Penguin Watching

Penguin and chick
Newborn penguin chick — one of the first if not the first to hatch this season — greets its parent.


I can’t believe my luck. I mean, really. December 13th was my last full day at Cape Royds. It was overcast and the coldest day since I’d been at Royds and I had to keep stopping to warm up my hands. Not to sound melodramatic or anything, but I also had a cold and wasn’t feeling 100 percent. But I went out for a couple of afternoon walks with my camera and tripod anyway — one in the direction of the volcanic landscape, then after a pit stop at the field camp tent to warm up, one to the penguin colony. I have been told by the research team here that this is the time of year they typically see the first chicks. Nobody saw them yesterday, but Katie thought she heard a faint peeping and that there might have been some pecking their way out of their shells. Since I knew I would be getting picked up late morning the next day, I knew this would be my last chance to see chicks and I was on the alert for sounds. It started getting windy and I thought I heard something a couple of times but when I went over to investigate didn’t see anything. I wasn’t sure if it was my camera bag strap squeaking in the wind, which it does sometimes. After watching a colony that sounded like the direction it was coming from, I did catch a glimpse of an egg with a hole in it when a penguin stood up briefly and then settled back on top of it. But after waiting several minutes in the cold, I decided it wasn’t happening, my fingers were frozen and started walking in the direction of the path to the campsite. As I passed the neighboring subcolony, I heard an unmistakable peeping sound, looked to my left and saw this scene. It only lasted about 2 minutes — I took a few stills, turned on the video, and watched the penguin feed the chick and settle back down on it. You can see the video on YouTube.

Penguin subcolony at Cape Royds
The subcolonies are distributed throughout the colony. Some have numerous nesting pairs, like this one, others only have a few. I saw one with just four nests.

Mostly what I saw while I was here were behaviors related to nesting. All the penguins who will breed this year have paired up, created little stone nests in their subcolony groups, and laid the eggs. The male does most of the nest-building, but once the female lays the eggs, they trade places sitting on the eggs. One goes down to the water to forage for food while the other sits on the eggs. When the foraging penguin returns, they great each other with a little dance where they swoop their necks up and down in unison and call out loudly. Then they switch places and the other parent goes off to feed.

I was hanging out on the bluff overlooking the water watching the penguins form little groups to go in the water. They just go down there and join with others who happen to be on their way, and walk more or less single file.

Penguins at Cape Royds
Penguins travel single file to the water to feed.
A lot of pack ice had blown in from the north, so they had to make their way across that to get to the water.
A lot of pack ice had blown in from the north, so they had to make their way across that to get to the water.


They’re fast swimmers and sometimes leap in and out of the water like a dolphin. I fired away with my camera and got some shots of wet, fast moving penguins that make them look like rubber dolls:

Penguin swimming
Catching air: this penguin leaped pretty high.
Penguins swimming
Synchronized swimming, penguin style.

The pack ice floated at a good clip. Every day it looked different. On the 12th this iceberg showed up:

Iceberg, Cape Royds
Iceberg that suddenly appeared at Cape Royds.




I tracked a penguin with my camera as he ran up a steep hill with a rock in his beak, which he presented to his mate in the subcolony at the top of the hill. There was an enthusiastic greeting between them. The landscape is rocky, he’s carrying a rock and something about the whole triumphant climb reminded me of the scene in the movie “Rocky” where Sylvester Stallone runs to the top of the long flight of steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So I titled the video “Rocky.” Watch it on YouTube.

Penguin building nest
Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got: this penguin is probably too young to mate and is just practicing nest building.

Young penguins three to five years old play at nest building, picking up stones and dropping them in a pile. Sometimes they even pair up, and do the whole greeting and changing places routine, but they are too young to breed and don’t lay eggs. Sometimes they make a nuisance of themselves and other penguins chase them away. I saw one in that situation running away who stumbled and slid about 8 feet down a slope on its belly.

Penguin with 3 eggs.
Too much of a good thing: the penguin on the right has three eggs in its nest. That’s too many to properly incubate and definitely too many to care for. [Note: Eventually two chicks hatched and survived.]
Most of the penguins had one egg, many had two, and the one in the photo at left has three. I asked David Ainley and Katie Dugger, lead researchers on the penguin study who were there, how that happened. They said that either the male had had a mate that left and then a new mate that between them had laid three eggs, or one rolled down an incline from another nest. But the prognosis for three eggs is not good. Even if they all hatch, they won’t be able to care for three chicks and they will likely die. [Note: In early January, David Ainley, told me that the penguin couple with three eggs had, against the odds, managed to successfully hatch and care for two chicks.]

The only predator the penguins have to watch out for at Cape Royds, aside from orcas in the water, are skuas, who look for an opportune moment to steal eggs. I saw skuas swoop down and harass the penguins numerous times, but most of the time, the penguins are onto them, and squawk and lean toward them menacingly. The skuas may stand there for a while, but once they know they can’t catch the penguins unaware they tend to fly off.

Skuas harassing penguins
These skuas harassed the penguins to try to get at their eggs, but the penguins were having none of it.

The penguins are unconcerned about the presence of people, however. Sometimes when I was standing in one place for a while, one or two would wander over to check me out. At one point I suddenly looked down to find I had company:

Penguin, Cape Royds
A curious penguin checks me out.

