January 28, 2009
We took a 5-hour trip to Cape Royds today, site of another Adelie Penguin colony on Ross Island. The colony at Royds only has 2,000 penguins, compared to 300,000 at Cape Crozier – it’s a completely different experience!
Five of us boarded a helicopter in the morning and were dropped on the lava rocks at Royds, rotors spinning. Our objective today was to take down some remaining field gear, weigh and measure a sample of chicks, and band 200 baby penguins. We did all that, without much time to spare before getting picked up in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, I got a taste of a new penguin colony. Royds is situated on a more recent lava flow underneath Mount Erebus (an active, smoking volcano), and the black rock looks like parts of the Big Island of Hawaii, except it’s surrounded by snow and ice. A historic hut built by Shackleton 100 years ago stands at Cape Royds, with associated odds, ends, and trash (glass and rusted cans) scattered around. The penguins were familiar, though the colony seemed a bit puny (I mean, come on, we had more than a hundred times as many at Cape Crozier!). Interestingly, penguins at Royds had almost half as many chicks per pair this year, but the ones that survived were much fatter than Crozier’s birds. The difference between two colonies 100 miles apart is probably related to differences in local sea ice conditions.
Summer is winding down, and a typical conversation this time of year at McMurdo Station goes something like this:
“Are you coming back next year?”
“Dunno, I’d like to, but who knows…”
“Yeah, my project gets different funding and staffing every year, so I’m not sure either.”
“A lot can happen in a year. Every time I get home, I dunno if my wife will take me back! Gotta stay out of the doghouse.”
“Well, one thing’s for sure: Antarctica is an awesome place. We are lucky just to be here.”
January 27, 2009
We took a day trip to Cape Crozier today, from McMurdo Station, to measure our penguin chicks one last time before the season ends.
The 45-minute helicopter flight was pretty spectacular. Instead of being crammed in the cargo area of a hulking 212 helo with 800 pounds of gear and a helitech to help shift things around, today we hopped in a small A Star with one pilot and no gear. What a relief! I sat in the copilot seat for the trip and took photos out the front windows while the pilot pointed out interesting terrain features below. We flew along high cliff faces, over crevasse fields, glaciers, and around 12,000′ Mount Terror, under sunny skies.
It was nice to spend one last afternoon at Cape Crozier, though our stay was cut short by a creeping fog bank that threatened to strand us – we lifted out through an open patch, turning our backs, as fog obscured the penguin colony. The return flight, hemmed in by low-lying fog and mid-level overcast, with snowy mountains on one side and icy sea on the other, was “like playing inside a ping-pong ball”, as our pilot put it – hard to judge definition in any surrounding surface. There was quite a traffic jam at Crozier today, actually; three separate helicopters dropped crews for the day to board up the windows of our hut, yank the comms gear, and get the place ready for a long winter.
So, we’ve seen the last of our field camp for the season. It was weird to see crews stripping down the building today, what was for so long our cozy place. Tomorrow we will take another helicopter day trip, to Cape Royds, to measure and band chicks at the colony there, and those will be the last penguins I see for a while! Time flies!
January 25, 2009
I’ve been packing stuff in McMurdo Station – everything we used this season, from Scott tents to AA batteries, must be inventoried, checked off, and returned to its proper place.
There was time, though, for a little local culture at McMurdo, after the weekly Sunday brunch. Today was the 9th annual McMurdo Film Festival, a showing of short films made by U.S. Antarctic Program people this season. Several films were shown from McMurdo, and a few more from people at the U.S. South Pole Station, which is smaller and more claustrophobic – and, by any judge, the homemade movies show it.
Highlights of the McMurdo films were a 5-minute feature, by a cook, about the journey of a galley plate through dinner (quite humorous) and a grainy, black-and-white, dramatized documentary of an “ascent” of Observation Hill (a little peak next to station that I walked up this morning in 15 minutes). The South Pole movies, however, showed a fair amount of, well, tension: two women spent 10 minutes discussing the studliest food brands, in barely-kept-under-control entendres (Quaker: “Best cream of oats, hold the oats”; Chiquita: “May be a girl, but who needs a man when she’s good with bananas?”), the Frosty Boy ice cream machine went berserk and drank all their beer, and a team of drillers went to round up the hose, which turned out to be the ho’s… You wonder what really goes on at the South Pole! But it’s good entertainment!
Anyway, we’re headed to Cape Royds in a couple days to band a bunch more penguins, and maybe a quick trip back to Cape Crozier. More to come!
