December 30, 2008
We have a few odd-colored birds among the 300,000 penguins at Cape Crozier. Two of them have names: the blondest one we call Blondie and the blackest one Blackie, or Black Penguin, to be politically correct (both have returned year after year to the same nests), but a few other oddballs are scattered around. So far, we’ve seen two all-black penguins, several light blond-colored ones, a nearly all-white bird David found yesterday (dubbed the “Ghost Penguin” or maybe “Platinum”), and a full albino chick. None of the other penguins seem to notice the weird colors, though; most of the abnormally-plumaged individuals have successful nests.
I stopped to take a couple photos of one of the all-black penguins today. It was busy flirting with a slick-looking chick (er, adult female) and didn’t seem to notice me at all.
December 29, 2008
Today dawned cold and windy and we stayed inside most of the day, working on data entry and processing. Even hut days have their excitement, though, mostly centered around food. I ate a cracker with a piece of 3-day-old halibut and Nutella hazelnut spread, and tried a freeze-dried “Pasta Roma” dinner from our survival cache. Both tasty.
It’s easy to tell when wind is coming to Cape Crozier. All you have to do is glance at the top of nearby 12,000′ Mount Terror. If a smooth, curvy, lenticular cloud is hovering over it, bad news. The wind up there is ripping, and, if it’s not already howling down at sea level, it probably will be soon.
In the afternoon we drew straws to see who would brave the elements for a dash down to the colony to retrieve a satellite tag from a returning penguin. In the end, I volunteered, since the hut was getting stuffy. It was nice to run down to the colony and back without a 40-pound pack, for once. Round-trip took me 43 minutes, including penguin-wrangling. The bar has been set…
December 28, 2008
Adelie Penguins are generally pretty friendly. One of my latest favorite quotes puts it nicely: “It’s practically impossible to look at a penguin and feel angry”. Sometimes, though, even a penguin feels the need to assert his place physically. Trespass on his territory, and he might get downright violent. Their typical defense is a barrage of pecks and flipper-bashes. Just this afternoon I got beat on hard enough to bruise my legs through three layers of long underwear. Good thing penguins are short and flightless; they can only reach my calves!
When penguins turn on each other, it’s generally a battle for territory. And, usually, one backs down before things escalate too much. But sometimes they just go toe-to-toe like heavyweight boxers. I watched a particularly bloody duel today which left both opponents stumbling off in opposite directions while a crowd of onlookers cheered and jeered. I hope they worked things out, at least.
December 27, 2008
It was so sunny and warm today, we had to wade through three inches of slush where solid ice was yesterday. I hiked home in a T-shirt, and was still pouring sweat by the time I reached our hut, after a mile of slogging uphill. I found myself wishing for 10 below again…
Our little field crew got a bit bigger today. Michelle’s beau, David (Dah-veed), a seabird researcher in his own right, was helicoptered in to join us for the rest of the season. We’ll have to figure out how to fit four people around the dinner table, but it will be nice to have the extra manpower for fieldwork. And he brought us chocolate and fresh fruit! We are easily won over.
December 26, 2008
This post is dedicated to wily penguins.
As chicks are getting bigger and older, parents are less reserved about leaving them alone, which means, when we have to catch a penguin to retrieve its satellite tag, it is more apt to run away from you. Those ones are the runners, and I battled wits with one today. For the first time, I couldn’t get close enough to pick the bird up, and had to fetch a net (like a huge butterfly net) for the chase. Slowly and deliberately, I worked up as close as I could to the bird, but, just as deliberately, it edged away, keeping just enough distance. When I’d snaked it out into an open area, it was time to strike.
In short order, I was sprinting all-out after the penguin, who was tearing just as fast away across the loose lava rocks. Just as I thought it would make a break downhill, gaining the advantage, I lucked out: the penguin stumbled over a rock, which was all the pause I needed to snare it, remove the tag, and send it on its way. What’s the penguin version of a cowboy? Penguinboy? Hm. Doesn’t sound quite as romantic…
December 25, 2008
Christmas in Antarctica! We celebrated the holiday by doing an Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The idea is to keep track of how many individual birds you see throughout the day. Thousands of CBCs take place each Christmas season all over the world, and tens of thousands of birders participate every year, but this was the first CBC ever conducted in Antarctica (the closest established count is in the Drake Passage). After Michelle, Kirsten and I added up our tallies, our “official” CBC result was:
270,885 Adelie Penguin
79 South Polar Skua
6 Snow Petrel
2 Emperor Penguin
1 Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Five species was an impressive daily total for Cape Crozier, given the storm-petrel was just the 2nd one we’ve recorded this season, and nearly all the Emperor Penguins have already gone to sea (we almost missed them entirely). Estimating the number of Adelies required a GIS program with aerial photos, on-the-ground spot totals, and several levels of multiplication factors, but we eventually arrived at a conservative, ballpark number for count purposes. We decided not to count baby penguins in nests, which would have added another hundred thousand or two!