While I was there, Katie was making rounds every other day to check on the banded birds, making notes on the which ones were nesting and how many eggs they had. She has found that although the colony population hasn’t changed since last year, there are fewer nests and fewer eggs. Some nests were created but abandoned. Some pairs made nests but didn’t produce eggs and are just “playing house” as Katie put it. The scientists don’t know the cause of the lack of breeders, but one hypothesis is that something happened during the wintering over period that is making them struggle now.

Katie at work
Katie makes the rounds checking on banded birds, nests and eggs.

The colony at Royds took a major hit when an immense iceberg named B-15 broke off the Ross Ice Shelf and essentially iced in a huge area of McMurdo Sound year round, preventing the sea ice from breaking up in the Antarctic summer. After it broke up in 2005, the colony began to slowly recover, but it has still not achieved its original size, even though there should be enough krill and silverfish for them to eat. You can see that when you look at an overview of the colony and see all the empty spaces that are tan in color where penguins used to nest. More research is needed to understand what is happening in the wintering over period and to look at some of the environmental variables that could be affecting their ability to survive and breed.

Penguin at Cape Royds
Many mysteries remain about the lives of Adelie penguins, especially what happens during the Antarctic winter


Nesting Season

Cape Royds penguins
Nesting penguins overlook the sound, which filled with floating icebergs over the past few days. Small groupings like this are called subcolonies. They tend to distribute themselves fairly uniformly, a couple of penguin-lengths apart, and face different directions. Too close, and they get annoyed with each other, and push the interloper away with a squawk.
Banded Adelie penguin, Cape Royds
The researchers keep track of the banded birds to see if they are nesting and have eggs.

It’s my third day at the Cape Royds penguin colony, which consists of Adelie penguins. It’s a relatively small colony, with the larger ones at Cape Crozier and Cape Byrd, and Beaufort Island, which are all less severe environments than Cape Royds, which is basically further south. Katie Dugger, who has been keeping track of the banded birds this season and their nesting activity, estimates that there are a little less than 2,000 breeding pairs, i.e. 4,000 penguins. The ones that haven’t bred go out to sea, but will come back after the chicks have hatched. Right now, at any given time, about half of the birds are on land and their mates are in the water. The eggs have been laid, so they’re swapping places sitting on the nest about every other day. Katie knows this from keeping track of the banded birds. Chicks are banded at the end of each season.

Cape Royds penguin colony with Shackleton's hut.
Cape Royds penguin colony from the top of the trail. The Cape Royds hut used by Ernest Shackleton’s expedition is in the foreground on the left. The body of water in the foreground is a small lake. The sea is behind the hill. This was on one of the days when icebergs had blown in from the north. Where the ground is tan is where the penguins nest. As Jean Pennycook told me, the soil color results from “10,000 years of penguin poop.”

To get to the colony, you walk about 5 to 10 minutes down a trail past one of the historic huts used by Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions. Like other historic huts in the area, the hut and the artifacts and supplies left behind by those early explorers some 100 years ago are maintained and conserved by New Zealanders. The huts are kept locked, and you may only enter with a trained hut guide, who could be a New Zealander or an American. I didn’t come with someone who had the training, so I haven’t been in, but if you’re curious, another photographer with the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, Shaun O’Boyle, did a lot of shooting in there. I highly recommend his blog Portraits of Place in Antarctica. He got here in October and just left. His project involved the architecture and manmade structures here, and he does beautiful work.

Penguin with egg
This penguin has stood up to adjust its position on the egg. This penguin has one egg, but some have two.
Sign and tower at Cape Royds
A camera mounted on the other side of this tower takes the time lapse photos of the colony posted on A sign marks the beginning of the protected area. A permit is required to enter.

It’s a protected area, so not anyone can enter. Right now if you watch the penguins, their activities revolve around nesting. They’re either sitting on a nest, occasionally standing up to shift position and settle back down. Or they are picking up rocks in their beaks to add to their mate’s nest. Or they are in the water or coming and going from the water to eat krill and silverfish, their main diet.

Penguins on ice at Cape Royds
Penguins go down to the water to eat, then return to the nest to give their mate a turn.

When they go in the water, they tend to form little groups, then walk to the ice edge together and enter together. They just join whatever other penguins happen to be on their way down the slope to swim.

It’s entertaining to watch them dive into the water. They gather at the edge, mill around a bit, and then they dive in. Here are a couple where I’ve stopped the action:

Penguins at Cape Royds
Heading for the water. Look at those gestures. They’re very human-like. No wonder we are tempted to anthropomorphize them.
Penguins diving, Cape Royds
Semi-synchronized swimming: penguins take the plunge as a group.

So, friends and blog followers, yesterday I figured out how to shoot video with my Nikon SLR. I’m getting better at it as I go along, so I have some good footage already, but the Internet upload speeds are sloooowwww, so I can’t just put them all up at once. My first effort is admittedly not in as good focus as the ones I made today, but it gives you a look at penguins in action nonetheless, and they are, frankly, adorable. You can find the video on YouTube here. As I get them online, I’ll note them in this blog, or just subscribe to my YouTube channel. And of course, Jean Pennycook has posted a lot of photos and videos of this colony at

Penguin on one foot.
This is the only time I saw a penguin get its foot that high, to scratch itself. Jean Pennycook, the educator, jokingly calls poses like this “penguin yoga.”
Penguin at Cape Royds
Looks like this bird is doing some Penguin Yoga, too (Sun Salutation?). Sometimes when they stretch like this they also make a sound as if to say, “I’m here!”