Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Penguin Colonies - Part 1

Two factors that can affect the stability of the emperor penguin population include stable sea ice and food availability. Both of these factors are subject to environmental changes and to human perturbations. Jerry Kooyman and Paul have monitored the populations at six of the seven colonies in the Ross Sea since the mid-1980s.

Cape Colbeck, located far to the east of Ross Island along the Ross Ice Shelf, has rarely been visited for censusing. Ironically, I understand that at least one passenger expedition goes there.

As an aside, having boatloads of tourists in the Antarctic is a really bad idea. Antarctica is too fragile an ecosystem to have tens of thousands of tourists tramping around it. Unfortunately, this type of travel is increasing exponentially each year.

In 1990, the colonies had the following chick populations: Cape Roget – 6,921, Coulman Island – 27,930, Cape Washington – 23,379, Franklin Island - <2,000, Beaufort Island - <2,000, and Cape Crozier – 324. Recently, both Beaufort Island and Cape Crozier colonies were devastated by iceberg B15 and its fragments.

We want to monitor the recovery of the two colonies disturbed by B15 (Crozier and Beaufort). We also continue the census of the four other nearby colonies to determine the general trends in the emperor penguin population in the Ross Sea. Paul, Cass, Jessica, and Cory went by Twin Otter (see below) today to three colonies, while Matt and I and two volunteers from McMurdo held down the fort at Penguin Ranch.

Paul and Cass are in front of the Twin Otter. The Twin Otters are a Canadian company. Each year they fly down to McMurdo from Canada to the tip of South America, and then, cross the Antarctica by way of the South Pole.

Here is an aerial view of Cape Washington, which is one of the largest emperor colonies in the Antarctic. From the air, this vast colony looks like a series of smudges. There are numerous sub-colonies at Cape Washington, as you can see.

Here is an aerial view of Franklin Island, which is a much small emperor colony -- more "smudges".

And, finally, here is the Beaufort Island colony, which this year is again situated near a small iceberg on the sea ice close by, rather than by the island itself. As was previously mentioned, this colony was hit hard by the massive iceberg B15 a few years ago. Most of the chicks of the year died, probably because the adults had a rough time reaching the open water to go hunting for food. However, unlike the Crozier colony, the adults didn't die. Once the huge iceberg left the area, the colony came back to its pre-iceberg levels.

This an interior shot of the Twin Otter with Paul, Jessica, and Cass.

Cory in the back of the Twin Otter is below.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tiny Visitors

In the morning, after Wendell's Mawsoni feast, we discovered a swarm of krill in the dive hole under the hut. I suspect that they might have been doing mop up duty of Wendell's dinner, although many species of krill are mainly herbivorous (i.e., plant eaters).

Krill is a non-specific term used to describe open-ocean crustaceans known as euphausiids. Their importance in the Antarctic ecosystem cannot be overstated. They are the food source for numerous species, from fish to whales. They are so important to the health of the ecosystem that they have been protected by a special treaty.

For more information on Antarctic krill, see: http://www.aad.gov.au/default.asp?casid=1540

Erratum: These tiny creatures are not krill. They are amphipodes, which explains why they are feasting on the leftovers of Mawsoni. For more information on these creatures, see: http://museumvictoria.com.au/crust/amphigal.html It seems that they are relatives of fleas.

Frankly, they look like the krill photos to me, but what do I know....

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wendell Catches A Fish

A Weddell seal has adopted the dive hole beneath our lab hut. Cass calls him Wendell.

When everyone was away picking up the last three birds, Wendell made some odd vocalizations and there was a tremendous amount of thrashing in the water. When I looked down, he had brought up this huge, headless body of a Dissostichus mawsoni, or Antarctic Toothfish.

Here's Wendell with his fish.

Wendell must have caught and beheaded the fish below the ice, hence the thrashing that I heard. Wendell was justifiably proud of his fish. (I suspect that most human fishermen would be, too.) It was one of the largest Mawsoni I had ever seen. Paul and Cory dragged the body out of the water to look at it while Wendell was away.

Mawsoni are interesting fish. They possess a type of "antifreeze" in their blood that prevents their blood from freezing. (Remember that the sea ice is about -2 C, or below the freezing point of water.)

Wendell took his fish away by the next morning. I assume that he ate it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Looking For Penguins - Part 2

It's a new day and a new opportunity to hunt for penguins.

This morning, our friend Marcus Horning, who heads one of the Weddell Seal research groups, called us and told us that he had spotted several emperors on the sea ice near Tent Island. So, we geared up and headed out once more.

Sure enough, we saw one bird almost right away once we were near the island, and then, two more. Soon, we had three birds and then we found an additional five more.

Below, we are surrounding some of the birds.

Jessica catches her first of two penguins.

