Seeing penguins in the wild is fantastic - one of the highlights for me, on a trip that has so many. After years of seeing these birds in captivity in places like the New England Aquarium (or in nature documentaries), being a visitor on their turf is very special. As you can imagine, penguins are incredibly cute and have loads of personality. A visit to a rookery results in hundreds and hundreds of photos - every minute is a photo opportunity. We were fortunate to make this trip early in the season - the signature penguin aroma was not bad at all.
The penguins we see on this trip all belong to the brush-tail family: Adelie, chinstrap, and Gentoo. Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins are considered sub-Antarctic species, but have become able to make their way further south as climactic conditions are changing. Sadly, the numbers of breeding pairs of the little Adelies are decreasing rapidly on the Antarctic peninsula. No one is sure why, and it's not clear if this is the case in other parts of Antartica.
All species have begun their breeding seasons, although the chinstraps and Gentoos are behind the Adelies schedule-wise, as they travel farther. So each rookery we visit is a beehive of activity. We visited an Adelie rookery on Brown Bluff on Antarctica Day 1 (12/13), and I think I saw pretty much the entire penguin lifecycle: nest-building, eggs, hatching eggs, chicks, and even some penguin romance. That was really surprising to see so late in the season, but our ornithologist said that it's practice and probably won't be productive. The same is true of the nest-building activity we saw - much of it is practice by the younger birds. Penguins build nests of pebbles. It's hard work; each pebble is brought up to the nest in the penguin's beak. They drop it on the pile, and waddle back down to the beach to get another one.
Today (Antarctica Day 2), we visited a chinstrap rookery on Halfmoon Island in Moon Bay. Chinstraps are incredibly vocal and there were a lot of greeting displays: the birds stand very tall and flap their wings and call to each other. The rookery is high on the slopes of the island. We could see many of the birds industriously making their way down to the beach for pebbles and laboriously back up again. I saw one bird slip and catch himself deftly by planting his beak in the ice and getting back up again.
Other penguin factoids: All penguins breed in summer, with the exception of the emperor, which breeds in winter. Older and more experienced breeders tend to have their nests in the center of the rookery, which is also the safest. Seabirds like skuas prey on eggs and chicks. Both male and female penguins have brood patches at the base of their abdomens - spots where there are no feathers, and where the eggs fit just so for maximum warmth.