Notes from the Field: Saying Goodbye to Antarctica

In what seems like the blink of an eye, this incredible journey at the bottom of the Earth has come to an end as I write to you back home at the Detroit Zoo. Three months ago, I flew to Chile, sailed across the Drake Passage and landed on Anvers Island in Antarctica. My home became the U. S. Palmer Station where I joined the expert field team of Polar Oceans Research Group.

We zodiac’ed around the local waters through wind, snow, and ice day after day, traversing the stunning landscape to study penguins, skuas, southern giant petrels, and more. Through the quick Antarctic summer, we travelled to many rocky islands, watching the birds lay eggs and diligently incubate them to hatching. Then the dedicated parents brooded their chicks, foraging often to find krill, fish, and more to feed their downy kin in an effort to raise them to maturity.

In my final days of observation, the birds continued to grow. The Adelie chicks lost most if not all of their down and are were almost ready to hop in the Southern Ocean for their first swim. The chinstraps were just behind them, but the gentoos were still downy, with a little more time to grow before hitting the chilly waters. The brown skua chicks were running all over the place as their primary flight feathers were quickly developing. The southern giant petrel parents were regularly leaving their chicks alone at the nest while they went out in search of food.

As we studied the birds, we had to watch out for the many fur seals that had joined the neighborhood, as they do around this time every year. We also saw a couple more humpback whales in the area. One playful individual made quite a commotion on the surface and was repeatedly lunge-feeding, devouring lots of krill.

Antarctica is now a part of me, and a very special part of our world. The Antarctic peninsula is one of the fastest changing places as the world’s environment changes. It will take a worldwide effort to help our planet, but every conscious decision you make to respect, recycle, and conserve will help turn the tides. I am so proud to be a part of our Detroit Zoological Society. Please walk with us down the path of sustainability. Thank you for reading and joining me on this extraordinary journey.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who spent the last 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: Growing up in Antarctica

Greetings from Anvers Island! The front of the U.S. Palmer Station doesn’t usually have many icebergs, but this summer, the waters around the station have become something of an iceberg parking lot. The last few days have been breezy with a couple inches of summer snow, but that has not stopped us from making our rounds. Throughout the area, the seabirds are busy raising demanding chicks while humpback whales are swimming by.

The south polar skuas are just starting to hatch and we are seeing their chicks on a couple of the islands. The brown skua chicks have grown significantly. Their primary flight feathers are starting to come in and they are becoming more challenging to measure. The sneaky youngsters are often hiding behind rocks away from the nest. They are quick on their feet and run from us when we approach. The ages of the southern giant petrel chicks vary with some newly hatched and others barely fitting under their brooding parent because they’ve grown so much. Often as we walk by, we’ll see a fuzzy white head sticking out under mom or dad.

All of the penguin chicks are growing rapidly but the gentoo chicks are the smallest, with many still fairly young. These chicks are very cute; their beaks already show orange and somehow the young birds manage to stay very clean.

 

The chinstrap chicks are also tidy-looking and have grown significantly. The Adelie colonies are thinning out as the parents are spending more time out foraging. Their extremely messy chicks are forming groups called crèches. At this stage, the young birds are really starting to grow up and are willing to venture away from their nest to hang out with other chicks. The oldest chicks are in the process of molting their down and many look quite funny. They are partially covered in down with some of their first molt showing. This next generation of penguins is developing quickly, which is important as the quick Antarctic summer is flying by.

As I reflect on this wonderful journey, I continue to marvel at the purity of Antarctica’s environment. Please try your best to respect the environment wherever you are and leave behind the smallest footprint you can. We share an incredibly beautiful world and it’s all of our responsibility to protect it.

Thank you for reading.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and has spent the last 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: Island Hopping in Antarctica

This week started with our usual routines and turned into the best “fieldtrip” ever. We cruised through our work of counting penguins and weighing chicks and then we saw a wonderfully calm weather window. We had an extremely favorable, gentle forecast, which allowed us to make a special trip out to the Joubins – a special group of islands that our field team only has the opportunity to see once or twice a year because they are located outside of our boating limits. We packed two boats as a safety precaution and sailed westward.

The krill was thick and the ocean was pulsing with hungry predators. We spotted a humpback whale on our journey out, shortly followed by hundreds of crabeater seals and numerous penguins swimming around. Crabeater seals have very specialized teeth, which enable them to filter the ocean water while devouring krill. Some crabeaters were in the water while many others were laying on the large pieces of ice that drifted past us. There was even a leopard seal in the area, which could’ve been bad news for the “crabbies”. The much bigger leopard seals will eat crabeater seals given the right situation.

We made it to our first study island and were pleasantly greeted by Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins. This island was particularly fascinating with all three of these penguin species breeding together in the same colony. Many of the chicks were quite young but looked healthy.

Throughout the day, we continued to explore island after island, surveying nesting birds and taking in the unblemished beauty of this Antarctic paradise. As the day came to a close, we packed our boats and made the journey home through gentle seas safely back to the U.S. Palmer Station.

In our local area, the giant petrel eggs have been hatching and there are some excited parents! The chicks are darling fuzzy balls of fluff. Their cooperative parents take excellent care of them and allow us to do our measurements with no complaints. When we return the chicks, the parents snuggle them under the safety of their bodies.

