Sunday, December 18, 2011

Counting penguins (December 13, 2011)


Sailing north through the Gerlache Strait we have colonies around the Arctowski Peninsula in our plans for today.  Seeking cover from 30+ knot winds and blowing snow, the ship made its way into Orne Harbor to seek shelter and investigate the chances of making a landing.  Lucky for us, Orne Harbor provided just the right amount of protection from the wind to allow all passengers to disembark and make the steep climb up Spigot Peak.  The snow continued to blow and fall heavy at times as we climbed up to census a chinstrap penguin colony.  Chinstrap penguins are in particular know for their climbing abilities and propensity to nest on cliff peaks and steep hills.  While these penguins were nesting on bare rock only a few days ago, this morning we arrived to find the incubating penguins buried in the snow…and sometimes quite deep! Not seeming to mind the snow, the birds were diligent in their incubation duties and appeared quick cozy in their snow blankets.

Chinstrap penguin buried in snow on its nest

Chinstrap penguin colony at Spigot Peak

I feel like this is a good time to answer a question sent to me from Izak in Mrs. Winder’s Class at Troy High School.  Izak asked: What is the weather like and how do you dress for it?  We have been incredibly fortunate to have FANTASTIC weather this trip.  We have had clear skies for the majority of everyday with a few snow showers here and there.  The temperature has likely been right around freezing, but with the sun shining it feels much warmer.  Hiking to all of the penguin colonies also keeps me plenty warm!  While I am often quite comfortable in all of my gear (base layers on top and bottom, waterproof snow pants, silk sock liners and mid-weight wool socks, insulated rubber boots, a fleece pull-over, a light-weight down jacket (synthetic filler), and a Gore-tex jacket…plus a hat, gloves, and sunglasses), it can still be chilly here when it snows!  
video

An example of the lichen photos that we take as part of a biodiversity
study in the Antarctic Peninsula.
In the afternoon we moved just south through the Errera Channel for the passengers on the ship to visit Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest Gentoo penguin colonies in the peninsula (approximately 6,000 pairs nest on this small island).  As Paula had just visited Cuverville, we traveled by Zodiac across the channel to Ronje Island to count penguins at George’s Point.  This site has approximately 2,400 pairs of Gentoo penguins and around 200 pairs of Chinstrap penguins.  It took us about 2.5 hours to count all of the nests at this site as they are quite spread out.  We collected feathers and eggshells and photographed lichens for Paula’s research on the biogeography of the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Most penguins in this region of the Antarctic Peninsula are just now starting to lay their eggs (it varies from site to site with sites further south starting later).  While many Gentoo penguins have laid both of their eggs, birds at some sites just laid the first of their two eggs while others are what we affectionately call “partying” and should lay their eggs soon.  (Penguin partying can be defined as sitting in one’s nest without any eggs, making a nest, stealing pebbles from your neighbor’s nest, searching for a mate, aggressively defending your future nesting site from intruders, and taking long walks on the beach with your other single friends.) All of the Chinstrap penguins we counted were already incubating both of their eggs.  For the second day in a row we were able to census penguins and collect samples at two separate locations—over the past two days my Oceanites partner Paula and I have counted over 6,000 pairs of penguins! 
Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbor
A very happy camper, after a long day of penguin counting, watching the sun set from Danco Island.

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