Photo story: emperor penguins
Delve into the icy world of this iconic species
Emperor penguins raise their chicks in the depths of the most brutal winter on the planet. If it wasn’t for the remarkably deep, complex bonds they form, the birds wouldn’t stand a chance. Could it be love that sees them through?
Autumn is falling over Atka Bay, Antarctica. Having spent three months at sea, a colony of emperor penguins is now preparing to breed on the newly formed sea-ice. The species’ exceptional life-cycle is well known, but new behaviour can still be witnessed by those willing to venture into this inhospitable land. “This couple looked as if they were trying to pass an egg, but it was too early in the season for any eggs to have been laid,” says Stefan. “The ‘egg’ was in fact a snowball, and the birds seemed to be practising for the real thing, with the utmost care and caution. We’d never heard of such behaviour before.”
BELOW Emperors find a new mate each year, and a great commotion ripples through the colony as the birds appraise potential partners. When a pair is established, male and female consummate coupledom with a graceful ritual of bowing, preening and calling. The pair-bond runs deep but will be tested to the limit as the breeding season progresses.
RIGHT Atka’s landscape is ever-changing, with new icebergs drifting in as the bay freezes. Averaging -20°C, the autumn days are positively balmy compared to the brutal months ahead, when the mercury plummets to -55°C and the sea-ice is battered by blizzards that rage for days, even weeks. No other species has the capacity to tough out winter here, at the very end of the Earth.
RIGHT This serene image belies the clumsy business of penguin mating: it is often a few belly-flops before the male holds his position. Pregnancy is demanding of the female, and once her egg is laid, she must return to the ocean to feed. This means entrusting her mate with care of her offspring, but the maternal bond does not break easily. The male works hard to persuade her, constantly lowering his head to her feet and mirroring her calls, until she relinquishes her precious cargo. With winter around the corner, he is now sole guardian for the hatchling-to-be.
BELOW Few birds other than penguins can endure life in Antarctica, even in summer. Here, two Antarctic skuas – which return to the region in spring – squabble over the carcass of an emperor chick from the previous year, preserved in the ice and exposed during the thaw.
LEFT Emperor eggs hatch in the midst of winter, and the process takes several hours. A father will be extremely attentive as his chick emerges, using his beak to gently lift his brood pouch and remove shards of shell. “It amazes me how an almost naked chick can live in such a place after hatching,” says Stefan. “It’s still -30°C.”
RIGHT As spring finally approaches, hundreds of energetic chicks mill around on the ice among the adults. Both males and females are now embarking on fishing trips, leaving their youngsters in crèches, which are thought to be watched over by selected guardians.
RIGHT A footstep tells a thousand words: belly-sliding tracks means it’s likely early autumn or late spring (when the ice is more slippery); small, tight-knit prints belong to a bird with an egg on its feet. “Emperor penguins are phenomenal birds,” says Stefan. “I hope that, in the face of climate change, they will march back to Antarctica for many years to come.”
BELOW Should a storm roll in when the parents are at sea, the chicks instinctively huddle, but not in the well-versed way of their fathers. “Sometimes a chick runs at the group and leaps directly on top, crowd-surfing its peers,” says Stefan. “But the young birds soon learn the spirit of co-operation.”
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