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: Seabird Research Reveals Impact of Ice Decline in Antarctica

Where to begin!? I recently returned from a six-week expedition to Antarctica, living and working at the U.S. Palmer Research Station to study the populations of penguins and other seabirds. I’m still in awe of the whole experience.

Palmer Station is the base for a long-term ecological research program, where scientists are studying all aspects of the Antarctic ecosystem. The fieldwork conducted there through the Polar Oceans Research Group has been ongoing for 40 years, resulting in the collection of a lot of data. While scientists have determined that the climate is severely warming and affecting all regions in the world, the greatest effects are seen in Antarctica. Declining sea ice levels are negatively impacting many species of wildlife that depend on it.

Sea ice is crucial to the Antarctic ecosystem, and its loss can have profound effects. One example of this can be found by examining a small crustacean called krill. This animal feeds on the algae that grows underneath the ice and is a primary staple in the diets of many species, including penguins. Declining sea ice means fewer krill, which means less food for the fish that eat them and as a result, a depleted food supply for penguins and the rest of the food chain.

Sea ice losses can occur from both warmer air above it and warmer water below, and increased air and water temperatures means more snow. This makes it difficult for penguins to build their nests and when the snow melts, the nests are at risk of flooding and these birds may find their eggs floating in puddles.

Upon my arrival at Palmer Station, we began conducting a breeding chronology study with two colonies of Adélie penguins on two local islands. We selected a few nests to observe throughout the season – our observations included periods of birds laying their eggs, the chicks hatching, and the chicks heading off on their own. These nests were monitored daily for predation and for the exact dates of chicks hatching. We also chose nests to be assessed for body condition and egg morphometric data. We took measurements and weights of birds and eggs to obtain a sampling data size of a larger population.

As part of another aspect of the program, we counted the number of individual birds in colonies of Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. One island was home to 6,000 gentoo penguins! Boy, did my thumb hurt that day from using a clicker counter. Unfortunately, most Adélie colonies were in decline from recent years’ data while gentoo numbers were increasing. One of the reasons for this is Adélie penguins rely more on sea ice than gentoos for feeding.

The sea bird program not only involves the study of penguins, but also every other species of bird surrounding Palmer Station, including giant petrels, brown and south polar skuas and kelp gulls. These species were monitored in various ways including mark-recapture, leg band re-sights and nest observation. We even deployed satellite transmitters on southern giant petrels – the data from the first transmitter we analyzed showed that the bird had traveled 1,500 miles in just 10 days!

In addition to bird surveying, we were asked to conduct a marine mammal census by identifying species, behaviors and group size. As a seal keeper, seeing various seal species in the wild was just beyond anything I could have imagined – Antarctica is home to crabeater seals, weddell seals, ross seals, elephant seals, fur seals and the infamous – and dangerous – leopard seals.

The Detroit Zoological Society has worked with the Polar Oceans Research Group for a number of years – its founder, the world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, was a consultant on the design of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. This is the second time a member of our animal care team has been invited to take part in this rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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: Conducting Scientific Research in Antarctica

Hello from the bottom of the world!

As a zookeeper who spends a lot of my time in an “arctic” environment in the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to find myself on either pole and yet, here I am in Antarctica. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is engaged in ongoing field conservation work here alongside the Polar Oceans Research Group, studying the populations of penguins and other seabirds. As part of this project, I joined the team at the U.S. Palmer Research Station on the Antarctic peninsula to live and work for a month during the austral summer.

The route from Detroit is through Punta Arenas, Chile and then aboard the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker supply ship for a four-day ride across the rough seas of the Drake Passage. It was well worth it as we passed icebergs and whales along the way. Other passengers on the ship included biologists, a welder, an artist, IT personnel and others who had various goals once they reached the White Continent. The DZS’s mission for the next month is to take part in a three-person team involved in a long-term ecological research project studying Antarctic seabirds.

Weather permitting, we spend each day taking small boat rides to various islands to conduct as much fieldwork as the conditions will allow. This includes counting various species of birds and marine mammals, attempting to read ID band numbers (placed by biologists on birds’ legs to be able to keep track of age and location over the years) and adding GPS tags to different animals to monitor their movement.

The animals here are so removed from human activity that some species can actually be approached very closely by researchers and not fly away. All of this work is coordinated by the principal investigators and founders of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Dr. Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson-Fraser. Dr. Fraser is a well-respected polar ecologist and consulted on the design of the Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

Our research is indicating how populations of seabirds are being altered as a result of the changing climate. For example, adélie penguin populations have declined 80 percent in the area near Palmer Station, while more ice-independent species are moving into the area, such as gentoo penguins (one of four species of penguin who live at the Zoo). I’m so grateful to be here representing the Detroit Zoological Society and studying these incredible wildlife species alongside brilliant biologists.

– Flo Yates is a zookeeper for the Detroit Zoological Society who is taking part in a rare and extraordinary opportunity to conduct scientific research in Antarctica during the austral summer.

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.

Habitat Expansions Benefit Animal Welfare

You may have noticed some changes at the Detroit Zoo recently, with construction occurring at many animal habitats. We recently unveiled the expansion of the Edward Mardigian Sr. River Otter Habitat, which tripled the outdoor space available to the North American river otters, complete with a flowing stream and a sandy beach. We’ve also been working on improving the giraffe habitat by adding much needed additional outdoor space and doubling the size of the indoor area. This past spring, Homer the Hoffman’s two-toed sloth moved to newly remodeled digs near the rhinos, and we’re currently renovating his former home in the National Amphibian Conservation Center to provide a more spacious habitat for the Japanese giant salamanders.

Sometimes, as was the case with the Polk Penguin Conservation Center and the Cotton Family Wolf Wilderness, we have the ability to design and build new habitats from the ground up. In other instances, we are able to take habitats that already contain many features that benefit the animals and expand upon them to provide even more space and complexity. In both situations, we begin with the knowledge we have about individual animals and how they interact with their environments.

For example, we know that otters are semi-aquatic. Staff at the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare have observed the animals engaged in a variety of water-related behaviors. When it came time to design the expansion of their habitat, it was very important that we incorporate features that would enable them to enjoy the water even more. It’s easy to see how much time they spend in the new stream, now making the most of both deep and shallow areas of water. And the island portion of the habitat enhances their opportunities to interact with various substrates and amplifies the overall complexity of their space.

As we move forward, we will continue to improve the habitats we provide for the animals that call the Detroit Zoo home, ensuring that they are stimulating and naturalistic. We are always a work in progress, keeping the welfare of the animals as our top priority. Up next are the tigers and several species of reptiles in the Holden Reptile Conservation Center. As we continue to learn about and understand the needs of the animals in our care – both the individuals and the species – we can make better choices that result in great spaces for them to live in.

– Dr. Stephanie Allard is the director of animal welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare.

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.