Thursday, January 5, 2012

Working in the Antarctic Peninsula

I am back in Ushuaia after a fantastic trip to the Peninsula.  I have a few hours in port before I need to be back on the ship for my next voyage and am sitting in a cafe taking advantage of internet access!  I wanted to take this opportunity to answer a few more questions from Mrs. Winder's class at Troy High School, in Troy, KS.  There questions focus on what exactly it is that I do in the Antarctic.

Zach asked: Are you by yourself when you are out collecting? Is it dangerous? No, I am not by myself while working in the Antarctic.  And no, it is not very dangerous.  The snow can be deep and the ice slick, but in general if you are careful it is a safe place to conduct research.  I am always with my Oceanites partner and we have radios and special "survival" kits just in case.

Taking a short break from counting penguins with my
Oceanites partner Paula.  
The major focus of Oceanites is the Antarctic Site Inventory; biological and physical data have been collected annually since 1994 for this project in the Antarctic Peninsula.  My job is to help conduct penguin population censuses, conduct presence/absence surveys of other fauna, photo-document new colonies and conduct lichen diversity surveys.  I will be working with a colleague from the University of Maryland while on board.  Paula is a PhD student at UMD who is studying lichen diversity in the Antarctic Peninsula.  

Handy penguin counter!
Each day Paula and I will visit a different set of penguin colonies to conduct our censuses.  We use a hand-held clicker counter to keep track of the penguins; we count nests at this time of year, so at least we don't have to follow moving targets!  To reduce our error rate in counting, we must count each group of nests 3 times and all counts must be within 5% of each other, or we have to do it again.  Later in the season the next Oceanites team on board will count chicks.  While counting we search for discarded eggshells and feathers laying around the colony that I will use for my mercury research.  We simply place each eggshell in a plastic bag in our backpacks and keep counting!  We do not collect whole eggs, if we find one that has rolled away and is full, we empty it out by cracking it on a rock.  The contents can be quite smelly! Which is why we don't bring it on the ship :o)  

We also conduct nest counts of blue-eyed shags and note the presence of any other bird species and seals at the site.  We photograph several lichens at each site as well for Paula's research.  We often have 2-3 hours to conduct our counts and need every minute as some sites have 1000's of penguin nests!

Michael asks: Do the penguins mind when you are around them picking up feathers and eggshells? Do they ever bite you? Ha! Good question!  In general, the penguins do not mind when we walk around them. 

Gentoo penguin with a newly hatched chick
They are very busy incubating their eggs and taking care of their chicks.  However, they will 'growl' or make alarm calls if you get too close, but very rarely do they get up off of their nests.  Non-breeders in the colonies are the ones to look out for, they have nothing to do but pick fights.  I have been 'charged' a time or two by these penguins.  Despite being less than 2 feet tall, they can bite very hard and hit even harder with their flippers.  Anyone who works around penguins has been bitten a time or two.  And yes, it hurts!

Counting Adelie penguin nests (ok, so this is a photo from
last good counting photos yet this year!)

We try our best not to disturb the penguins.  When counting we try to keep a few feet away, though sometimes we need to enter large colonies to get an accurate count.  We have special permits that allow us to do so.

Well, it is time to get back to the ship.  I am leaving in a few hours for the second trip of the season.  I am hopeful that we will get to some great sites and have good weather...and as always, here's hoping for a Drake Lake!

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Please feel free to post any questions and I will do my best to answer when I have internet access!