Notes from the Field: Scientists Set Sail on Seabird Study

This is Part II of a series about a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands by the Detroit Zoological Society to understand the threats facing populations of wild penguins and seabirds. For Part I, click here.

Conducting scientific research in the Falkland Islands can be logistically challenging. Located 300 miles to the east off the southern tip of South America, this remote territory consists of two main islands and several hundred smaller islands dotting the South Atlantic. Some of these islands have rocky cliffs at the ocean’s edge. Others are completely inaccessible.

With this said, the Falkland Islands provide critical habitats for several species of penguins, seabirds and other wildlife, and such fieldwork is necessary to preserve these populations and understand the risks they face. Threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism in the area.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) was asked by a partner organization called Falklands Conservation to develop a project that would explore the impacts of infectious disease, pollution and tourism on these populations. After months of preparation, a DZS veterinary team embarked on the mission.

Traveling to the Falklands from Detroit is a 50-hour journey. First, you fly to Atlanta and then to Santiago, Chile. The next day, you fly to Punta Arenas, Chile and then continue on to Stanley, the largest city in the Falklands. Stanley has a population of roughly 2,000 people, and about 900 people live elsewhere in the islands. By comparison, there are approximately 450,000 sheep spread over the islands, which amounts to more than 150 sheep per human. There is also an estimated 800 miles of coastline in the Falklands, which is home to four species of penguins and numerous other seabirds.

The DZS’s goal was to take blood and feather samples from penguins living in different locations within the Falkland Islands. Some had experienced the presence of humans, industrial shipping and oil activity and others were far removed from these potential impacts. The team also set out to examine two penguin species, one that tends to forage closer to land and one that travels far out to sea.

The research team’s home base for the expedition was a 55-foot sailboat. Each morning, the team would pack supplies into backpacks, get dropped off on an island and hike to various penguin colonies to collect the samples over an eight-hour period. One day, the team was set up on a beach near a gentoo colony and the next was spent on rocky cliff near a rockhopper colony.

Each penguin was handled for less than 10 minutes, during which time the team conducted a physical exam, took swabs to test for viruses and bacteria, collected blood and used scissors to trim a few feathers for toxicology testing. Afterward, each of the penguins went right back to their colonies and continued their regular activities of grooming and socializing.

In the evenings, our researchers took over every surface of the boat and spent three or four hours centrifuging the blood, making slides and getting samples ready for storage in liquid nitrogen tanks for preservation until our return to Michigan.

In all, the team examined 95 penguins. Our hope is that we can better understand the current health status of these penguins as well as the impacts disease and exposure to environmental toxins and humans may have on wildlife. Ultimately, measures could be taken in this region to ensure important marine habitats – and the wildlife who rely on them – are protected.

– Dr. Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Notes from the Field: Studying Penguins in the Falkland Islands

Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) staff are in the Falkland Islands for the third consecutive year to conduct scientific studies on penguin populations. The DZS collaborates with Falkland Conservation (FC) to monitor remote and inaccessible islands with nesting penguin colonies.

DZS staff members are visiting sites that are not a part of the current monitoring network and where penguin censuses haven’t been conducted in years – even decades. The goal of this component of the program is to establish baseline population data, with subsequent visits on a rotating schedule.

This year, the DZS is also working to assess the status of the health of the penguins at two different locations: Berkeley Sound in the east Falklands, where there is heavy shipping activity; and Dunbar in the west Falklands, which has a limited occurrence of industrial shipping and oil activity. The two study sites are separated not only by distance, but also by the prevailing ocean currents, which run in opposite directions.

DZS veterinary and bird department staff are taking blood samples from approximately 100 gentoo and rockhopper penguins for disease surveillance, stress hormones and toxicology testing. Not only will the information gathered provide us with a view of the current health status of the penguin colonies in those two areas, but the information also establishes a baseline level of data that will be valuable in the event of future hydrocarbon exploration.

Visiting these sites is logistically challenging – the trip from Detroit to Dunbar included four flights and more than 50 hours of travel time. Once in Dunbar, our staff were met by the expedition ship that sailed to the island nesting sites. Access to the internet is limited and we have only received preliminary reports back from the field team, but so far, the health assessment research is going well.

Stay tuned for detailed reports from the Falkland Islands field team.

– Tom Schneider is the curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Saving Seabirds in the Falkland Islands

On a recent conservation expedition to the Falkland Islands – the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) second in two years – I met with the governor of the islands and commissioner of the nearby South Georgia and South Sandwich islands, His Excellency Nigel Phillips CBE. We discussed the need and potential for penguin conservation work in the region, and the important role that the DZS can provide. Through our partnership with organizations such as Falklands Conservation (FC), which is working to conserve rockhopper, gentoo and king penguins – three species of penguins living in the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center – and other seabirds, we can not only provide financial support but also scientific expertise in the field. Additionally, we teach, engage and inspire millions of Detroit Zoo visitors about these incredible animals, their plight in the wild, and what people can do to help.

The Falkland Islands, located off the southern tip of South America, provide critical habitats for several species of penguins and other wildlife. However, threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism, and it is essential to establish marine protected areas and assess the impacts ecotourism brings. On our recent expedition with Falklands Conservation, we set out to monitor the population of penguins and other seabirds living on several islands off the easternmost coast of the Falklands – some which had never been visited and others that had not been visited for more than 10 years. The islands were close to the military port near Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, but rather remote, and landing on some of them was quite difficult because of the sea swells and cliff faces. In fact, we weren’t able to land at all on one of the islands called The Mot, and instead used a drone to effectively document the birds’ habitat.

