Friday, January 2, 2009

The First 10 Days: A Journal of Chick Life

Entry 1: Hatching
December 13th: This is now the land of light. The days run together together into an almost seamless summer epoch. Dawn, if you can call it that, was at 2:17 this morning and the sun won't dip below the horizon until 11:58 this evening. The space between days is filled with weak yellow and purplish light, strong enough to read a book by but somewhat milky and thick-seeming. On Torgerson Island, the Adele's long vigil on their eggs is almost over.

Underneath them, the nesting birds feel small quakes, agitations. They stand often, turning the eggs, looking for signs of progress. Still on the inside, the cramped chicks know its time to emerge and they jab hard with their eggteeth, drilling a hole to the outside world. Its hard work, the chick will expend 2 or 3 days of effort to free themselves.

The newly hatched youngster will weigh a mere 95 grams (a 40th of what they will weight in forty days) and will barely be able to hold its heads up. It will spend the first three or four days tucked completely under their parent. It won't need to eat right away; being nourished instead by a large yolk sac within its body cavity. This internal yolk is a brilliant adaptation that allows chicks to wait for a foraging parent to bring food from the sea.

Entry 2: And baby brother makes two

December 15th: At a good nest near the center of the colony, the first chick has hatched. This chick's egg was laid three days before their sibling's. During the time that their mother was producing the second egg, its parents only lightly covered the first, enough to protect it from the elements but not enough for fast embryo development. Both parents attended their nest round-the-clock, fasting and waiting for their clutch to be complete. Had something happened to the first egg, they would have replaced it with a third. In this case, all went well and the "younger" egg was laid on schedule. Their mother, depleted from her 14 days of fasting, took to the sea to hunt krill and fish. This first trip took her out to ice edge and lasted one to two weeks (usually more than twelve days). Their father, waiting his turn to eat, took his first shift on the eggs. Now the two of them fit well in his egg pouch and he made a good seal to the ground, giving them all the warmth possible. This ability for prolonged fasting which he is exercising demonstrates the hardiness of this tough animal and is unique to Adelie penguins. Assuming these parents demonstrated a typical shift change routine, his 30 days of fasting was followed by a 12 day replenishment trip, and then the parents each took a shift or two of 3-6 days. Timing their handoffs was key to their survival and their chicks.

But that is in the past. Now both chicks have hatched and their parents stay close to the nest.

Entry 3: A week old and in for rough weather
December 21st: The snow started at dawn, gentle at first and then picking up urgency, it swirled in fast, huge flakes. By late morning, twenty cm (8 inches) covered the rocks, the ground and the birds. It could have been a disaster. Had it fallen a week or so later, the chicks would have gotten soaked and cold, with many likely freezing. As it is today, the little ones are still small enough to shelter under mom or dad. This sort of spring storm isn't usual but its part of a trend. The Antarctic peninsula is getting wetter as well as warmer. But, today is a lucky day and chicks and parents look happy and healthy. Chicks tucked into the warmth, parents rise to shake off the flakes.
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