The gentoo chicks are still small but growing quickly, and most of the Adelie chicks are huge. The Adelie parents are incredibly busy trying to keep the begging chicks full. During the upcoming weeks we should start to see the Adelie chicks venture away from their parents into little chick groups within the colony. They will also start to lose their down.

 

Thanks for reading; I will report back soon.

– Matthew Porter is a bird department zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society and is spending several 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: To the Moon and Back

Hello from the U.S. Palmer Station! The weather has been behaving and we were able to have a very productive week. Because of the warmer temperatures in Antarctica this time of year, some long-distance travelers from the north came to visit us – a group of more than 100 arctic terns have made their way down for the summer.

The arctic tern is an incredible bird that only weighs as much as a small apple yet it migrates farther than any animal on Earth. They breed in the Arctic during the northern summer and they travel to the Antarctic for the austral summer to feed in the rich waters of the Southern Ocean. They will travel some 45,000 miles every year and may live for decades. This bird lives a full life; it flies the distance to the moon three times over. It is absolutely inspiring watching these weary travelers make it down here, knowing they were at the top of the world just a few months ago.

Back in Michigan, the Detroit Zoological Society helps conserve two different species of tern – black terns and common terns. The DZS has worked with other agencies to develop and maintain a new nesting site for common terns, which have become quite uncommon along the Detroit River over the last 50 years. We are also working with the National Audubon Society and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, looking at nesting success of black terns in the St. Clair Flats. Black terns are suffering population decline across their range and we are committed to learning more about their life history in order to reverse this trend and protect the species.

Besides the arctic terns, we have been very busy studying the local birdlife. The Adelie penguin colonies seem to show some variation with regard to what stage of development the chicks are in. Some of the chicks are getting huge and the nests are getting crowded as many proud parents have two chicks growing well. That being said, the noise level continues to climb and the colonies are starting to become messy! It does appear that the chicks pick up bad habits at a very young age (stealing rocks from the neighbors).

The brown skua chicks continue to hatch and grow as well. We have been measuring their beaks and routinely weighing them, tracking their growth. The parents can be a little feisty, but overall they tolerate us well. The chicks are beginning to run around and explore, which can make it tougher for us to find them.

As the days of this incredible journey continue to pass, the northern hemisphere has started to tilt back toward the sun and our days are shortening a touch. It’s still pretty much always light out, but it’s getting slightly easier to see the sun set.

Have a great week; 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: Peeping Penguins and Spyhopping Whales in Antarctica

Happy New Year from 64°46’27” S, 64°03’15” W!

In Antarctica this time of year, the nights are very short – the sun sets around midnight and rises at 2 a.m., so it never really gets dark. As the days pass, many icebergs drift by and their variation and beauty leave me in awe. From small to huge, they come in any shape you could imagine and they express a variety of whites and blues.

It is snowing a bit less, and the islands are starting to melt down a bit, which exposes the rocky cliffs and reveal a variety of different lifeforms. Antarctic hair grass is one of only two species of flowering plant found in Antarctica, and mosses and lichens paint the rocks on the islands in greens, yellows, oranges and more. Lichens are organisms made up of a symbiotic (or mutually beneficial) relationship of a fungus paired with algae and/or cyanobacteria.

This nice break in the weather allowed us to make our way further south to conduct a survey of gentoo penguins. This species of penguin is the third largest in the world and there are currently around 300,000 breeding pairs worldwide. Where we are right now is on the southern extent of their range. It’s exciting to see this particular species in the wild, as gentoos are one of the four species of penguins at the Detroit Zoo. And while I’ve been in Antarctica, 20 additional gentoo penguins arrived at the Zoo as we prepare for the opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center in April.

Our team split up into groups and together we achieved a full survey of gentoo nests on the island. Most of the birds are incubating two eggs each in nests formed out of rocks. The sun peeked out of the clouds and lit up the sky as we marched from colony to colony.

We also had some excitement as we were counting Adelie penguin colonies when we heard some faint peeping noises. The next generation of these amazing black and white birds had just started to hatch. A couple of lucky parents had very young chicks so small the gray downy bird could fit on your hand. We could see that many more birds were about to hatch as well – multiple eggs had externally pipped, which means that the chick has cracked or put a hole through the eggshell. Very soon the colonies will become incredibly noisy and messy! In the coming weeks, we will see the parent’s inexhaustible efforts as they travel back and forth from the ocean to the nest to feed and raise their young.

As is the case with many bird species, the chicks of Antarctica have to grow extremely quickly. Because the summer season (providing warmth and abundant food) is short, the young birds must grow quickly and prepare for migration or become ready to brave the harsh winter.

Brown skuas are also starting to hatch and soon the giant petrels will as well. We have been doing a lot of monitoring of the giant petrels and have identified almost all of the breeding pairs in our study area that have eggs. The giant petrels take turns incubating, with one bird at the nest, while the other bird goes foraging. Once we get the first parent’s band number, we wait about a week to let the birds switch roles. Then we can get the other parent’s band number while it is incubating the egg. All of these hatching chicks should keep us very busy in the upcoming weeks.

Throughout our travels, we have been keeping our eyes open and are listening for blow spouts as humpback whales are usually in the area this time of year. Over the past weeks, we have had a few sightings of minke whales and we had a pod of orcas come by right in front of Palmer Station. The orcas were popping their heads up out of the water looking for seals on the ice floes. This behavior is known as “spyhopping”. It was incredible watching these iconic, powerful animals work the inlet by station.


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: ‘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.

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.