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.

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.

Antarctica 2

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.

Notes from the Field: The Journey to Antarctica

Seven weeks ago, I was asked by the Detroit Zoological Society to travel to Antarctica for part of the “austral summer”, which is the time period from November through March in the southern hemisphere, for a rare and extraordinary opportunity to assist a field team with penguin research. Before leaving, I had to pass rigorous medical testing, losing a couple of wisdom teeth along the way. Over the next few weeks, I acquired gear and packed everything I would have for the next three months into two 50-pound bags.

With bags in hand, I headed to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to begin the long, 7,500-mile journey. I traveled from Detroit to Dallas to Santiago, Chile and finally landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, some 25 hours later. Punta Arenas is a very windy but beautiful city with the Andes in the background and the Straights of Magellan winding along the coast.

The following day, I moved onto the Laurence M. Gould, a 230-foot Antarctic research and supply boat, which will be my home for the next week. We then set sail for the U.S. Palmer station. I woke up the next morning with the boat slowly rolling, as we traveled south down the east coast of South America in the Atlantic Ocean. We have been greeted with numerous Magellanic penguin sightings.

Throughout the day, we continued south towards the infamous Drake Passage. We will enter the Drake with our fingers crossed, as it is known to have some of the roughest waters in the world. Once we arrive at the Palmer Station, I will join the “Seabird” team, which is a division of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) studies in the Antarctic Peninsula. Here I will assist with the annual austral summer research for projects headed by the world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser and his wife, Donna Patterson-Fraser. Bill and Donna are incredible, experienced scientists who have spent years studying Antarctic birds, climate change and how they relate.

Our typical day will start by getting up early and watching the weather. As long as conditions look promising, we will get in a zodiac and drive to one of the many smaller islands located around the Palmer Station, where we will study the birds. Most of our study subjects will be gentoo, chinstrap and Adelie penguins as well as southern giant petrels. Throughout the summer, we will examine diet, population numbers, breeding and more.

Back on the boat, there has been a lot of wildlife around us. Dolphins swim through the ocean while birds cruise around us. Cape petrels, southern fulmars, black-browed albatrosses, and many more have gracefully glided alongside the boat. We are just passing the tip of South America, headed for the Drake Passage. Wish us luck and calm seas! The next time I report back, we should be on land at the Palmer Station.

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