First of all I need to apologize for not posting here in a long while. Ever since the Sun came back on July 21st we have been beyond busy filming the colony as well as some distant icebergs and our work days have been incredibly long. The few days we took off in-between were reserved for resting and not blog-writing – I hope you understand ;). Now, with the weather being bad for a couple of days, I finally get the chance to catch up with some of your messages and also with writing a short piece for the blog again.
At the end of July and the beginning of August we had a long-lasting storm that kept us trapped inside for almost eight days straight. Now, if I compare this to the longest storm we had in 2012, during which wind speeds never dropped below 30 knots for over two weeks(!!) we were still quite lucky, but still the storm hit us when we were planning to film a very crucial moment in the colony. According to our estimates first emperor penguin chicks were going to hatch in the last week of July after a roughly 65 day incubation period of the egg. On July 26th we spent a very memorable and brutal day on the sea ice filming the birds in stormy conditions, which needed to be carefully planned and it the end was quite exhausting, but at the same time incredibly successful. Upon our return home the storm intensified and for the entire rest of the month, we could not get out again.
Storms are an essential part of the Antarctic experience and amongst the worst that you can experience on the planet. Wind speeds that make a building like Neumayer III shake are incredibly powerful and intimidating and can also change the landscape over night. We had a perfectly smooth and soft layer of snow on the sea ice when we first got down there and riding a skidoo was almost a meditative experience. After a short storm of around two days hit us mid June, the entire sea-ice in the area around the colony was structured by countless sastrugi turning the skidoo ride to the colony into an ordeal. Then again, a few weeks later a mild storm brought incredible amounts of snow which accumulated in all the wind-blown sastrugi holes and closed many of them up again. I would not go as far and say the ride to the colony is smooth and meditative again, but it definitely feels a lot less bumpy and gives you a much better feeling about pulling our heavy sledges.
Being a physicist by profession and having a scientific background I do know that the following things are not related, but one thing that always struck me about long-lasting storms in Antarctica is that they tend to act like pacemakers and transition periods between development stages of the penguin colony. What do I mean by that? In 2012, we would visit the colony and see the males with eggs on their feet. This would go on for a while until the next storm hit us and we’d be coming back to the colony seeing a lot of chicks having hatched. Then another storm would hit us and afterwards the young chicks would not be sitting on their parents feet anymore, but started running around and exploring the colony and the sea ice by themselves. As I said, development of the colony and storms are not really connected, but as mentioned above we did have a major storm at the end of July into the beginning of August and what I just described happened in 2017 as well.
When we returned to the colony on August 3rd, we stopped close to the ramp in order to have a look at the colony from an elevated vantage point. It was a windy day and you could see a layer of haze across the entire bay, which was created by drifting snow. The colony was standing together very closely, located in their usual spot, only that this time there were also single birds further out North on the sea ice. We identified them as females who were returning to the colony and we instantly knew that this would mean that the first chicks had hatched. Upon our descent onto the sea ice and getting closer to the colony we could finally hear it – the call of the chicks, which we had not heard in roughly half a year!
To be honest, this is the phase that I was looking forward to the most in the unique life cycle of the emperors. The chicks are incredibly adorable, especially after just having hatched. They are still mostly naked and only covered by a very thin layer of down which still exposes a lot of skin to the cold temperatures. Their heads however are completely covered in feathers already which have the unique black and white pattern of emperor penguin chicks. Their little pear shaped bodies are tucked away under the brood pouch of their fathers with their tiny feet standing on top of the big massive feet of their parents. Sometimes, when the parents have lowered their brood pouch, the chick’s head will still stick out giving them the opportunity to observe what is going on in the colony without having to endure the cold temperatures.
We were lucky enough to see many chicks on that first day back in the colony as well as eggs that were just hatching. I never ever dreamed that I would be able to witness the actual hatching (much like I never thought I would witness the egg-laying procedure), but there were so many males lifting their brood pouches with chipped eggs on their feet that it was hard to miss. For me, it was more than a dream come true and a truly humbling moment when I saw a chick that had just hatched a few minutes ago opening its sleepy eyes and grasping the first sights of the world. It’s hard to believe that these small and fragile creatures will grow into majestic and stoic penguins, facing the harshest living conditions on the planet on a daily basis. Nature just never ceases to amaze.
