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.”