January 23, 2009
I am back in McMurdo Station (offline for a couple days while breaking camp).
Yesterday morning, a helicopter touched down at Cape Crozier just long enough for us to load several hundred pounds of gear, and we were off! As I caught a last glimpse of our hut from the air, looking very small indeed as it receded against a large snowfield, it was hard to comprehend I’d just spent two and a half months living there. The helo pilots chatted about icebergs and gnarly winds while the four of us sat quietly in back, jammed between cargo nets and piles of boxes, for the 45-minute ride back to McMurdo.
As soon as we landed and threw our gear in the lab, to be sorted over the next week, it was off to the showers to strip two months’ grime and penguin poo. My shower had no hot water, I forgot soap and shampoo, the paper towels were out, and all I had to dry was a 12×12″ swimmer’s towel, but it was one of the better showers of my life! After finding my room and putting linens on the bed, all the work of the past few days finally caught up, and I fell asleep there, in clean jeans and a T-shirt, nose pressed against the Tide-scented sheets like some TV commercial.
Speaking of TV, well, the world is still out there, even if we haven’t really been living in it for the past months. I guess we have a new president or something (ha!). Some plane crash landed in the Hudson River. And, uh, that’s still about all I know of current news. I was interested to learn that it was a Thursday yesterday when we got back to station – days of the week haven’t mattered much.
Besides a shower and a soft bed, the other real luxury of re-entry was food: McMurdo Station’s huge, all-you-can-eat, four meals daily cafeteria was like some kind of guilt-inducing free-for-all, and I soaked up every bit of it. Fresh pizza, cake, bread, orange juice, and custom-made burritos were nice, but as soon as I saw a bowl of plain lettuce, that was it: pour some dressing on it, and call it a salad – paradise!
I haven’t quite seen the last of penguins, though. We’re scheduled to make two helicopter day-trips from McMurdo later this week to Cape Royds and back to Cape Crozier for a few hours of banding and assessing chick condition one last time. I hope the weather holds; right now it’s beautiful, with sunshine, above-freezing temperatures, and calm winds. For the next three days, I’ll be packing, sorting, and cleaning gear in McMurdo Station, but I’ll keep this up to date until I leave Antarctica in another week. It ain’t over yet!
January 20, 2009
We banded a thousand baby penguins today. It was quite an undertaking.
First, a helicopter landed six people on our snowfield first thing this morning, including David Ainley, the mastermind of PenguinScience, who has been working with penguins in Antarctica for 25 years. It was a pleasure to have his presence at Cape Crozier today, if only for a few hours. He spent the season at a different penguin colony on Ross Island, doing the same things we’ve been doing here.
With our regular crew, that made 10 people here, which is more than I’ve seen in one place in months. It was a bit of a shock. The people to penguin ratio was 1:30,000 – staggeringly crowded!
There wasn’t much time to think about crowds, though. We had 1,000 baby penguins to band before the helicopter returned in a few hours. The strategy was simple: we’d surround a group of chicks and enclose them with two sides of a corral fence until they were in a small area. Then, we’d hop inside, start picking up chicks, putting bands on their left flippers, and tossing them outside the fence. Once they were all out, we’d move on to another group. Fluff flew on a 20-mph breeze and our thumbs blistered (crimping metal bands) as we worked efficiently and methodically through the morning. There are now a thousand more banded penguins in the world…
The rest of the day was spent packing and making inventories. After several more gallons of boiling water and digging trenches with an iceaxe, I freed my tent and we bundled it up. We sent 600 pounds of gear on the helicopter back to McMurdo Station ahead of us. We’ll follow along day after tomorrow, after a lot more packing and cleaning. The term “pullout” was a little off-color, so we’ve been calling it our “retreat”. Whatever it is, I’ll be sad to watch Cape Crozier fade beneath our rotors – but admittedly looking forward to a hot shower. Or even a cold one!
January 19, 2009
Things are moving fast. We pull camp here in three days, then spend a week in McMurdo Station (with one or two more adventures) before departing Antarctica. We’ve still got a lot to do, though. Tomorrow, six people are being helicoptered in and we’re gonna band 1,000 penguin chicks!
We took down our “weighbridge” setup today, a fenced-in area with one entrance where penguins get scanned and weighed as they pass, and hauled the gear back up the hill. Michelle, David, Kirsten and I loaded about 350 pounds of fencing, tent, batteries, and other gear on a sled, tied ourselves into separate harnesses, and man-hauled the sled a mile uphill, wearing crampons to get a good grip on the ice as we leaned into our traces. Sometimes you feel like a sled dog!
