Sights and Smells of Summer in an Adelie Penguin Colony

In calm winds this morning we loaded the zodiacs with the safety gear we had assembled yesterday. But even as we put on our flotation suits and boarded the boats, the sky was graying and a strengthening breeze was creasing the sea. By about 10:30 a.m. it was clear it wasn’t a good day to try reaching the Wauwerman Islands.

Instead, photographer Chris Linder and I went to the Adelie penguin colony on Torgersen Island. By the afternoon the gray clouds had blown past us and we were treated to brilliant sunshine and the sight of Adelie penguins in the full swing of raising their chicks. This year, unusually deep snow in the early summer had the penguin team worried about the Adelies, which normally require bare rock in order to lay their eggs.

But somehow, the penguins kept their eggs warm even on the snow, and the Torgersen colonies are now full of plump gray chicks. Click through the slideshow for a look at how they raise their young:

On the Edge of a Penguin CitySooo Yummy. Sleepy Now… Lasting Effects of Deep SnowComing Home With DinnerGreeting or Grudge?Grudge or Greeting?Penguin Enemy #1If Only We Could Upload Smells to the InternetPenguin Yoga
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  1. AnnaMarie January 17, 2015 at 1:18 pm #

    I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students. I would like to know: Why do the young leave the Adelie penguin colony at such a young stage (about 2 months)? Thank you for reading my comment!

    • Hugh Powell January 17, 2015 at 4:50 pm #

      Hi AnnaMarie – It does sound really young to be leaving home—but at 2 months an Adelie penguin chick is pretty close to full grown. They need to leave the colony because by that time (March) the Antarctic winter is coming on. Pretty soon the ocean around them will ice over and the days will become very dark. They need to get out to sea where they can find a mixture of daylight, sea ice, and open water to feed in. Thanks for your good question – Hugh

  2. Pat Hester-Fearon January 17, 2015 at 1:37 pm #

    Hello Hugh and Chris! This photo of two Adelie chick siblings snuggling while they sleep in the sunshine is precious, and I can’t thank you guys enough for sharing these wonderful events through the blog with all my students. We are truly enjoying each of your post and learning so much about our natural world. Thank you and stay safe, Pat Hester-Fearon

  3. Andrew January 17, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    Hi I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students. Just like our teacher said, those two Adelie chicks are adorable! Although it is around summertime down there on Torgersen Island, being a human baby there must be freezing. I am wondering: what temperature range can Adelie penguin chicks thrive in, considering the fact that there is still snow instead of bare rocks? Thank you, have fun, and stay safe!

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 9:57 pm #

      Hi Andrew – great question. I asked Donna Fraser, who’s on the penguin team. She said that summer temperatures are not a problem for Adelie penguin chicks. They can easily survive typical temperatures in the 20s and 30s Fahrenheit. The thing that is dangerous for the chicks, she said, is actually when it rains. This can drench the chicks and then make them vulnerable to chilling in the cold wind. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  4. Aileen vergaray January 18, 2015 at 2:47 pm #

    hello, I am one of Mrs. Hester-fearon 8th grade students, and i will like to know: why do the Adeline chicks burry their heads in their parents belly?
    I will also will like to know how big is an Adeline egg?
    Also, i found the gentoo penguin, its in the middle, far left, all by it’s self.
    Thank you for reading this comment!
    Have a nice day and stay safe!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

      Hi Aileen,

      The Adelie chicks bury their heads under their parents’ bellies to keep them warm. When they’re really young, the whole chick fits under the belly, but as they grow less and less of them fits. The heads stay pretty small and it’s easy for the chick to fit it under their parent—but their potbellies get so huge it’s harder to fit underneath! An Adelie egg is quite a bit larger than a chicken egg, more like the size of a goose egg or a large avocado. And great job finding the gentoo penguin! Thanks for reading our blog – Hugh

  5. Juliana January 19, 2015 at 7:41 pm #

    Hi, I am one of Ms. Hester-Fearon’s eighth grade students. I was wondering: Do the brown skuas eat anything other than the penguins eggs and chicks? I really enjoy learning about Antarctica! Thank you and stay safe!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

      Hi Juliana – great question. Brown skuas eat lots of things. They’re very wily and they act as both predators and scavengers. As predators, in addition to penguin eggs and chicks they also attack other seabirds such as cormorants and storm-petrels. They also catch fish. As scavengers they pick at carcasses of dead birds, seals, and whales. They also act like pirates, buzzing other birds that are carrying prey so they can steal it. The technical term for this behavior is “kleptoparasitism” – “klepto” refers to stealing and “parasitism” because the activity causes a gain for the skua but a loss for the victim. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  6. Anthony January 19, 2015 at 9:14 pm #

    Hi, I am a student from Mrs. Hester Fearon’s 8th grade class. I would like to know If there was a time where there was a lack of food, and if there was, where would the Penguins go, do, ect? Thank you for reading my comment!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 5:53 pm #

      Hi Anthony – Great question. The amount of krill available is constantly changing and so penguins do run into periods when there’s not a lot of food around. They cope with a lack of food in just a few ways. One way is to spend more time foraging and swim farther to find food—this can mean their chicks end up with less food, though. Another way is for the penguins to switch to a different kind of food. Adelie penguins around Palmer used to eat large amounts of fish, but there seems to have been a drop in fish populations and so the penguins now eat almost entirely krill. The last way is for the penguins to move to another part of Antarctica where they can find more food. This may be what is happening with Adelie penguins around Palmer Station. Their numbers have dropped by 90 percent in the last 35 years, and this may be due to a decline in sea ice that makes it harder for the birds to find krill. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  7. Marieme January 19, 2015 at 9:36 pm #

