Friday, February 6, 2009

Am I supposed to swim now ?

After weeks of awkward teenager-hood, Adelie chicks on the local islands have their adult feathers. Well, mostly; since the down on their heads seems to be the last to go so some youngsters are still sporting some fetching hairstyles.

In response to their chick's near adulthood, adults are leaving the breeding colony, heading out to forage for themselves. Fledgling chicks, who a few weeks ago were gathered in creches up among the nests, are now gathered along the beaches. Watching the fledglings, one can almost feel their dilemma - "I'm hungry, and my hormones tell me to dive into that water,... but is it safe ? Is there another option ?"

These gatherings of fledglings along the beach are the signal the seabird researchers at Palmer have been waiting for. Measuring tapes and scales at the ready, they leap into the annual penguin roundup. Its a fun time for the station population because we get a chance to help. The goal is to count all the fledgling chicks and record weights and sizes for a subset of those chicks. This information is valuable in understanding long and short term trends in the penguin populations.

Here are some views of a recent morning on the roundup. The chief job of the volunteer is to hold the chicks tight -- these are strong birds ! Although they complain and struggle a bit when we first pick them up, the chicks seem to quickly forgive us. The interruption to their morning seems minimal and after being measured they resume watching the sea and planning their dive in.

In most cases, this is the last we will see of the fledglings for several years. Excepting a few precocious youngsters who come to practice, penguins stay away from the colony until they are ready to breed in 2 or 3 years. Usually they will return to the island on which they hatched and nest on the margins of the colony.