And, Cory catches one.

And, so does Cass!

Since we are limited by the number of boxes that we can carry on the snowmobile sled, Matt, Paul, and I return to Penguin Ranch with five birds, while Cory, Cass and Jessica watch the remaining three yet-to-be-captured birds (below).

Matt drives very carefully all the way home with the birds in the snowmobile sled. It's hard to believe that , he had never driven a snowmobile before. He plots a very careful route back to the Ranch.

Once there, Paul and Matt release the birds in the corral.

Penguins are amazing. They walk out of the boxes, look around a bit puzzled, and then start to preen themselves. Nothing seems to faze them. They don't pace, they don't fight with each other, they just settle down and clean their feathers. Their view of life seems to be when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We could all learn from them.

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.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Sound of Silence

Now that the latest storm is over (and our wi-fi has been restored), things are settling down to normal at Penguin Ranch.

Matt is checking his email . You can see Jessica's lab bench in the background.

Paul, Jessica, and Cass are working on the penguin corral. We are hoping to catch birds tomorrow if the weather is nice, but we need to secure the corral first.

Below is another photo on the corral work. Cass is using the Jiffy drill to make holes in the ice to secure the bamboo poles that hold up the fencing. Bamboo is incredibly strong. So strong that it can stand up to the fiercest winds. In fact, I've read that certain types of bamboo have the tensile strength of steel.

Cory is catching a few rays. His feet are on the ob tube lid.

I suppose it is not surprising to those of you who live in northern climes, but it is a marvel to me that if the sun is shining and there is no wind, it's actually not that bad outside, even if the thermometer is reading -10 C. I'm a native Californian and I don't do snow normally.

Here's a photo of me and our huts after the latest storm -- more snow. Sigh....

Below is the view from our huts across McMurdo Sound. What you see in the distance are the Royal Society Mountains, named after The Royal Society -- the national academy of science for the UK. It is similar to our National Academy of Science, but much older. The Royal Society was founded in 1660 by scientists like Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. See: http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=2176 (Since this area was explored by the English, they got to choose the names -- it's only fair. )The mountain range looks so close, but is actually about 50 miles away. Scale is terribly hard to judge on the sea ice.

On quiet nights like this I enjoy walking out on to the sea ice near the camp. The silence is so incredibly profound when the wind has died that the only sound I hear is my own heart beating. I am always struck by the "sound" of silence. We live with such noise pollution most of the time. It's amazing that we can keep our sanity.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

excerpt from The Sounds of Silence, by Paul Simon

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Yet Another Storm

We had a brief respite from the bad weather and made a dash for Penguin Ranch. Jessica and I were the first ones out at the Ranch. It laid partially buried in the snow. This is how the Ranch looked from our vehicle.

Here's Paul shoveling snow.

Here is our first sunset from out at the Ranch, looking at Mt. Erebus.

Our new sleep hut (the box car with the tent sides) is okay on a calm night, although the blue tent walls make everything inside look as if it is lit by a uv light -- very strange and slightly disorienting, see below. The propane cylinders went out just as Paul and Jessica were about to go to sleep. They had to stay up and change them. I'm embarrassed to say that I slept through the whole thing. Note that Panda Monium, Junior, and Betty Bunny (in background) have joined the camp.

We had the GAs (general assistants) from town help install snow fencing. Here's Paul working on the fencing.

Alas, the nice weather was short lived. Another storm started the next afternoon. Here's our solar pod buffeted by the wind and snow.

The Ranch in another storm. Paul is in the photo.

The snow fence was only partially done. The GAs left for McMurdo soon after this photo was taken. This fencing should keep the bulk of the snow out of the Ranch, although we still need to finish that fence.

Here's the sleep hut/tent in the storm That sleep hut in a storm is awful! It's cold, it flaps in the wind and it leaks snow in several places. We all miss our old Jamesway.

At the height of the storm, below is what you could see out of the window. I can see why it is called a white-out. It only lasted for a few moments, but you could easily lose your way. Losing the horizon is also very eerie.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Storm Day

We were all set to go to the ice edge to catch penguins, but the weather had other ideas. So, we are stuck in town until the snow and wind stops. Matt is delighted since the bad weather means that he might be able to watch the Red Sox play their 7th game for the American League Championship.

It's Condition 2 in McMurdo, which means certain types of travel are restricted. Condition 3 is all clear. Condition 1 is a white-out or dangerously low temperatures.

View from the loading dock window.