We also took down our three sleeping tents today. Well, almost. My tent is putting up a fight: the fabric is frozen into solid ice. In fact, the entire floor of the tent, where I have been sleeping all season, is a frozen lake three inches thick. To get the tent free, I spent hours today melting snow on our cooking stove, boiling water, and pouring it on the ice around my tent, hacking with iceaxes and sledgehammers. The tent is still stuck, but I made good progress, and a couple more hours of work tomorrow should get it free – I hope! Meanwhile, we’re sleeping in the hut.
January 18, 2009
The prevailing winds and currents aligned this morning to bring about a dozen huge icebergs floating close to our beach. One or two were a quarter mile wide, with a flat top (“tabular” bergs), while others were just mangled heaps of ice stuck together. It’s been warm enough the last few weeks that chunks of the ice shelf have been splitting away; every so often, you’ll hear a crack like gunfire or a rumble like thunder. These chunks become icebergs, and float where wind and waves take them until they melt.
The penguins love icebergs! They jump up on them, climb around on them, and sleep on them – floating island paradises. It must be nice to have a place to haul out once in a while.
January 17, 2009
Looking out over the penguin colony, the view has changed dramatically since a month ago. Instead of evenly spaced, black-and-white adults on nests, all you see now are scattered clumps of dark, fuzzy chicks standing around. At this point, the chicks in the colony are big enough that they can stay warm on their own, and their parents spend most of their time at sea gathering food. The colony is starting to feel a bit empty with just a few crisp-looking penguins among the thousands of chicks. Birds whose nests failed earlier in the season, or who didn’t breed this year, have now mostly headed out toward their wintering grounds among the pack ice, far out to sea.
The chicks are still pretty cute, even if they’re getting almost as big as their parents. Some are beginning to look a little ragged, as patches of their fluff comes off, revealing black and white feathers underneath, just like an adult. On a windy day, all that fluff gets into the air, and looks just like a snowstorm.
January 16, 2009
Penguins, like many seabirds, look pretty much the same whether they’re male or female. You can often tell them apart side-by-side: the males have thicker beaks, larger heads, and are usually bigger, but there’s a lot of overlap. The only really solid way to tell male from female in the field is when they mate: the male takes the top position and females are on bottom. At least that’s what I’m told…
We see them mating a lot. It usually just takes a few seconds, but requires some balance. Some of the young males are pretty fired up, and I watched one climb on top of a large, fuzzy chick and try to mate with it. The baby penguin looked a little confused. I’ve heard that males will also attempt to mate with carcasses on occasion, but I haven’t seen that happen yet! I’m just glad they make lots of babies.
The Oregonian (daily newspaper of Portland, OR) ran feature about me today – check it out!
January 14, 2009
I was walking down the beach this afternoon, resighting banded penguins, when I almost tripped over a penguin that didn’t move out of the way. On closer inspection, it had a large bite wound on its leg which was still bleeding, which could only mean one thing: Leopard Seal attack! I looked out to sea, and, right on cue, a seal surfaced next to the beach. Aha. What happened next was entirely unexpected, though. The seal crawled out of the water, and, as I watched, climbed a few hundred yards up a cliff, huffing and puffing the whole way, before going to sleep among a bunch of curious penguins. When Michelle saw it, she immediately corrected me – it was a Crabeater Seal, an odd sighting here this time of year, and very unusual to see one crawl up on land.
Crabeaters don’t eat penguins, though (actually they eat krill, shrimpy-looking things), which means there was probably a Leopard Seal around the beach today, too, and we hypothesized that this seal crawled out of the water to escape the Leopard, which will eat smaller seals. Whatever the reason, it slept there all afternoon. We also saw Killer Whales and Minke Whales offshore today, making a mammal-rich day at Cape Crozier!
January 13, 2009
It has been interesting to watch the behavior of South Polar Skuas. While the penguins have had chicks for a while, skua eggs are just hatching into blond fuzzballs. The adults are quite not so cute. Lately, skuas been eating a lot of baby penguins (and I don’t blame them; the penguin chicks are so packed full of krill and fish, they trip over their bellies), and most of the skuas flying around the colony have red-stained chins and foreheads. Usually, a skua will single out a smaller chick on the edge of a group, and, once dragged out in the open, eat its stomach first, full of nutrient-rich seafood. If we see that happening, we run over and assess the chick’s stomach contents before the skua has consumed it all; it’s the best way to gauge the penguin’s diet. The rest of the carcass is usually left, and shells of former chicks are littered around the colony. It’s a cycle that’s repeated each season here, and is just part of life for the penguins, who walk right over the bodies like so many rocks.