Michelle cooked us a delicious Christmas dinner of Cornish Game Hens, mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Otherwise, today was no different than any other day. We deployed two satellite tags on penguins, recovered another one that came back, searched for banded birds for a few hours, performed routine maintenance (I changed out our poo bucket, for instance), and entered data. We had nice weather, sunshine and 15-30mph south winds. At about midday we spotted the Swedish icebreaker ship, Odin, passing by a few miles offshore on its way from McMurdo Station, where it breaks a shipping lane through the ice every year. It was the closest company we had this Christmas.
Christmas in the U.S. is just beginning. Have a merry one!
December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve brought us a treat: an albino penguin baby! Kirsten’s voice crackled over the radio this morning: “Noah, you’ve got to see this. It’s a pink penguin!” Pink? Well, yes, as it turns out, the albino chick has a pink beak, pink legs, a pink eye, and pink skin showing through wispy white down feathers. It looks like a tiny ball of cotton candy (or maybe I’m just having food fantasies). I look forward to seeing the chick grow over the next weeks, as long as its bright color doesn’t attract a hungry skua.
We are looking forward to a white Christmas tomorrow. As I write this, a mountaineer from a nearby field camp is broadcasting a static-filled version of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” over the radio on the Mount Terror repeater, usually a formal channel. During the holidays, even the most rugged explorers can relax a bit.
December 23, 2008
We have been stuck inside all day, since the wind is sustaining between 20 and 40 mph (not really serious but enough to make it miserable outside). Which gives me a chance to talk a bit about photographing penguins (as some of y’all have been asking about it…).
I use Canon camera gear. I have just two lenses here: the 300mm Image Stabilized f/4, and the 16-35mm f/2.8. I also brought a 1.4x extender which I haven’t used (it’s just not necessary for penguins). At home in Oregon, I own the 600mm Image Stabilized f/4, but no way was that monster going to fit in my pack, or the tripod it requires! It would be too much magnification anyway. I brought two 20D camera bodies (in case one breaks). I feel just fine shoving them in my pack alongside sledgehammers and iceaxes, plopping them down on penguin guano and mud, wiping the front of the filters with a sweaty shirt, etc. My equipment gets used hard. So far, it’s held up pretty well.
Incidentally, I also use Canon bincoculars: the 12×36 Image Stabilizers. They’re great for reading little numbers on penguin bands.
Photographing penguins is at once ridiculously easy and frustrating. My 300mm lens is, often, too much magnification. I keep backing up, and the penguin I’m concentrating on keeps following me, so we chase each other around the colony. Batteries freeze quickly; I always have two spares and charge them every night. Making a clean image, or isolating your subject nicely, is difficult. Most penguins are stained by guano, mud, blood, food regurgitation, or some combination. There’s always something dirty in the frame, wherever you point the camera. Ice may be clean, but penguins are not!
December 22, 2008
While older penguins have been at Cape Crozier for a couple months now, building nests, finding mates, and incubating eggs, a new group showed up this week: the Wanderers. This period is called reoccupation, when young penguins return to the big “city” for the first time and wander to get a lay of the land.
Three-year-old penguins don’t have much to do besides explore. They prowl in gangs among the older birds, flirt with each other, and look for adventures. I suppose we’re a lot alike, the young penguins and I. Many have never seen a human before. Some will walk right up and peck at your bootlaces. Walking through the colony, you’re bound to pick up an entourage of curious penguins waddling along behind.
Other wanderers aren’t so relaxed. They stand on their tiptoes, growl, then yell like a ninja and make a kamikaze charge, windmilling their strong flippers. We call those ones the screamers. Yesterday, a screamer charged me from the front and I defensively popped into a shoulder-width stance. The penguin’s momentum kept it hurdling right through my legs before it brought up short behind me, anger turned to confusion. I walked away smug as the world’s most cunning matador.
December 21, 2008
Today was the longest day of the year in Antarctica. Since the sun won’t set for another couple months, that doesn’t really matter, but the sun is as high in the sky as it can get.
In keeping with my rugged surroundings, I’ve decided not to shave this season. The extra hair gives some nice insulation, and, well, if I can’t bathe, why groom at all? Of course, I’ll end up with an interesting tan at the end of the summer, with balaclava, sunglasses, and beard lines. I’ve never grown it out past three weeks, so I took a self-portrait today to gauge progress after six weeks, with a month and a half to go. What do you think – was I born to be bearded?
