Belly Time for the Emperor Adults

Image: Adult Emperor penguin resting on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 280 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

After spending 28 hours with the Emperor penguins over 3 days, I learned quite a bit about their behaviors and habits. To my surprise, they spent a lot of time on their bellies performing a variety of activities! As you might guess, they spent some of that time sleeping.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin sleeping, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 420 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

This was often followed by a nice stretch of their wings. I caught several images of one wing out or the other, but occasionally, we had the special treat of an overhead double wing stretch!

Image: Adult Emperor penguin stretching on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

They really got into their stretches by opening their mouths and the one below even added in its legs to the full body stretch!

Image: Adult Emperor penguin stretching on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 390 mm, f/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400.

Because the temperature was abnormally warm the three days we visited the colony, we saw many penguins lying down in the ice to eat it!

Image: Adult Emperor penguin eating ice on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 220 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400.

They drove their heads into the sea ice and then lifted their beaks to get the ice down their throats. It gave us a chance to see inside their beaks and get a view of their pink tongue as well.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin eating ice on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 310 mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400.

Another main reason for belly time was its value as a mode of transportation. They alternated between walking upright and gliding on their stomachs. We learned from the ornithologist on the ship that when the penguins grew tired of walking, they laid down on their stomachs and propelled themselves along on the ice.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin propelling itself on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

If they were going downhill, they allowed gravity to move them; but the majority of the time, they used their wings as well as their feet to propel them over the ice.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin propelling itself on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 220 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

Occasionally, they approached us on their stomachs before standing up. It was a fine balance between using this belly method to move faster and being careful not to wear down the feathers on their stomachs that protect them from the harsh cold weather.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin propelling itself on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

I also worked on capturing scenes of Antarctic land in the background to give a sense of place. It was not always easy to isolate a penguin and capture the landscape in the background, but occasionally, I got lucky.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin propelling itself on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 240 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

And of course, this series of images would not be complete without seeing the backside of an Emperor leaving me! 🙂

Image: Adult Emperor penguin propelling itself on its stomach, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 270 mm, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400.

As we end 2018 and look forward to the coming new year, I want to thank you for your support. I enjoy reading the comments and feedback and responding to them. I plan to continue posting more throughout the coming year and hope you will follow along.

You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.

Adult Emperors Up Close

Image: Adult Emperor penguin, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The scene at the emperor penguin colony was one of beauty but also one of chaos for a photographer. The scenes were stunning, but it was hard to capture artistic and visually-balanced compositions with thousands of birds moving around. After capturing some of the landscape shots with the penguins as shown in my previous post here, I switched to capturing images of the penguins up close. Initially, it was difficult to isolate some of birds and have an appealing background at the same time, but patience paid off. As the penguins got accustomed to us sitting and watching, they began to move around the colony at relative ease. For this post, I am focusing only on the adult Emperor penguins.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin stretching, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 360 mm, f/8.0, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The male and females are indistinguishable in terms of their plumage and size so we did not know which gender of bird was caring for the chicks at this time. Both males and females weight 49-99 lbs depending on the season and reach a height of 3.5-4 feet. The majority of the penguins we saw were on the shorter side of that scale. The activity level of the penguins varied greatly in the colony. Some adults slept peacefully, either lying on the ice to cool down during their nap or nodding off vertically, using their body as a cushion.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin sleeping, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Other adults spent time preening and scratching during the daylight. They contorted their bodies in many configurations to reach all aspects of their bodies. Not only did this give me a view of all their body parts, but it also allowed me to capture images of the various curves and lines in their coloration.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin scratching, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

A few times, I even got lucky enough to capture an image inside their beaks to demonstrate the rearward-facing barbs on the roof of their mouths. These barbs assist them when swallowing the slippery fish they eat.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin scratching, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 340 mm, f/8.0, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Occasionally after a preening session, the adults shook their bodies and ruffled up their feathers. I happened to be taking some photos of an adult penguin’s feet at that time and caught the resulting ruffle at its feet. As you can see in the image below, there are extra skin folds at the bottom of the torso that help to shelter the egg and chick from the harsh Antarctic winters.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin feet after ruffling feathers, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 440 mm, f/8.0, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The patterns in their feathers gave them a look of vibrant elegance. Although we saw some birds with dirty stomachs from sliding on the ice, the majority of them were clean with contrasting black and creamy white pattern on their backsides and flippers.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin preening, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The coloration of the feathers on their chest was mesmerizing as the creamy white shimmered in the sunlight. I tried to capture this sparkle in the image below but did not do nearly the justice it deserves.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin chest, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

