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.

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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.

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.