The skuas can’t possibly eat them all, though, and most are doing just fine. Based on counts we did yesterday, it looks like, this year, each pair of penguins is averaging about one surviving chick. The chicks are now big enough to stand on their own, and wait around in gangs for their parents to go gather food. They are growing fast!
January 12, 2009
Much of the work we’ve done with Adelie Penguins this season has centered around the use of flipper bands and satellite tags, two different ways of tracking individual birds.
Flipper bands are cheap, and thousands of penguins have been banded here over the years. Flipper bands wrap around the birds’ wing near their armpit, and stay on for life. A number impressed into the metal identifies the bird. Over the last couple months, I’ve spent up to 8 hours each day searching for banded penguins and writing down their numbers. All those observations go into a big database, which can eventually, through sheer numbers, tell us a lot of information about their habits and movements over a lifetime.
Satellite tags cost $5,000 each and give us detailed short-term information about penguins’ feeding behaviors. We tape the tags to adult birds at their nests and wait for them to go out to sea, catch some fish, and return to feed their chicks, when we retrieve the tag. The birds also carry a small radio transmitter that we can hear using telemetry equipment in the hut, so we can tell when they’ve returned to the colony (and when it’s time to run down to retrieve their tag). Satellite tags not only measure position (by satellite, duh), but record information about light levels, pressure, and temperature which tells us how deep they dive underwater, how long their dives last, etc. It’s a pretty neat system. We will put 1,000 flipper bands on penguins this season (all in one day, in a week or two), but we only have 5 satellite tags – they’re a precious commodity! I bet we’d get a hefty sum for them on the black market. Well, maybe not.
January 10, 2009
We’re heading into the homestretch this season. I helicopter out of Cape Crozier to McMurdo Station around Jan 23, fly back to New Zealand Jan 30, and to the U.S. on Feb 3. Time is going fast!
We’ve still got a lot ahead, though. We’re trying to keep track of what happens to the chicks in each banded penguin’s nest (about 500 of them), and, this time of year, that gets crazy. Chicks wander from their nests and huddle in bunches (called creches), so it’s impossible to know whether a particular chick survived or not – unless you actually see a banded bird feeding its young… and the penguins only come ashore briefly once every day or two. We try to be everywhere at once to observe penguin interactions. Craziness! I guess penguins are pretty crazy anyway.
January 9, 2009
We found another weird penguin today. This one was almost entirely white, with just a little black patterning on the back, white flippers, white tail, and a red bill. It looked for all the world like a penguin version of a Red-billed Tropicbird. We joked it may be a hybrid, but tropicbirds live in tropical oceans and penguins stick to Antarctica, so it probably wasn’t a match destined to happen. Instead, it’s just another melanin-deficient bird, this one pretty close to being entirely albino.
We still call it the tropicbird-penguin, though. I have made a comparison below – see for yourself! (And no, that Red-billed Tropicbird photo wasn’t from Antarctica; I took that one in Maine a couple years ago, but you can see the similarities).
January 8, 2009
Snow came down this morning, not enough to stick, but little flakes swirling on the breeze. Many of the penguin chicks hadn’t seen snow yet, and they seemed interested in the stuff falling on them. One or two snapped at snowflakes.
The chicks are growing up fast. As they get older, the big chicks huddle together in groups (called creches) while their parents swim out to sea to find food. Most of the chicks are covered in a thick coat of gray fluff. I saw our albino chick today (discovered on December 24) – it’s grown a lot, and is more white than pink now, since its downy feathers have grown out, covering the pink skin.
January 7, 2009
Way, way, long ago, Antarctica had rain forests. Now, it’s just bare rock and ice, a total desert on land.
But wait! There is life among the rocks, after all. As snow melts this summer, we’re seeing spots of lichen and algae that were hidden underneath. Snow algae is green and spreads in carpets over wet, muddy spots beneath snowfields, and the lichen is bright orange and clings to rocks, also around the edges of snowfields. They’re the closest thing we’ve got to real plants, so I like to imagine I’m walking through a lush forest as I step over little patches of algae and navigate among lichen-covered rocks. It’s incredible that they survive the long Antarctic winters.