It was often hard to capture the faces of the adults clearly because their eye was so black and matched the feathers on their heads. Occasionally I could capture the white of their eyes if the light hit their face at the correct moment when their head was turned.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin resting, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 400 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

One of the more emotional positions of the adults happened when they made their soulful call, as they often bowed their head in almost a reverent gesture.

Image: Adult Emperor penguin bowing and calling, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

To hear a little bit of that call and to see how the penguins move in their colony, please click on the video below.

As I process more images, I will continue to post to show more about their behavior and their interactions with their chicks.

You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.

Made it at last–The Emperors

Imagine a place where human beings do not matter, a place where our physical presence was of no importance except perhaps a slight curiosity.  This is the world I stepped into on Day 5 of our Antarctica expedition.  As I walked just over a kilometer from our base tent to the colony on sea ice, I tried to take it in.  I was walking on the Southern Ocean, technically the Weddell Sea.  The land of Snow Hill Island was ahead of me, but I would not actually set foot on that land.  This species of birds lived their whole life without stepping foot on terra firma, as they build their colony on sea ice in the winter and spring during breeding season and then live in the water during the summer months when the ice melts.  

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 260 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

We had guidelines in place to protect these animals and the colony.  Our path was set at least 30 meters away from the colony to give it space.  If the penguins approached us, that was acceptable, but we were not to reach out and touch them.  We were to move slowly and if a penguin came near, we were advised to get low and allow it to move around us.  There was so much to see and observe.  As I approached the colony, I saw another passenger kneeling to get a photo of a penguin that had walked up to him.  I stopped with all my gear packed away and knelt down to watch.  My patience and observation was rewarded as the penguin ambled over to me and came within two feet of me.  I posted that picture taken with my iPhone here.  As I got closer to the colony, I took out two camera setups-one I had intended for wildlife and one for landscape.   I ended up using my telephoto lens for some landscape shots as well, as seen in the image below.

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 230 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The light and scenery were spectacular.  The light was not too harsh and the temperature was in the 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit range the first day.  The colony was quite large and spanned a couple square kilometers.  We visited one part of the colony on the first day and were given up to 9.5 hours at the colony.  If we wanted to eat during the day, we had to walk back to the base tent to eat inside the tent to ensure no food particles were left on the sea ice.  I skipped eating, as I did not want to leave the colony for one second.  

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

As you can see in the image above and below, protruding from the sea ice were bluish icebergs that had been trapped by the sea as it froze.  It added great texture for the landscape. 

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 48 mm, f/18, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

We found the birds in a variety of positions.  They alternated between walking on their feet and sliding across the ice on their bellies.  Since the temperature was quite warm for them, many laid down on their bellies to rest and cool down.

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 240 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Occasionally we saw a gull or a skua fly overhead.  These birds are one of the predators to the Emperors, the others being leopard seals and killer whales when the penguins are swimming in the sea.  The gulls and skuas flew overhead looking for a young chick they could pick off.  Luckily, I did not see them have any success.

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 240 mm, f/8, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

It was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that human presence has not yet instilled fear or another permanent behavior change in this species.  Despite having 120 humans walking around in bright yellow parkas photographing these birds, a single gull flying overhead sent the chicks running for cover with their parents.  They knew the meaning of a flying bird.  Although our immediate physical presence did not have that same meaning, I knew that we still have impacted these animals through global climate change and its impact on sea ice as I described here.   

Image: Emperor penguin colony, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 44 mm, f/16, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

As the available sea ice has reduced over the years due to climate change, the colony has moved closer and closer to land.  Scientists are studying these species and trying to learn more about their habits and lifestyle.  There are many success stories in the conservation world and I hope that as we continue to learn more, we can take steps to minimize or reverse our direct and indirect impact on all species, including the Emperors.  

 You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.