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Halley Diary — September 2011

We are fortunate enough at Halley to have an Emperor Penguin colony at “Windy Bay”, about 20Km from base. Naturally everyone is keen to see them. So I thought I would use this September diary to share some of our experiences and images from our visits to the penguins.

Male Emperor (carrying egg) poses for shot (Photo: Emma Philpott)
Male Emperor (carrying egg) poses for shot (Photo: Emma Philpott)
The cliffs at Windy are mostly vertical or overhanging with large cornices. The penguins get in close for shelter. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
The cliffs at Windy are mostly vertical or overhanging with large cornices. The penguins get in close for shelter. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Paul clears the edge, around 4000 penguins wait for us. 5km in the distance water vapour rises off the sea. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Paul clears the edge, around 4000 penguins wait for us. 5km in the distance water vapour rises off the sea. (Photo: Ian MacNab)

I’ve been away for most of September. One of my roles as the Field Assistant is to take the staff on their winter trips, returning to base only at the end of each week. At Windy Bay we have a caboose (think small caravan) positioned a short walk from the ice shelf edge.

Paul, Brett, and Rory set up the anchors on the cliff top. Access is by a 30m abseil, leaving the ropes in place so we can later ascend via jumar. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Paul, Brett, and Rory set up the anchors on the cliff top. Access is by a 30m abseil, leaving the ropes in place so we can later ascend via jumar. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
When it gets really cold, they start to huddle together in groups, from a few to several thousand penguins. (Photo: Emma Philpott)
When it gets really cold, they start to huddle together in groups, from a few to several thousand penguins. (Photo: Emma Philpott)

In April and May the penguins return from months at sea to form a breeding colony in the same place each year. During the cold and dark months of June and July the males alone incubate the eggs, which then start to hatch in August. The chicks only have about four months to eat, get fat, and fledge before the sea ice breaks up in December when they are all cast out to sea.

Even in temperatures well below −40°C they are able to maintain a constant body temperature of 38°C. Physiological adaptations alone are not sufficient, they also have behavioural adaptations. Many will know about the Emperors ability to look after their eggs and chicks by balancing them on their feet. The adults are also able to tip up their large feet, and rest their entire weight on a tripod of the heels and tail feathers, reducing contact with the icy surface.

Chick perched on parents feet, totally dependent on its parents for food and warmth. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Chick perched on parents feet, totally dependent on its parents for food and warmth. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
View from the cliff top. There is a continual movement of penguins to the centre, so they will all take their turn in the colder outside edges of the huddle. (Photo: Ian MacNab
View from the cliff top. There is a continual movement of penguins to the centre, so they will all take their turn in the colder outside edges of the huddle. (Photo: Ian MacNab
Ian checking out cracks in the sea ice (Photo: Chris Walton)
Ian checking out cracks in the sea ice (Photo: Chris Walton)

If one of a breeding pair dies or is killed during the breeding season, the lone parent must abandon its egg or young and go back to the sea to feed. The good news is that most survive, fed continually by their parents.

The harsh reality is that not all the chicks survive. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
The harsh reality is that not all the chicks survive. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Older chicks enjoying a game of footy while waiting for parents to return. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Older chicks enjoying a game of footy while waiting for parents to return. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Emma and Chris adjust cameras to an audience. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Emma and Chris adjust cameras to an audience. (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Frank jumaring out at Windy Bay (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Frank jumaring out at Windy Bay (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Andy and Ben top out as the sun sets (Photo: Ian MacNab)
Andy and Ben top out as the sun sets (Photo: Ian MacNab)

Ian MacNab
Wintering Field Assistant