South America Update – October 2017

Dear PenguinPromises


The penguins are now back home after their winter migration. The penguins travel separately during the winter migration to Brazil, for the simple reason that it is impossible to keep in touch with individual penguins out at sea. Not only do penguins all look similar, but under the water visibility is only about 20 metres, and when floating on the surface penguins can only see as far as the next wave. There is no way that penguins could remain together as a pair out at sea.


So the first thing that the penguins need to do when they get back to the colony is to reunite with their partner. Penguins always use the same nest each year, so reuniting with their partner simply means meeting up at home, just like humans do.


The males arrive home about 10 days before the females. The reason for that is that there are more male penguins than females, so it much easier for a female to find a new partner than it is for a male penguin. The penguins do usually remain with the same partner every year, and when the male penguin arrives home first he waits for the female to arrive.


However if the female arrives home at the nest and there is no sign of the male, the female will not wait very long. The females are starting to develop eggs that eventually need to be laid, so the females are eventually forced to seek a new partner if the male does not show up on time. It is for that reason that the male penguins generally arrive home nice and early, and wait for the female.


Considering that penguins have no clocks and calendars it is quite amazing how they know exactly what day of the year it is in order to co-ordinate their reunion. It is also amazing how they navigate home when their visibility at sea is so limited.


After reuniting the pair have to repair the nest. Magellanic penguins always use the same bush to make their nest, but they usually make their nest under a different part of their bush. The area around the nest gets dirty and infected with fleas. Penguin nests have no bathroom, and the chicks do not leave the nest for several weeks, so you can imagine how dirty the area around the nest gets by the end of the season. Moving to a fresh bit of ground is cleaner and healthier.


Most of the bushes are not very big, so it is a short move. The weather here can be really horrible, with heavy rain and very strong winds, and the bushes give protection from the wind and rain. There are lots of seagulls in the colony, and they will steal eggs from nests which are not protected, so that is another reason why the penguins make their nests under the bushes, so as to protect their eggs from seagulls.


The nest is nothing fancy, just a hollow in the ground to stop the eggs rolling away. In reality Magellanic penguins prefer to make their nests inside burrows, but here the soil is too dry and sandy to make proper burrows. The soil would simply cave in if they tried to make a burrow.

Penguins like to line their burrows with grass too, but here there is very little grass, so most nests are not lined with anything, except for maybe a few feathers or pieces of dried seaweed that the penguins happen to find.


Despite these limitations this is a good place to nest. Although each individual bush is quite small, the colony is made up of thousands of bushes close together, and together they provide the penguins with good protection from the strong Patagonian winds. Even during strong winds, at ground level it is relatively calm.


There are now two eggs in your penguin’s nest and I attach a new photo of your penguin in the nest incubating the eggs. The eggs will take nearly two months to hatch. During those two months the adults have to lie over the eggs to keep them warm. Incubating the eggs is very important if the eggs are to hatch successfully.


Inside each egg, a tiny single cell multiplies and grows, feeding off the yolk inside the egg. The yolk of the egg is the food which the embryo uses to grow into a baby penguin, but it can only do that if the egg is kept warm, just like any baby. The egg also needs to be rotated ever few hours by the adults in order to develop properly.


It only requires one of the adults to incubate the eggs at any time, so they take it in turns. One of the penguins goes out to sea to catch fish, whilst the other stays at home incubating the eggs. They change over every three or four days so that each penguin has time out at sea catching fish. The fish that the penguins eat are out at sea, so they have to go without food whilst they are in the nest incubating the eggs.


Penguins are used to going without food for long periods. When the penguins change their feathers once a year they are forced to remain ashore without food for three or four weeks, so three or four days without food is quite normal for a penguin. Incubating the eggs is also very relaxing, and the penguins spend most of the time sleeping.


For the next two months the penguins will fall into a routine of sleeping in the nest to incubate the eggs and feeding out at sea. That leisurely life will change as soon as the chicks hatch. I will write to you again to let you know as soon as the eggs have hatched.


Best wishes,  Mike

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