We made some important observations on these excursions. As the sun went down during our drone visit to The Mot, we noted the return of hundreds of sooty shearwater birds returning to their burrows. Shearwaters are a threatened pelagic sea bird and an important indicator of well-managed fisheries, so documenting the location of a new colony was significant. We also documented the first records of Cobb’s wren on another island, which are ground nesting birds endemic to the Falkland Islands and important indicators that the land is free of rats and mice. These rodents have been introduced to many of the islands and have devastated populations of Cobb’s wren and other ground nesting birds. Additionally, we were heartened to see that the habitat at another island, Motley, has recovered tremendously from earlier sheep grazing. The plant life on this island was diverse with rare flowers such as yellow orchids and hairy daisies. Gentoo penguins were also observed at Motley, so it is possible and promising that a previously observed gentoo colony nearby is expanding.

The DZS hopes to establish a long-term project site at the Falklands to analyze the impact of ecotourism on penguin breeding, health and welfare. Tom Schneider, the DZS’s curator of birds, and I investigated several potential sites that have king and/or gentoo penguin colonies. We also had the opportunity to visit the Seabird Rehabilitation Facility, which was designed to accommodate small-scale wildlife rescue efforts, often involving oiled penguins. With increased oil development on the horizon, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The DZS has produced educational panels that will be displayed at the facility which detail its history, the impact of oil pollution on seabirds, the extensive process that goes into caring for oiled birds, and several success stories of birds who have recovered and been returned to the wild.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the field conservation officer for the Detroit Zoological Society, which leads and supports wildlife conservation work on six continents.

Notes from the Field: Penguin Conservation Work Begins in the Falklands

When I was told that more people have landed on the moon than on North Island in the Falklands, I was thrilled that I would be able to join those lucky few. Though it may be just a tiny speck on the map in the south Atlantic Ocean, the Falklands are a new horizon for penguin conservation.

Detroit Zoo penguin keeper Charlie Ramsey and I headed to this remote island for a December 2016 expedition on behalf of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) extensive worldwide wildlife conservation efforts. We joined officials from Falklands Conservation (FC) to conduct baseline population surveys of southern rockhopper penguins, black-browed albatross and other sea birds and wildlife on North Island and five other islands nearby that were recently acquired by FC.

The DZS has partnered with Falklands Conservation for several years, and with the recent opening of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center, working with this organization directly in the field was a natural next step. The Falklands are critically important for several species of penguins that are also found at the Detroit Zoo, such as rockhoppers, gentoo and king penguins – but threats are looming from oil extraction and increasing ecotourism. It is thus essential to establish marine protected areas, and the DZS is working with Falklands Conservation reach this goal.

To get to our destination, we first flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, then to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, where we hopped on a small six-person airplane to Weddell Island and then boarded the ship, Le Sourire, for a four-hour trip to the western edge of the Falklands. Over the calm seas, our journey was highlighted by dolphins playing in the ship’s wake, and as we approached North Island I could see why so few people had ever landed there. In addition to the sheer cliff faces, the only landing spot was occupied by sea lions. We had to scramble up the rock face and then work through thick tussock grass where the animals were resting. I had been warned not to get between sea lions and the ocean, and as they barreled down to the water after being disturbed, I could see why.

We safely arrived at the first penguin and albatross colony. In addition to gathering albatross fecal samples and penguin feathers for diet analyses, we also wanted to test how well a drone could be used for population surveys of the colonies. Charlie expertly flew the drone up to 275 yards high and at distances over 875 yards away, capturing incredible images of the colonies that were close enough to count individual birds and far enough away to see additional colonies over the whole island. The drone proved a very cost-efficient way to survey the island and shots of the cliff sides also helped the folks with Falklands Conservation to better appreciate how much they were being used by nesting birds.

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North Island was the focus of our expedition because it has not been grazed by sheep or cattle and remains relatively pristine. We also used the drone to assess the recovery of tussock grass on three other FC islands which varied greatly in condition. One had been only lightly grazed and tussock remained in dense stands as at North Island while the others were quite barren with tussock only starting to recover. Facilitating this recovery is one of the primary focuses of Falklands Conservation, and pictures from the drone will provide valuable metrics for comparison.

By the third day at sea, the weather had become more typical for the Falklands, with periods of relative calm interrupted by hail squalls. The rough seas prevented a return flight from Weddell Island so instead, we headed north to the ship owner’s farm near Dunbar. This proved fortuitous because the next day as the weather calmed a bit, we were able to observe two large colonies of gentoo penguins before the flight back to Stanley. We also had the opportunity to visit the rescue center which cares for oiled penguins. At the moment, the center only cares for a few penguins at a time but with increased oil development planned in the area, the number of oiled birds needing proper cleaning and rehabilitation is sure to increase. The Detroit Zoological Society is a leader in oil emergency responses, and with potential disasters looming in the Falklands, there may be opportunities for us to partner with FC in the future, using our training, experience and expertise in this area in addition to conducting further research.

– Paul Buzzard, Ph.D., is the Director of Conservation for the Detroit Zoological Society.