Photo story: em­peror pen­guins

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­pher Ste­fan Christ­mann

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.”

A par­ent checks whether a beg­ging chick is their off­spring be­fore de­liv­er­ing a meal. Chicks Of al­land­big par­entscats,leop­ard­sun­der­goarea greet­ingthe mostritu­aladepteac­hat time­climb­ing,thead­ultswith­malesre­turn fa­mous­lyfromable­thetosea.dragThe­car­cass­es­par­ent­calls three­mul­ti­ple­times times,theirownon­ly­weightof­feringup­food in­toif thethe chick­branches.call­sTh­e­se­and­movesskill­sin the arecor­rectlearne­d­way.throughAy­oung­ster­play,first­that tries scram­blin­gits luckaround­withi­nas­mall­ran­dom­bushes,adult be­fore grad­u­atin­gusu­al­ly­into big­goestrees.hun­gry. Here, one of Camp Fe­male’s cubs chases her up a steep, sheer trunk.

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