December 20, 2008
We had a late morning, as a helicopter brought out two fire guys to inspect our hut for safety (we passed). Mostly, they were happy to be away from McMurdo Station for a while. At the end, the two guys lined us up and took photos before getting back on their helo to civilization. We have sunk from observers to the observed, from tourists to the attraction. I didn’t know we were quite that dirty yet!
After seeing off our visitors, Michelle, Kirsten and I packed up and struck out for East Rookery, about an hour and a half hike one way. Though the penguins at Cape Crozier are mostly in one contiguous valley, a few thousand nest over the next mountain pass, and we have to check on them every week or two to search for banded birds. To get there, it’s an alternate scramble across ice fields, snow fields, and scree slides. We put crampons on and took them off eight separate times today (I counted) as we crossed ever-steeper ice slopes. It was a long, productive day afield, and we arrived back at the hut at midnight, the sun shining as bright as ever.
The most interesting wildlife sighting today was a Crabeater Seal, normally an inhabitant of the ice pack, and our first of the season at Cape Crozier. We haven’t seen a Leopard Seal yet, but there’s still time. We’ve found a few mangled penguins limping around, so the Leopards must be somewhere nearby…
December 19, 2008
The weather is spectacular. Above-freezing temperatures, calm winds, and the highest barometer reading we’ve had all season. It was a perfect day to be outside in Antarctica.
On my seawatch today, I was observing a group of 15 Orcas (Killer Whales) when, suddenly, there was a commotion in the water. About five of them thrashed in one spot, and I believe I saw something, a seal or large fish, go flying through the air. A dozen skuas converged on the site from the air, and, for a minute or two, all was chaos, before the whales slid back underwater. It looked like the hunters had made some kind of kill.
Later, back at the hut, I looked out the window to judge cloud cover and spotted something strange – an Unidentified Flying Object! It was circular, silver-colored, shiny, and floating high in the clear blue sky above us. No planes ever fly over Cape Crozier (not even commercial jets), and, if a helicopter is around, it’s gonna land here; that’s about it for our air traffic. Of course, I grabbed my camera to document the strange occurrence. Judging from the photos, it looks like a weather balloon deployed by scientists from McMurdo Station (70 miles from here) to study the upper atmosphere. Various sensors attached to the balloon track whatever data they want to track. Well, sure. I still think it was a UFO disguised as a scientific weather balloon. Just try to prove otherwise!
December 18, 2008
This afternoon, the ice on the beach made a ramp so the penguins could swim and wade right in. It also afforded a good opportunity to watch them swimming underwater in the shallows. The birds must have hidden turbos or something. After entering the water, some extra force kicks in and they shoot around like guided missiles, leaving streams of bubbles in their wake. It’s amazing to watch the transformation from waddling walkers to swift swimmers: they truly fly underwater.
We found a few dead chicks over the last week (likely killed by skuas), and used the opportunity to dissect their stomachs to see what the penguins are eating. Right now, it looks like they’re catching 90% krill (shrimpy creatures) and a few small fish. Penguins catch the food underwater, return to their nests on land, and tenderly barf it up to hungry chicks. Most of the adults have pink dribble stains down their white feathers.
December 17, 2008
Since Antarctica is so cold, things don’t decompose or change very quickly. For instance, there are still clear tracks from a bulldozer that drove to Cape Crozier in the 1960s, and we just ate a delicious pack of tortillas that expired eight years ago. Human influences last a long time, so we have to be careful to leave no trace on this near-pristine landscape. Those same forces also preserve natural disturbances and events.
Each season, many penguins die at Cape Crozier (mostly chicks) – it’s just a fact of life. On bare rocks, and in cold conditions, without insects, the carcasses don’t rot much. So, everywhere you go, you’re stepping over bodies from summers past in various stages of disarray. Skuas scavenge some of the frozen meat. Many of the carcasses eventually blow away or get covered in snow. Penguins use dismembered heads and bone fragments as “rocks” to line their nests. In sheltered areas, penguin carcasses just shrivel up and sit there, bleached by sun and snow, eventually becoming mummies. Some of these may be hundreds or even thousands of years old.
December 16, 2008
We woke this morning to -8 degrees C, light snow falling, and 10mph winds, much nicer than yesterday’s conditions. I spent 12 hours in the field and resighted 240 banded penguins, put satellite tags on two penguins, and took one tag off a bird that had returned.
One of the high points of each day (literally) is scrambling to the top of Pat’s Peak to do a seawatch. We spend an hour at a time perched 1,200 feet above sea level, scanning the ocean with a spotting scope to detect whales. Just getting up there can be a little sketchy, especially if you angle up the back side ridge (as I did today) and kick steps up an icy snowfield before scaling a steep, loose rocky section above cliffs (we suspect Snow Petrels may be nesting in those cliffs). But, once on top, the view is terrific: the Ross Ice Shelf extends to the horizon in one direction, dramatically dropping into the Ross Sea, while Mount Terror looms inland, if clouds allow.
