Friday, October 26, 2007

Looking For Penguins - Part I

We have good weather at last. The sun is shining and there is no wind. This is an ideal time to go out to the ice edge and look for non-breeding birds. Since parent birds are busy feeding their chicks at this time of the year, any birds hanging out at the ice edge, far from the colony, are non-breeders. They include birds that might have lost their chick during the winter and sub-adults that aren't mature enough to breed.

Parts of the emperor penguin life cycle are poorly understood, but it is generally acknowledged that emperor penguins do not reach sexual maturity for several years. In the meantime, groups of non-breeders occasionally wander the sea ice. It isn't certain whether these non-breeder groups are looking for new food sources, new colony sites, or are simply looking for adventure. (Probably not the latter, but it does make a nice story.) I like to think of it as their "walkabout" phase of life -- not very scientific, I know.

To reach the ice edge we need vehicles with less weight that our Pisten Bully. Snowmobiles are perfect for this. They are lighter, faster, and more nimble on the ice. They are also noisier and a lot colder than the Pisten Bully. Everyone loves the snowmobile, except me. As I mentioned, I don't do cold. Even with tons of layers on, the wind manages to leak through some small gap in my neck or wrist. I generally end a long snowmobile ride cold and miserable.

We loaded up our snowmobile sled with penguin boxes (the orange boxes, see below). Each box is padded inside to prevent the bird from harming itself when it stands in the box after capture. We have five boxes, so we can only capture five birds at a time.

We drove out onto the sea ice, many miles from camp, and come across a Weddell seal hole (below). The seal is gone, probably to hunt fish, but has left behind an imprint of its body in the snow. Those signs alert us to cracks in the area and we stop to drill the ice in order to determine the thickness. The ice here was thick enough to continue.

Below is the group with the snowmobiles as we stop to drill. Left to right, is Paul, Jessica, Cory, Cass, and Matt.

A second shot of the group is below. We had to drill yet another hole to determine the ice thickness.

We came within 3 miles of the ice edge, but had to turn back. The ice is too thin for our snowmobiles to travel over. During the last storm, the ice extent increased and we now have this new, fragile ice between us and the edge. It's very frustrating to come so close, and then, have to turn back.

Stymied by the thin ice, we headed back home and hoped that we would chance upon a group of penguins wandering closer to our camp. Looking for penguins on miles of sea ice is akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. We see lots and lots of Weddell seals at the Barne Glacier (below). They are the wrong species, unfortunately, so we head back to the Ranch without penguins today. We have been bested by the ice.