The Littlest Penguins

Freeze Frame: Sights, Sounds And Science From The Bottom Of The World: NPR science producer Jason Orfanon guest blogs as he journeys to the Antarctic Peninsula. Keep up with him on Twitter at @jorfanon. And view the whole series page.

By Jason Orfanon

A mother penguin with her chicks. i i

In some Adelie nests, one egg will hatch before the other. This egg will probably hatch soon, and the first chick will have to start sharing its meals. (Jason Orfanon/NPR) hide caption

itoggle caption
A mother penguin with her chicks.

In some Adelie nests, one egg will hatch before the other. This egg will probably hatch soon, and the first chick will have to start sharing its meals. (Jason Orfanon/NPR)

Despite a long day in the wind and snow, the penguin researchers returned to Palmer Station the other day abuzz with exciting news: They had spotted the first penguin chicks of the season. Little Adelies only a day or so old, not far from station.

A few days later, I joined them on Humble Island. The colony looked (and smelled) like the others I had seen, hundreds of Adelie penguins on a jumbled mass of rocks, guano and melting snow. But soon we heard the telltale peeps. Out from under one of the Adelie adults popped one fuzzy, gray head, then two, mouths gaping hungrily upward. Feeding time!

Like other birds, penguins feed their young from stores of food they keep in their upper digestive tract. Their parent barfs up a pulverized mush of tiny shrimplike creatures called krill, and the little guys gobble it heartily from their beak.

A mother penguin with her chicks. i i

An Adelie penguin feeds its chicks on Humble Island, Antarctica. The chicks feed several times a day to bulk up as quickly as possible in the short summer season. (Jason Orfanon/NPR) hide caption

itoggle caption
A mother penguin with her chicks.

An Adelie penguin feeds its chicks on Humble Island, Antarctica. The chicks feed several times a day to bulk up as quickly as possible in the short summer season. (Jason Orfanon/NPR)

They gorge for good reason. The summer season down here doesn't last long, and tiny penguins have only seven weeks or so to bulk up before their parents abandon them. Once mid-February comes, they'll have to fend for themselves. Fortunately, that's also when krill are most abundant, making feeding a bit easier for the fledgling krill hunters.

My camera thrummed with rapid-fire shutter clicks. Tiny penguins popped up left and right, and I swung back and forth and back again to catch them in the act, like a photographic version of Whac-a-Mole. An hour later, I was still snapping photos — and still loving it. I even couldn't hold back the occasional "Awwwwwwwww" as the wiggly chicks made themselves visible.

Even the penguin researchers were enthralled, and watched eagerly to spot new chicks or an egg about to hatch. It never seemed to get old to them, even after countless days out in the cold and muck, racing from island to island in swelling seas, missing meals and working long hours.

I guess when your office mates are squirming balls of fluffy chirping cuteness, it's easy to love your job.

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