Today, I did a seawatch from 9pm to 10pm, and spotted 15 Orcas (Killer Whales) and 3 Minke Whales. The Orcas are identified by black and white colors and a huge fin sticking up, while the Minkes have a tiny fin near the back of their body and are a more grayish hue. Both whales spend a lot of time diving and feeding under the ice shelf. We are interested in whale activity at Cape Crozier because they eat some of the same things as penguins, so their movements may impact the penguins’ feeding behavior. By the end of the seawatch, my fingers were getting numb, despite a thermos of hot chocolate, handwarmers, and thick gloves; the wind was starting to blow, and I was glad to shoulder my pack down the mountain to a plate of Michelle’s eggs benedict.
December 15, 2008
The wind kicked up and stayed between 30 and 50mph most of today, so we we’re stuck inside our hut. It seems to be lessening now, though, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings…
December 14, 2008
I’m famous! The Washington Post newspaper interviewed me today. You can read the article online at:
Celebrity or not, today was my turn to cook pancakes. Sunday morning flapjacks are something of a tradition at Cape Crozier, and they carry an extra purpose here. Since we work every day, pancakes are our only motivation to keep track of days of the week. We don’t keep track very well, actually. Yesterday, there was a bit of an argument over what day it was, with estimates ranging from Wednesday to Saturday. We had to look it up (just to see if we could eat pancakes in the morning).
I wrangled an extra-wiggly penguin this afternoon to put a satellite tag on it. After I picked it up, the bird struggled the entire time Kirsten and I were attaching its transmitter, biting the heck out of my right armpit, and nearly subverting the process. In the end, we sent it solidly on its way, though.
A different penguin that we tagged yesterday returned from its feeding trip today, as expected, but minus its satellite transmitter. Whether it was ripped off by scraping against an iceberg or whether the bird managed to undo the tape itself we will never know, but each transmitter costs five thousand dollars, and now we only have four left. That was an expensive penguin!
December 13, 2008
The ice goes out, the ice comes in. Ever since the frozen sea ice broke into pieces, those pieces have been roaming around the Ross Sea in a grinding pack, driven before changing winds. This morning, about 50% of our ocean view was covered by pack ice, but, by afternoon, ice covered 97% of that same view.
The penguins seem to enjoy the pack ice. They perch on the mini icebergs, dive off them, hop from floe to floe, swim under them, and scramble across thin spots. When the penguins decide to exit the water, they swim rapidly toward the surface and arc five or six feet in the air, falling in a heap on the adjacent raised ice edge. I was lying on my stomach this afternoon, angling for a good camera view, when a very wet penguin shot out of the water next to me and landed squarely on my back! I’m not sure which of us was more surprised.
December 12, 2008
We picked up our first two returning satellite tags today. Small transmitters are taped to the feathers on a penguin’s back, bouncing its position off satellites which relay the information to our email. It’s a pretty fancy system that documents the penguins as they swim out to sea and return with food.
Retrieving the transmitters is not so fancy. You’ve got to catch the penguin, and he remembers you from when you first put the transmitter on a couple days before. Still, he will stick by his nest, and, to capture him, all you need to do is walk over and pick him up. Then, you’ve got one very angry penguin on your hands, and getting the tag off his back is a matter of pinning his head in your armpit, holding his feet with one hand, and undoing the tape with the other. Meanwhile, the chicks in the nest are exposed, so we throw a warm hat over them to protect against skuas marauding from the sky. The soft, wriggling hat with penguin fluffballs underneath always brings a smile.
I wrangled my first penguins today. Retrieving the satellite tags was easy enough. Then, we spotted a young bird wandering around a snowfield with a misplaced band which could cause damage, and had to catch it to bend the metal tag back into place. Without a nest to defend, the penguin was as wily as could be. Kirsten and I came at him from both sides, but, on the icy hill, he ran circles around us as we slipped and slid. This called for a net, and Kirsten finally sprinted with a flat-out dive, sweep, and snatch to end the chase. The penguin’s band was easy to mend, and he was a little miffed, but none the worse for wear.
December 11, 2008
Penguins may swim well, but they’re still birds, and they breathe air. So, like whales and dolphins, they surface every once in a while, arcing from the water to take a quick breath. This is called “porpoising”, and, as more open water appears close to shore, we’ve been seeing it a lot. Groups of penguins will suddenly shoot out of the water, then, just as quickly, disappear back to the land of fishes and krill.
We deployed three satellite tags on adult penguins today, which was a very cold experience, as taping the tags onto feathers requires the dexterity of bare fingers (no gloves). As they swim out to sea to gather food, we now get constant updates on the penguins’ positions via email. When they return in a couple days, we’ll take the tags off and put them on different birds, to lessen the load on any given individual.