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.