Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Dear Icebar Orlando

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Ice Ice Baby, and all of us here on Magdalena Island in Chile. Egg losses here have been high this year, due to the continuation of the drought which is now entering its second year.

For more than a year Magdalena Island has been in the grip of a fierce drought which has killed off virtually all the grass. The loss of most of the grass means that loose soil is now being blown across the island day after day by the strong Patagonian winds, and the penguin burrows gradually get buried by the loose sandy soil. With winds of up to 140 km per hour, burrows can disappear completely during a single night, and in some areas, the situation is so bad that small sand dunes have formed where penguin burrows used to be.

The adult penguins don't get trapped, because they are able to dig themselves out, but the nest becomes abandoned when that happens. The adopted penguins like Ice Ice Baby are truly fortunate in being visited and protected on a regular basis during the current conditions.

Regular visits to each of our adopted penguins means that we are able to clear away the accumulating soil each time we visit the nest, but only a few hundred burrows are actually marked as adopted penguins. Magdalena Island as a whole had around 65,000 nests at the start of the season, and there is no way that a handful of people can regularly visit more than a few hundred burrows. Indeed, we have been trying to expand our adoption programme this season, so as to be able to do more on Magdalena Island during this drought.

It is not just the man-power required either. Adopted penguins have their nests marked with 24" aluminium poles bearing the name chosen by the adoptees, such as yourself. Preparing and locating the poles is a lengthy process, but in addition to enabling us to identify each penguin, these poles allow us to find burrows even if they have been buried by drifting sand and soil. Without such markers to show the location of the burrows, it is not even possible for us to know where the burrows were prior to being covered, making rescue impossible, even if we did have enough manpower to visit all the non-adopted burrows.

But with regular monitoring to keep the burrows free of soil, and markers to locate the burrows if they become buried, our adopted penguins have still fared well. The eggs have hatched, and the nest belonging to Ice Ice Baby now contains two small chicks.

Now that the chicks have hatched, they are at the most vulnerable time of their lives. Just like human babies, penguin babies are unable to move around by themselves, and depend entirely on Ice Ice Baby for warmth, protection and food.

Chicks as small as this are unable to produce their own body heat, so they have to be kept warm by Ice Ice Baby lying over them, just like with the eggs. However there are dangers involved with this. Whilst the eggs are round and protected by a hard shell, making them difficult to stand on, the chicks are not. It is quite common for penguin parents to accidentally stand on their chicks whilst squabbling with a neighbour, or defending the nest from a predator. It can occasionally be like having a small baby lying on the floor in a very small boxing ring, whilst the boxers are too involved in the fight to think about where the baby is.

The parents also remain in the nest with the eggs and small chicks for such long periods of time, without food because their food is at sea, that they spend much of the time dozing to save energy. They are sufficiently alert to awake if a neighbour or predator gets too close to the nest, but sometimes fail to notice if a chick has rolled away from the centre of the nest, leaving it exposed to the cold. Being unable to move around themselves, the chicks are unable to save themselves when that happens, and rely entirely on the vigilance of the parents.

But the chicks grow very rapidly, and within 10 to 15 days they have changed considerably. Firstly, they have developed the ability to walk, which enables them to get out of the way of their parents' feet to avoid being stood on, and enables them to seek warmth and protection underneath the parent whenever they feel the need. Secondly, the chicks are now able to produce their own body warmth, which means they no longer rely on the parents for warmth. Finally, the chicks are now much more robust, and are able to withstand being stood on without sustaining injury. As a result, chick mortality can be quite high during the first two weeks of life, but that reduces considerable once the chicks are a couple of weeks old.

For the reasons explained above, we are not yet able to take photos of the chicks.

To manoeuvre the adult penguin around in the nest to get a photo of the chicks hiding underneath would put the chicks at risk from being trampled, and it would also be almost impossible to get good photos like that. So we wait until late January to take the photos of the chicks. In this respect we are like doctors, following an oath to first do no harm. Our first priority is always to do nothing that could harm the penguins we are monitoring and protecting.

The drought has been unique to Magdalena Island, caused by strange weather patterns within the Straits of Magellan. Our colonies in Argentina have not been suffering from any drought, and they have so far shown the lowest egg losses ever recorded since records began, so that is really good news from those colonies. Hopefully this success will continue throughout the chick-rearing stage. The last two years in Argentina have been excellent, with very high breeding success and chick-survival, and this year could be even better if things continue.

I will write to you again in about four weeks, by which time your chicks should be taking short walks outside of the nest, enabling us to get a photo without causing a disturbance. In the meantime, I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Best wishes