Paul, the PI (principal investigator) and MD1

Jessica (GS1 - first graduate student)

Cass (GS2)

Cory (GS3)

Matt (MD2)

Katherine (PC)

Panda Monium, Junior, and Betty Bunny (all FF - furry friends)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cape Crozier

10/17/07 - The weather at Cape Crozier has finally settled down, so Paul, Jessica, and I arrived early this morning for our one-hour helo flight. We are going to Crozier to census the emperor penguin colony there. This colony was devastated a few years ago by several enormous icebergs (B15 among them) that calved off the permanent ice shelf near the Cape.

You might be wondering how an iceberg could affect an emperor colony. The emperor penguin is the only bird that lays its egg on the sea ice in the Antarctic winter. To do this, the colony needs to have smooth, flat ice for chick rearing.

When large icebergs move into the area, they can jumble the flat sea ice and either kill the adults outright when the ice heaves suddenly or block access to the ocean. If adults can't get out to the ocean, they starve. If the passage is merely difficult, a lot of the chicks starve. Either way, the colony is disrupted.

In 2001, Jerry Kooyman and Paul found no chicks and no living adults at Crozier. The few adults they found had starved to death. The colony has been coming back from that devastation, but its recovery is slow. In the natural course of things, a colony can lose a year of chicks, but recovers quickly if the adults survive. In this case, since many of the breeding adults died, as well, it may be a long time before the colony returns to its pre-iceberg levels. In 2000, there were 1200 chicks at Crozier. Since 2001, there have been less than 500 chicks every year.

Here's a photo of the helicopter pad with McMurdo in the background. The largest building in three sections on the right is Crary Lab.

Here we all are in the helo with our flight helmets.

This photo is the "back" of Ross Island and is described in Cherry-Garraud's book on his winter trip to Crozier, The Worst Journey in the World.

Here is the landing site near the Crozier hut. The hut is no where near the emperor colony and is located far up the hillside above the sea ice. Cape Crozier is an ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) because of the emperor colony and an even more important Adelie colony.

Here's Paul using the Iridium phone to make contact with Mac Ops. The helicopter pilot cannot leave us until he is certain that we make contact with the town.

This is Jessica with the Crozier hut in the background.

It's a fairly long walk from the Crozier hut down to the emperor colony as you can see in the photograph below. The Adelie colony is located in the brown areas near the shoreline.

Unfortunately, there were only a handful of early arrivals in the Adelie colony. In a week's time or so, there will be thousands of Adelies in their colony.

And here are the three of us walking over to the colony. We are walking down snow and ice covered mountains and then walking on sea ice, so we are all wearing crampons and carrying ice axes.

Jessica was particularly delighted with the crampons since she felt as if she could walk up a vertical wall with them. Actually, come to think of it, with the right kind of crampons and the right kind of climbing skills, you can.

The trickiest part of wearing crampons is not catching your pant leg with them -- a particularly treacherous thing to do when hiking down an icy slope. That's why we all have that stylish duct tape wrapped around our ankles.

We encountered some birds on the sea ice even before we got near the colony. Penguins have a natural curiosity and little fear of humans, so they frequently make a beeline to look at us.

Here's a photo of the emperor colony we found. The fluffy, gray emperor chicks are so cute that they are simply off the cuteness scale.

Another colony shot. If you look at one of the birds on the front left, you can see a chick mostly tucked into the brood pouch with only its head showing. The chick is resting on its parent's feet. It must be very warm. When the wind increases, even the large chicks try to tuck themselves back into their parent's brood pouch. Of course, they no longer fit and content themselves by only hiding their heads with their fluffy rumps out in the cold.

Most of the time, the weather was really nice, but when we reached the colony, the wind came up and we had to protect our faces from the cold. That's Jessica and me. We look as if we are about to rob a bank.

Paul and I slogged up the slope (below) while Paul's physically fit graduate student bounced up another slope to take our photo. (Hey, she's almost 30 years younger than us!)

We spent the night in the Crozier hut. When we went to sleep the weather was beautiful. When we woke up, there were tremendous gusts of wind swirling around us.

We staged all our equipment down the hill near the helo landing site, but the winds made it impossible for the helo to land, so we had to haul everything back to the hut and wait out the wind. Getting all that equipment back to the hut above was difficult because the wind gusts were so strong that some of the bulkier stuff, like the sleep kits, acted like sails. It is hard to stay upright when wind tries to blow you over with each step.

Resigned to wait out the wind, Jessica below is looking for beaked whales. None were sighted, however.

Our camp photo.

Fortunately, the winds quieted down sufficiently for the helo to make a landing later in the day. The pilot had to crab his helo into the landing site. "Crabbing" is flying forward with the helo at about a 45 degree angle. It's a very strange thing to see and a bit unnerving.

Dustin was a very experienced helo pilot. I only became worried when he started talking to his helo, "C'mon, girl, you can do it. We need a little more power." The winds aloft were still fierce and made for a very bumpy ride back home. I didn't kiss the ground when we landed, but I thought of it.