Notes from the Field: ‘Iced in’ at the Palmer Station in Antarctica

With the right wind, the harbor can go from totally clear to completely packed with large pieces of ice and glacier chunks within just a few hours, icing us in at the Palmer Station. When this occurs, we have to wait for the winds to change before we can work to clear the ice out. Being stuck at Palmer for a couple days was no problem though; it gave us time to catch up on data and paperwork and we were able to hike to a cove to do some fieldwork with southern giant petrels.

Land travel requires a lot of gear and also snowshoes, which we outfitted ourselves with before walking out into the “backyard” of the Palmer Station. We hiked up to the top of the glacier, where the views were absolutely breathtaking.

We walked around an inlet and back down the glacier over to a couple spits of land where southern giant petrels, Antarctic terns, and kelp gulls can be found. Giant petrels can have a wingspan of almost 7 feet and their eye colors vary from light to very dark, with every individual having its own unique color pattern. Many of these majestic and often very gentle birds have been banded throughout the years, and we were able to retrieve identification numbers from several of them, which will aid in the study of these birds. We were also able to outfit one of the birds with a transmitter to collect data on where the bird is travelling.

Finally, the winds shifted direction and we were able to travel by boat to continue our island fieldwork. We spent a lot of time catching up on censuses of Adelie penguin colonies – much to our excitement, many were full of parents incubating eggs! One humorous mainstay is the elephant seals that hang out around the station. Most mornings when exiting the building, there are multiple elephant seals present, which I’m told isn’t so common from year to year. We have to watch where we walk and keep our distance, giving the proper respect and privacy to all the local wildlife. In Antarctica, there are treaties and conservation acts to follow with regard to viewing wildlife, which is a good reminder of how we should treat all wildlife and wild places, no matter where we are in the world.

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Animal Welfare: Penguin Research Continues as Opening of New Facility Nears

Our ongoing research project on penguin welfare continues as we get closer to the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, and we are learning a lot! For the past nine months, we have been keeping track of what the penguins are doing in the Penguinarium; where they spend their time, and with whom they are spending time. In addition, the data loggers that some of the birds have worn to track their swimming behavior have really highlighted how different each individual penguin is when it comes to spending time in the water. Some like to get their swimming done early in the morning, and some like to dip in and out throughout the day. Studying the welfare of animals is focused on each individual animal, and this is a perfect example of why this is important. By understanding how individuals differ, we can best meet the needs of each one.

We began this project to understand how the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, opening in Spring 2016, would impact the penguins living at the Detroit Zoo. This not only helps us to ensure that the penguins here are thriving, but also to gain information that can be shared with others to benefit penguins living in other zoos and aquariums. An important part of the research is collecting what is referred to as baseline data, which is then used to compare with data collected in the new habitat so changes in the penguins’ behavior or activity patterns can be identified and so we can understand how they are experiencing the new habitat.

Some of the techniques we are using here may also help penguins in the wild. Field researchers can’t always study animals as closely as we can, so we may be able to provide valuable information to them, such as how we are using data loggers. We are also working on measuring hormones in penguin feathers that can provide more evidence on how penguins respond to changes in their environment. This is useful for penguins both in captive settings and in the wild.

We will continue to provide updates on this project, so be sure to check back to see our progress!

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

Notes from the Field: Passion for Peru

The fall trip to the Peruvian Amazon as part of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Adopt-A-School program has come to a close. Over the course of two weeks, our team of 21 staff members and volunteers were able to visit all 53 communities involved in the program. Even though each of these communities is facing challenges, they have shown their commitment to protecting the rainforest. The families clearly see the value of their children’s education.

To accomplish the evaluation for all the Adopt-A-School communities in a two-week period, we rely on volunteers from the city of Iquitos. Volunteerism is not a common practice in Peruvian culture; however the concept is growing. The volunteers this year included people in the fields of education, environmental sustainability and agriculture. The team was enthusiastic and dedicated, which was evidenced by the smiles of the children and hugs from community leaders. Their passion shined in the schools where they sang songs, told jokes and played games to help ensure students were comfortable with them before the evaluations began.

