicks grow quickly.  Penguins, like many other birds, feed their chicks by regurgitating their previous meals directly into the chick's mouths.  I guess that's real love; being willing to barf on your kid's face when they need it.

Contrast this to humans, where it's usually babies barfing on the parents.

 Full of partially digested food, the chicks settle back in under their parents to keep warm, and build up their strength.

Fuzzballs, little fuzzballs everywhere!

But as any parent will tell you, kids just grow up so fast.  Barely a month or two old, and they're already getting far too large for their parents to sit on them.  By mid-January, they're so large that theft by skua is no longer a realistic worry.


They're not the cleanest of animals by now.  They can't swim yet, so they have no way to clean off all the spilled food, mud and guano that's accumulated on them from a couple months of being sat on.

Penguins gather together in large, dense colonies to give protection from skuas and weather.  It's a big, concentrated mess of squawking and pooping.

Even though they're getting very large, the chicks are still quite a way from being able to go forage and get their own food.  All through January, they're still reliant on ever more frequent feedings of partially digested krill from their parents.

Now, in mid-February, is when the chicks will finally start fledging, losing their baby fluff and dressing in the black and white tuxedo they're so famous for.  This is also when we get to go out to weight and measure them . . . which is going to be a topic for a future post.  :)


BabyWeightMyFatAss said...

So awesome!! Penguins much cuter than the predator bird!

Leslie A said...

You are so lucky you get to see this.