In early to mid-February, the fledged Adélie chicks gather on the shores of the penguin islands near Palmer Station, preparing to take the plunge into the Southern Ocean.
Off Torgersen Island, Adélie chicks seek refuge on a rock outcropping as they head into the Southern Ocean. Along the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, most will perish during their first year, in part because sea ice – which they use as a feeding platform during the winter – is in sharp decline as temperatures rise.
The last adult in a colony on Torgersen Island – a colony that went extinct during the 2005-2006 season.
By mid-February the scene on the penguin islands becomes squalid, with skuas scavenging the carcasses of chicks in the nearly-empty colonies.
With the reproductive season over, adult Adélies prepare to begin the annual molt, during which they take several weeks to grow a new set of feathers.
As the molt is about to begin, adult Adélies rest on Torgersen Island.
The late-summer sun sets on Mt. William and Mt. Francais.
A late February sunset.
As the chicks gather on the pebble beaches, Fraser and his team weigh and measure the young penguins as part of a long-running record to gauge the health of the birds before they head into the sea.
Before the fledged chicks are weighed, Fraser’s birding team places the penguins in a small box, known as the “pengy prison.”
Fraser and his team leader, Peter Horne, left, with a banded brown skua.
Fraser holds a brown skua chick, which is in the process of fledging and growing adult feathers.
On Shortcut Island, a South Polar skua swoops over Fraser to chase him away from its nest site.
A swiftly growing southern giant petrel and its all-white parent, an unusual color for the species.
Elephant seals on Norsel Point.
At Biscoe Point, the face of the Marr Ice Piedmont after it calved a section of ice into the sea.
As temperatures rise rapidly, the Marr Ice Piedmont is receding, exposing more rocky coastline, such as this stretch on Biscoe Point.
When Fraser first came to Palmer Station 36 years ago, much of Biscoe Point was covered by the Marr Ice Piedmont. But as the glacier has retreated, it has exposed rocky ground. Here, Fraser examines the last section of a glacier that towered far above his head three decades ago.
On Biscoe Point, the retreating glacier has left ponds of meltwater. The retreat of the Marr Ice Piedmont has revealed that what was once called Biscoe Point is actually an island, which is now separated from Anvers Island by a small channel.
As the Marr Ice Piedmont pulls back, vegetation is growing on the exposed ground. Only two vascular plant species exist in Antarctica – a cushion plant and a hair grass plant – and both are now becoming increasing common around Palmer Station on the growing patches of ice-free ground.
Cushion plants, center, and hair grass, at bottom, sprout on recently deglaciated ground.
Palmer Station seen from the Marr Ice Piedmont. Three to four decades ago, the rocky ground in the middle distance was covered with ice. In the past 35 years, the Marr Ice Piedmont has retreated 1,500 feet behind the station.
On Dream Island, home to the largest Adélie penguin population near Palmer Station, large swaths of confederate-gray stones show where Adélie colonies once existed.
On Torgersen Island, the last adult and chick in a colony that went extinct during the 2005-2006 reproductive season.
In the second week of February, the Adélie chicks leave their colonies and pile up on the pebble beaches of the penguin islands. Soon, the fledged chicks plunge into the sea, beginning a new phase of their brief lives that most will not survive. Leopard seals, and the difficult search for sufficient food, will claim many young Adélies. As Fraser’s research has shown, the dramatic decline in sea ice along the western Antarctic Peninsula has also taken a heavy toll on the Adélies, reducing krill populations and depriving the penguins of an important feeding platform in winter. By the third week of February, nearly all the Adélie chicks around Palmer Station are gone and the adult Adélies begin the molt, during which they shed old feathers and grow new ones.