The Many Faces of the Emperor Penguin Chicks

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 410 mm, f/8.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

If it was possible to describe an Emperor penguin chick in one word, it would be precious. I have never seen a more innocent and beautiful animal in all my world travels. Photos do not do them justice, but I will try here with these headshots. Future posts will contain more images of their full bodies and the various activities they do on sea ice, but this blog will focus on the innocence in their eyes and faces.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/3200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When we arrived in Antarctica in mid-October, the Emperor penguin chicks were approximately 2 months old. The typical breeding cycle starts in April (autumn for the Southern Hemisphere) when the sea ice reforms and can hold the thousands of penguins in their colony. The males and females find their mate and the females lay a single egg on their feet. The females leave the colony in May/June to go find food while the males take over incubating the egg on their feet under the folds of their belly.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 480 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Incubation takes 65-75 days during which the males eat nothing but a little bit of sea ice during the harsh winter. They have to keep the egg around 100 deg F despite ambient temperatures dropping to -100 deg F. When the females return in July, the males shuffle the egg back to the female, taking care not to let the egg touch the sea ice, as it will freeze and the fetus will die. The males leave to find food as they have become very skinny after 4 months of no food. Finally, the chicks are born around July/August.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 320 mm, f/8.0, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

They come into this world with a thin layer of down and must develop a thicker layer over the next 50 days while they stay on their parent’s feet in the insulated pouches. They begin to venture off their parent’s feet soon after that but are still vulnerable to the harsh weather and flying gulls and skuas.

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

Although most of the chicks were a couple months old when we arrived, there were some late bloomers. The chicks in the 2 images above and the one below were still very young. In the image below, the down feathers are not thick in the face and there are more black feathers around the beak, all of which indicates that this chick was born much later than the others.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 240 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The more time we spent at the colony, the more personality we were able to capture. The chicks were constantly hungry so we heard chirping nonstop. It was truly music to our ears. In the image below, the chick is in the middle of calling out to its parents.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 440 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

If you want to hear what they sound like and see how close I was to these chicks, please click on the video below. The high pitch sounds are the chicks and the lower mourning sounds are the adults.

When the chicks saw a gull or skua flying overhead, they often stood at attention and stretched out their necks to lift their heads before looking up. I caught this one below making himself as tall as possible.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 230 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

I also caught them very sleepy, especially in the warm weather, and this one was nodding off while sitting upright. Luckily, he was in the protection of the colony and could rest his eyes without worrying about the overhead dangers.

Image: Emperor penguin chick, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 480 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The chicks also had fun on the sea ice, burying their beaks in the ice and even eating some. Not all of the ice made it into their beaks when they lifted their heads. 🙂

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

The chicks will continue to grow over the next several months and get more independent. They will start molting and losing their down in December to get their real waterproof feathers. This is important to their survival as they need these feathers before the sea ice melts underneath them in January. They then begin the next stage of their life in the sea for the summer months (January-March).

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

I can only describe this chick hiding behind a pile of sea ice as precious. I hope you love them as much as I do. Please stay tuned for more images of these charismatic chicks.

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

Author: Dr. Amy Novotny

Amy Novotny is a physical therapist, marathon/ultra runner and nature photographer. She treats patients for a variety of conditions but specializes in chronic pain and calming an overactive nervous system using special diaphragmatic breathing. She has used this technique to help her qualify and run in four Boston marathons! She enjoys the outdoors and can often be found running and hiking on trails in throughout Arizona. She attempts to capture the beauty of nature with her photography both locally in Arizona and also throughout the United States. She is becoming more interested in wildlife photography and attempting to capture the emotion of animal interactions. In her spare time, Amy volunteers as a photo guide for the Arizona Highways PhotoScapes nonprofit and shares her joy of nature with others. Please feel free to contact her regarding her photography, physical therapy or running.

4 thoughts on “The Many Faces of the Emperor Penguin Chicks”

  1. The chicks are just darling! I love all the photos, but especially the one of the chick with the ice on its face. I also enjoyed the video. It was fun to hear what they sound like. Thanks for sharing that!

    Liked by 1 person

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