January 6, 2009
Kirsten called us on the radio this morning: “There’s a Leopard Seal cruising by the beach!”. Leopard Seals are the top predator around here, and have even been known to attack people. I looked out to sea, and, sure enough, a sleek head surfaced down by the beach; the predator was prowling laps parallel to shore. We haven’t seen many Leopard Seals this season, and this was the first time I got even a decent look at one. With my telephoto lens, I took a couple photos from a safe distance. It didn’t chase any penguins. Maybe it already had a full belly.
January 5, 2009
As penguin babies grow and become more self-sufficient, their parents spend less time with them, until the adults only come to land for brief periods to feed their chicks before heading to sea again. Meanwhile, we’ve still got satellite tags on some adult penguins that need to be recovered. Since there is such a short window to catch the penguins when they come back to shore, we’re now on 24-hour alert, ready to run down to the colony if a penguin should return.
I’ve got the “night” shift tonight. From dinner to 5:30am, I am on duty in the hut, listening to our telemetry equipment every half hour to see if our birds are getting close (Kirsten will get up at 5:30 to continue the watch). If I put on the headphones and hear beeps, it’s time to dash a mile down the hill to try to catch a penguin. As I write this, it’s 4:45 in the morning, and still as bright and sunny as ever outside, though the sun is low enough in the sky that it has dipped behind Mount Terror, casting a shadow over Cape Crozier during the early hours. None of our penguins have returned, so I’m watching movies on my laptop to pass the time.
Needless to say, I’m planning on sleeping in tomorrow. I hope I awake a bit more peacefully than I did this morning. At 11am, I started dreaming about helicopters, then woke in a sudden panic: the dream was real, and a helicopter was hovering over my tent, vibrating me in my sleeping bag! But our resupply flight wasn’t supposed to arrive until 1pm! I’m sure the pilots were amused by the bleary-eyed, confused figure scurrying from the tent below, though they were more preoccupied with a pair of skuas nesting next to the helo pad which divebombed the helicopter as it descended (a skua sucked into the right spot around the rotor blades could crash the aircraft, and they almost aborted landing because the birds were getting too close). In the end, we were glad the flight came, early or not, since they brought us more frozen breakfast sausage and took away our graywater tank and two empty propane tanks.
Surprise! As I was writing this, getting ready for bed, a penguin returned with one of our satellite tags. So, just since the last paragraph, I’ve layered up, run a mile down the hill, caught the penguin, removed its tag, and hiked back, getting back in just after six. Until you’ve sprinted all-out down an Antarctic snowfield at 5am, having stayed up all night, hurdling wind ridges and patches of blue ice, knowing that a wily penguin was waiting for you to chase it, you haven’t lived. You really should try it sometime. Me, I’m off to pass out in my sleeping bag.
January 4, 2009
In the 1960s, American researchers at Cape Crozier studied South Polar Skuas for a while, and banded many of the local nesting birds. Incredibly enough, 50 years later, some of the those same birds are still around, and their bands are still readable (metal numbered tags around their ankles). We still keep track of any skuas that are banded, if for no other reason than curiosity. A couple days ago, I found a skua with a different-looking band and read the word “Paris” on the metal. Surprise! No, it wasn’t banded in France, but a team of French scientists apparently spent some time studying skuas at another site on Ross Island at one point. There are also Italian-banded skuas lurking around. Birds here assume the nationality of the researchers who study them, as in: “That’s an Italian skua”.
I spent most of the morning helping get some gear ready to be shipped out on a helicopter scheduled to land here tomorrow. In particular, we spent an hour or two getting a full barrel of gray water un-stuck from a puddle it had frozen into, so we could roll it down to the helo pad. The heavy barrel was stuck fast enough that we had to pour boiling water to melt the ice and use a prybar and ice-axes to leverage it from its spot.
January 3, 2009
Try as we might to stick with mechanized time, our schedule has been shifting a bit later each day. With 24-hour daylight, it doesn’t really matter when we work, though it is admittedly colder at “night” with the sun lower in the sky. We are now going to bed at 3am and getting up at noon, working in the penguin colony from about 4pm to 10pm, and eating dinner at 11pm. If we sleep in and shift our schedule one hour later each day, then, in 24 days, we’ll be back where we started! Well, maybe it’s best just to set an alarm.
The penguins don’t seem to have a schedule. With constant daylight, individual birds just catch naps whenever they can, and overall activity level in the colony is about the same no matter what time it is. Walking around the colony, we try to make a wide pass around sleeping birds. If you approach a sleeping penguin, it usually awakes with a start as you’re about to step on it, and, looking up at a strange creature in a bright red jacket, it runs blindly away in startled confusion. If I woke up one morning to a giant penguin about to step on me, I’d be confused, too.