    Hi, I am one of Mrs.Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students and I would like to know where does the distinct penguin smell come from? Thanks for reading!!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

      Hi Marieme – the penguins all live close together and they poop right outside their nests. They eat krill, so that’s what the poop smells like, mixed with a tangy ammonia smell from their urine. That whole mixture mixes with the mud and meltwater and heats up when the sun shines, and that’s how penguin colonies become so unforgettably fragrant. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  8. Kevin V January 19, 2015 at 9:47 pm #

    Hello, I am one of Mrs. Hester Fearons students. My question is why do the penguins have to lay there eggs in bare rock instead of the snow? Thank you for your time!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

      Hi Kevin – Bare snow is cold, which is bad for an egg that needs to stay warm to develop into a chick. Also, as summer sets in and the temperatures climb above freezing here, the snow starts to melt and the eggs can wind up in a pool of ice water – which is even worse for them. That’s why Adelie and gentoo penguins look for patches of bare rock to lay their eggs. Thanks for a great question – Hugh

  9. Jillian January 19, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    Hi, I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students. I would like to know since the Adelie penguins leave the nest at 2 months, how long is the average life span of an Adelie penguin? Also what would happen if an Adelie penguin did not find a mate? Thank you for being down in Antarctica researching for us. Stay safe!

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

      Hi Jillian – good question. Adelies live on average about 7 or 8 years, although some individuals live up to about 20 years. If a penguin doesn’t find a mate, it will grow old and eventually die without leaving any offspring. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  10. Jhoana Munoz January 20, 2015 at 1:11 am #

    Hello, I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s students. I am quite curious about this topic and would like to know, why do these Adelien penguins tend to leave their parents? Can they risk their lives out in the arctic like that? Thank you.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Jhoana – Just to clarify, penguins live only in the Antarctic and other parts of the Southern Hemisphere—they don’t live in the arctic. The chicks don’t exactly leave their parents – it’s more like the parents leave the chicks once they’ve raised them up to the age when they develop their juvenile plumage and fed them enough krill so that they’re fat and healthy. It seems weird to us, but many birds do this—raise their chicks and then let them go out into the world on their own when they’re still very young. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  11. Angela January 20, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

    Do you think the younger ones will be able to catch up in time? Ah, I wondered what you meant by the smells of the colony. I thought maybe it was just dirt! Small price to pay for such a privilege. So sorry to hear how rapidly their numbers are declining. Sorry for us all. Thank you for sharing with us.

  12. Collin January 20, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

    Why is the gentoo all by itself in the photo? Do the penguin groups get mixed up, and can they share land together? Shouldn’t be with its own group? Thanks!

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:46 am #

      Hi Collin – Great question. Penguins do tend to nest all together in groups of the same species. However, it takes several years before a penguin is ready to start breeding. Single penguins that aren’t breeding don’t need to spend as much time at a colony, and they sometimes travel around to nearby islands to see what conditions are like there. That’s probably what this one was doing. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  13. Jovanny Achong January 21, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

    Why do Penguins like Antarctica and the cold

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:32 am #

      Hi Jovanny – Only a few species of penguins are actually able to tolerate the extreme cold of Antarctica. Most of the world’s species occur farther north where it’s slightly warmer. It’s hard to provide a simple answer to your question, except to say that these species of penguins evolved to live in these regions, and their bodies are adapted to keep them warm and enable them to live, feed, and breed in very cold temperatures. If they were to come to the parts of the world that we think are comfortable, they would be way too hot. I hope this helps – thanks for your question – Hugh

  14. Jhoana January 21, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

    Hello, I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students, and I am eager to know; Why are the Adelie penguins known as Adelie? Thank you for reading my comment.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:29 am #

      Hi Jhoana – great question. Adelie penguins were described by the 19th-century French explorer Dumont D’Urville. He was on a long expedition and he missed his wife, Adelie. So the penguins were named for her—and there is still a region of Antarctica known as Adelieland.

  15. Isabella January 26, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Wow! What a great experience it must have been to see these Adelie penguins live right as it was changing to a beautiful, bright sky. Wonderful photography skills! I especially like the last picture of the slide show.

  16. Faith January 26, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

    Hi! I’m Faith! I wanted to know if it is hard to put a tracker on a penguin?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

      Hi Faith – It’s tricky to put a tracker on a penguin. You have to know how to choose the right penguin, how to catch it and hold it safely, and how to put the tracker on so that it doesn’t fall off but also so that it doesn’t hurt the penguin. Fortunately the penguin team has been doing this for more than 10 years, and they are very good at it. So it looks easy when they do it. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  17. Gwendolyn January 28, 2015 at 5:10 pm #

    Hi, I am one of Mrs.Hester-fearon’s students and I would like to know, how many chicks does a penguin have at a time. Thank you and hope the trip goes well.

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:33 am #

      Hi Gwendolyn – Most gentoo and Adelie penguins lay two eggs and raise two chicks at a time. Sometimes one of the eggs does not hatch and the pair raises only one chick at a time. Thanks for asking – Hugh

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