Overall the colony has changed from a rather quiet place where every individual was trying to conserve as much energy as possible into a very active and lively place again which is due to the many rituals that are taking place right after the chicks hatch.
The timing of these events is astounding and I admire the birds for their precision and dedication. Shortly after the males have incubated the eggs for around 65 days the young chicks will hatch – a procedure that can last a couple of hours up to even multiple days, depending on the skill of the chick and the help it gets from its parent. The chick has used up all the nutrition from its yolk sac and is now in dire need for a first meal. At the same time, its father has not eaten in almost five months and is starving himself. Yet, he does find the strength to regurgitate a small meal that he has been saving up for exactly this moment. It was touching to see how the fathers struggle to access this little meal by tensing up their body, throwing up their shoulders and trying as hard as they can to regurgitate. The feed usually does not succeed at first but it takes the father a few attempts until it actually reaches the begging chick. While the meal itself does not look very delicious at all, the chicks usually seem very content after receiving it and continue to rest on the feet of their parents while being covered by the warming brood pouch. Both of them are now waiting desperately for the mother to return.
The mother has been feeding at sea for the past weeks and regained a lot of her body weight and strength. For some reason her timing is so precise, that she will arrive at the colony shortly after her chick has hatched, so that she can take care of it while the father will now leave for the sea and feed as well. Upon their arrival at the colony, females will call for their partner using the same unique choreography they learned together at the beginning of their relationship. It can take the female a few hours until she finally finds her mate and her new born chick amongst thousands of other birds and it is quite a miracle in my opinion, that they manage to succeed in this task at all. As soon as they have found and greeted each other, another crucial piece of behavior takes place. The male will pass the chick to the female.
As I explained above, at this early stage in their lives, the chicks are still very vulnerable and cannot withstand the cold for very long. During the pass however, they will be exposed to the icy ground and to the cold temperatures outside of the brood pouch, which is the reason why everything has to happen very quickly – just like it had to with the passing of the egg. The passing ritual is very similar to the egg-passing in general and the two partners might be dancing around each other for hours until they finally decide the right time has come to make the pass. Then, everything happens very quickly and I was very pleased to see how skilled most couples were. I have seen a total of around 10 passes and none of them ever lasted longer than roughly 30s, once the chick was on the ground.
Even though I have never seen an unsuccessful pass of a chick, sadly I know that they exist. Aside from a few lost eggs, which get covered in snow pretty quickly we have also seen a few lifeless little bodies lying on the ground around the colony. It is always heartbreaking to see frozen chicks and it reminds you how brutal Antarctica really is. If one thing goes wrong, like the mother struggling to get the chick back on her feet during the pass, it can be the end for the newborn. While seeing a dead chick itself is a very sad sight, we did see a behavior which was even more heartbreaking.
Parent birds who have lost their eggs during polar night and still hang out in the colony are constantly looking around for opportunities to continue breeding, even though they have failed for the season. The other day we witnessed a very special behavior, when we saw a non-breeding male approaching a frozen chick on the periphery of the colony. He slowly approached the lifeless body bowing down and inspecting it closely. Then he walked a couple of steps closer to the corpse and started using his beak in order to slowly move the chick onto his feed. His urge to breed and to not fail his mate who had not returned yet was so strong, that he was willing to adopt a dead chick and to warm it up under his brood pouch. As he awkwardly walked around with the little stiff body on his feet, the chick’s head was still sticking out from under the pouch and it was by far the saddest thing I had ever seen in the colony. He proudly walked over to other parents showing off „his“ dead offspring until he eventually vanished into the interior of the colony. It was truly heartbreaking.
Now, I am looking forward to the more heartwarming moments we are about to experience in the colony – the start of the young emperor penguin chicks leaving the brood pouch of their parents (or in fact simply not fitting underneath anymore) and running around freely in the colony. It will be fun to watch them explore their surroundings and interact with their fellow chicks. With roughly 75 days left in Antarctica our stay and the life cycle of the emperor penguins are slowly coming to an end, but it will be an ending full of wonderful moments and excitement! 🙂