Volunteers support this program throughout the year, and now that the evaluations are complete, we are beginning to focus on our plans for next year. The Adopt-A-School program would not be able to function without the support of our volunteers from around the world. Without them and their contributions, we wouldn’t be able to deliver the donated school supplies to the communities at the beginning of the Peruvian school year. Our program volunteers contribute financially through a mandatory trip donation as well as providing their physical support and presence while they are in Peru.

If you’d like experience these beautiful places and meet some incredible people, consider volunteering with the Adopt-A-School program and join us in our travels to the rainforest in the spring: http://conapac.org/2016AmazonRainforestiBookletShort.pdf. If traveling to the Amazon is not for you, and you would like to contribute in a different way, please find a link to donate here: http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/.

– Carla Rigsby is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society. The Adopt-A-School program provides donated educational materials and supplies for schools in rural Amazonia. The DZS has partnered with Conservacion de la Naturaleza Amazonica del Peru (CONAPAC) in this conservation and education program since 1999.

Notes from the Field: Antarctica Fieldwork Begins

The first day in the field was an absolute dream come true for me. After an early breakfast and an intense look at the weather, we collected our gear and got dressed for a day of fieldwork. We dressed in layers to protect ourselves from the harsh environment and the potentially soaking boat ride. During my time in Antarctica, we will travel by boat to many islands to study different colonies of birds. The weather can change in a heartbeat, with strong winds bringing rough seas and treacherous ice drifts, so we need to be prepared.

We headed out to a nearby island, which has multiple colonies of Adelie penguins. We tied up the boat and proceeded to count birds and collect data. I was speechless staring at a colony of these penguins and the pure beauty of nature – some birds were working on building nests out of rocks and others already had eggs – Adelie penguins generally lay a clutch of two. It is fascinating watching the birds work on their nests and interact within the colony.

Another bird of note in this region is the brown skua, a good-sized bird that will nest up on rocky ledges around the penguin colony. They often lurk on the edges of the colony waiting for an opportunity to steal eggs. Their strategy works well and they certainly get their fair share of Adelie eggs.

Near another Adelie colony, we spotted a southern elephant seal nursing her pup. There are many southern elephant seals in the area – the females weigh close to a ton while full grown males may weigh as much as 4 or 5 tons! Antarctica is a magical place that surrounds you with beautiful, pristine nature.

Throughout the week we have visited multiple islands surveying the birds and taking data. The conditions have been good with temperatures around freezing, with snow and rain mixed in. Thankfully the high winds tend to hold off until the evening, allowing us to get our work done. While I’m known at the Detroit Zoo for wearing shorts year-round, here I am wearing pants. What can I say – it’s Antarctica!

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.

Notes from the Field: Visiting Schools Along the Napo River in Peru

We’ve traded in the “mototaxis” for boats as we moved from Iquitos into the rainforest at Explorama’s Explornapo Lodge along the Napo River in Peru. It’s interesting – when you look straight down at the water, it is a milky shade of brown, but when looking further out, the reflection of the clouds and blue sky give the impression that the Amazon River is actually blue, which it is not. The scenery is green and lush, as we expect, but now that the water level is lower, we can see how aggressive it is when the river rises. We know how fierce yet resilient nature can be. The mud is sculpted like artwork in places high above the current water line. In many places, green plants have taken over the steep mud cliffs, growing where water stands for months of the year. Birds are flying around checking out the water below, and there is a sense of tranquility from the wind and noise from the boat as we travel from place to place.

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All of this boat travel means that we’ve completed the first week of evaluations, having visited 29 schools as part of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Adopt-A-School program. We can’t all visit each of these communities in this time frame, so we spread out and meet up every night for a recap of what is happening in each community. Common issues that come up revolve mostly around water. Due to flooding, some schools weren’t able to hold classes for up to four months of this school year. Some don’t have enough time to grow crops between the flooding, and almost all communities are having trouble with proper trash disposal. Being here in the rainforest and immersed in this environment leads me to question what is the best solution for this situation. There aren’t garbage boats that come through these communities to pick up trash, so what are they expected to do with it? This is one of the reasons why this program is so important – we focus on education, including education about sustainability and preservation of the environment.

