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: 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.