South America update – Dec 2018

Dear PenguinPromises

The two eggs have finally hatched, and there are now two baby penguins in the nest with Promises. At the moment they are too small and fragile for us to take any photos. They are hiding underneath the parents in the nest, curled up in a ball to keep warm. They are not able to walk yet and are very weak and delicate.

The parents have to keep them underneath all the time to keep them warm and safe.

So for now I have sent you a photo of another penguin in the colony which has a chick that was born a couple of weeks earlier, so this chick is a bit larger and able to come out from under the parent for short periods. As we do our rounds we occasionally come across chicks that let us take photos, but that is not usual.

The majority of adults place themselves in front of the chicks to protect them whenever anybody comes near, making it impossible to get photos even when the chicks are older. Getting a photo of even one chick is hard enough with Promises at home, so getting a good photo of both chicks together is not likely at the moment.

Taking photos of the chicks to send out to you is quite a game. In most cases we have to wait until the adults begin leaving the chicks on their own in the nest, which will be when the chicks reach about 5 weeks of age. That is the time when the chicks’ rapid growth means that one adult can no longer catch enough food for the hungry chicks, and both adults have to begin going to sea to catch food. From then on the chicks are left alone in the nest during the day, and that is when we are able to take photos of the chicks.

The weather in the colony has been very strange so far this year. It is usually quite cold here during springtime. This year it has been much warmer than usual, but with periods of very heavy rain. It has been hard for Promises to keep the tiny chicks dry during the heavy rain.

The new born chicks are very fragile, just like human babies, and they get cold very easily. As you can see in the photo, the chicks have fluffy feathers that are not suitable for rain, so it is important for Promises to keep the chicks dry and warm during heavy rain, which is not easy.

Being so small, the chicks do not require much food yet. The parents take turns going out to sea to catch fish for them. One stays in the nest to protect the chicks and to keep them warm, whilst the other leaves the nest at about 6 o’clock in the morning to go fishing. 

Getting up at 6 o’clock is quite late for Promises. The chicks’ small appetite allows the parents to stay in bed until 6am and return home mid afternoon. At the moment the parents get plenty of rest, but that will soon change. When the chicks are bigger they will need a lot more food each day, and then the parents both have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go fishing, and keep working till dusk.

The days are now at their longest as we enter our southern summer. It now gets light at about 4am and does not get dark until about 10pm (22.00 hrs).

That gives Promises plenty of time to catch fish. These long hours of daylight are the reason that the penguins travel so far south to make their nest and to raise chicks here.

Magellanic penguins catch fish at about 20 or 30 metres under the water, and at that depth much of the light is filtered out by the water. Penguins need to see the fish in order to catch them, and that is not easy because the fish are silvery-grey and hard to see at a distance in the gloomy depths.

Having 18 hours of good sunlight each day gives Promises plenty of time to catch enough fish for the chicks. When the chicks are bigger the parents will need all of those

18 hours to keep the chicks fed.

Studies carried out at the colony show that penguins here travel an average of about 35 kilometres each way to find the fish. For a penguin that means at least two hours travelling to work, and another two hours travelling back home, plus additional time to locate the shoals of fish which are not always in the same place.

When the penguins find the fish shoals, they dive straight down to about 30 metres so that they are beneath the fish. They then try to catch the fish as they are coming back up to the surface. Magellanic penguins only remain underwater for two or three minutes, so they have to be quick. They can only catch one fish at a time, and they swallow it whole when they get back to the surface.

Coming at the fish from beneath has two advantages. Firstly it is easier to see the fish when they are highlighted against the daylight coming from above. Secondly the fish are less able to see the penguins coming when they are coming at them from below. The fish have difficulty spotting the black backs of the penguins against the dark depths beneath.

This is why penguins, and indeed most other seabirds too, have black backs and white stomachs. Black backs and heads blend into the gloomy depths when viewed from above, and the white chests and abdomen blend into the dappled daylight coming from above when viewed from below. The penguins’ black and white markings give them perfect camouflage when viewed from above or below.

I will write to you again as soon as we can get a photo of your chicks. That will probably be late January, unless we get very lucky and catch the chicks posing for the camera before then. In the meantime I would like to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Best wishes,  Mike

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