I’ve enjoyed visiting many communities this week, but Canal Pinto was one of the most impactful experiences for me. It was obvious the two teachers in the community had everything under control. You could tell by looking at the students, the classrooms, and their interactions with students that this community was in good hands. As I looked around the beautiful kindergarten classroom, I noticed something that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. Recycled plastic bottles, cut and painted, neatly labeled with student names. Inside each cup was a toothbrush. Hanging on the shelf next to each toothbrush was a washcloth. The students are learning to take care of themselves and to reuse items they have around them. This shows these children – at a very early age – the importance of helping to conserve items and take care of themselves, hopefully habits that will help them and the environment for years to come.

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We have a few days left of reviews before we head home. We will be soaking in the heat and humidity while we can before coming back to the much cooler north. Adios for now!

– Carla Rigsby is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society. The Adopt-A-School program provides donated educational materials and supplies for schools in rural Amazonia. The DZS has partnered with Conservacion de la Naturaleza Amazonica del Peru (CONAPAC) in this conservation and education program since 1999. For more information, or to donate to the program, visit: http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/

Notes from the Field: Arriving in Antarctica

Reporting back from blue water. We experienced some rain, but only light winds as we sailed through the infamous Drake Passage, offering us the “Drake lake” not the “Drake shake”! Throughout the Passage, many more feathered companions greeted us including Wilson’s storm petrels, slender-billed prions, light-mantled albatross and more. The light-mantled albatross is a majestic flyer that glided around our boat effortlessly.

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During our fourth evening on the boat, icebergs and pieces of ice started to consistently drift by while the rain changed to snow. We were getting close! By early afternoon on day five, the boat entered the 16-mile-long Neumayer Channel, which is a breathtakingly gorgeous passage. We cruised through incredible snow-covered cliffs, while icebergs of varying beautiful hues of blue floated past us. A couple ghost-like snow petrels made an appearance. Snow petrels are a pure white bird with black eyes and a black beak and are found in southern Georgia and Antarctica. We eventually passed Port Lockroy, which has a British research base and the nearest post office. Then, in the clearing as the clouds parted slightly, we could see a small collection of buildings: the U. S. Palmer Station and my home for the next couple of months.

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A handful of gentoo penguins came to the edge of the ice to greet us while we were landing the boat. It was nice to feel the hard ground under our feet after the wonderful five-day voyage. Since we landed in the evening, we hung out for a while at the station, meeting the very friendly current residents and then headed back to the boat for the night. The following morning, we got right to work unloading our gear, followed by a half-day of orientation. After orientation, I found my way down to a small hut, which is known as the “birders” office. The “birders” is a station nickname for our group that does bird research. I am joining three fantastic, expert field biologists to do field work/research on gentoo, adelie, and chinstrap penguins, southern giant-petrels, brown skuas and more. Much of the work involves long-term ecological studies and is associated with figuring out the bird’s relationship to and impact from climate change. This work is overseen and guided by the principal investigator, the world-renowned polar ecologist Dr. Bill Fraser, who also consulted with the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) on the design of the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center, a spectacular facility under construction at the Detroit Zoo.

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Also while I’m down here, I will be able to absorb knowledge that can be brought back to the Detroit Zoo’s already expert penguin staff. Conservation and animal welfare are priorities of the DZS and this incredible opportunity will allow us to continue to improve the already excellent welfare we ensure for animals. The Detroit Zoo, home to the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare, is known internationally for our animal welfare program, and we are always challenging ourselves and our industry to continue improving. Starting tomorrow, I will jump into the field and will report back soon. Thank you for reading!

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending the next few months at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica for a rare and extraordinary scientific opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research.