Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » David Ainley Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 A Tale of Two Cities Wed, 11 Feb 2009 00:55:34 +0000 David Ainley ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– In this land (Antarctica) and an ocean far away (to most of you), but not long ago (in the past weeks or so), a scenario was played out that in days long past may once have happened, in fact, near by to where you are, but involving penguin cousins.

Of what I speak is a seabird colony existing where the marine ecosystem has not been subject to wide-scale pollution from agricultural and civic runoff, fish depletion, introductions of alien species, harmful plankton blooms (“red tides”) and lots of other things that currently ravage most marine ecosystems of the “civilized” world. I speak of the Ross Sea, the last ocean on Earth where seabirds are capable of being too successful in their breeding. Hmmmm, yes, you heard me right. That is a statement that should give you pause for contemplation, and refers to a concept foreign to most marine ecologists. And what could I possibly mean by this? How can a colony of seabirds ever be too successful?

If you’ve been following my previous dispatches to Ice Stories for this recent Antarctic summer, one was called “Royds Tranquility” and another was “Beaufort Chaos”. In those I reported on the contrast between the Royds penguin colony (one “city” in this story, 2000 penguin pairs) and the more populous colony at Beaufort Island, the other city (60,000 pairs). The Royds colony was very quiet but at the time miserably failing owing to the 70 km walks that most parents were making to find the ocean and food…and 70 km back. The extent of fast ice was very unusual owing to very calm winds last winter and spring. Other than birds attempting to remain resolute on their nests, no others were present. Deserted eggs were everywhere, as more and more adult penguins giving up and going off to feed, their mates choosing not to return.

At Beaufort Island, where the ocean was at the penguins’ doorstep, just a short skip away, penguins were coming and going in multitudes, and because many nested in suboptimal habitat– being forced to do so because the good spaces had all been taken– some were losing their eggs too. But there were huge numbers of eggs still under other parents, being warmly incubated. In addition, due to a short journey from wintering areas just before nesting, all colonies, Royds included, began the season with their respective breeding populations at maximum, i.e. above normal. “Everybody”, it seems, attempted to nest! [If you’ve not read the earlier dispatches, perhaps do so before proceeding further in this one.]

About 40 km to the east of Beaufort, the colony at Cape Crozier was in a similar state to Beaufort: maximum proportion of a large colony, twice the size of even Beaufort (150,000 pairs), attempting to breed. Well, we could not follow up at Beaufort (couldn’t get there at the end of the season) but did have the opportunity in regard to Crozier. I think the stories for both Beaufort and Crozier were pretty much the same, although, being smaller, likely Beaufort didn’t have quite the problem experienced at Crozier.

At all our penguin colonies, there are the “super breeders” who almost always produce young– despite conditions– and then there are the “other” penguins. Mainly the super breeders have learned, through experience, about the vagaries of factors that penguins need to know about. This involves just 25% of the population, or thereabouts; the remainder of penguins almost always fail unless conditions are really easy. This season, the super breeders came front and center at Royds. Not only did they successfully hatch their eggs (unlike the klutzes) but also raised the maximum of two chicks. Therefore, even though 75% of nests failed, the total average chick production of the colony was 0.6 chicks per nest, which isn’t all that bad, given that in good years, an average 0.9 chicks are produced among all nests in which eggs are laid.

What these super breeders had figured out was that they could feed through narrow cracks in the ice and not walk all the way to the open ocean. Then, the ice opened into a polynya [patch of open water in the ice] off Royds, as I described in the “Minke Friends” dispatch. From then on, foraging was easy and the Royds chicks ballooned to become heavier than even last season, averaging around 3800 grams by the time they were 6-7 weeks old and within a week or so of fledging. That’s BIG for an Adélie penguin chick! As is the usual, the Royds chicks didn’t form crèches [groups of penguin chicks] because almost all the time, at least one parent was present to protect them.

Below are two images of Royds, taken on 17 January 2009, showing all the adults present. The reason that there are an equal number or more chicks than adults is because most chicks had a sibling…so two chicks for every successful nest.

Chicks and adults at Royds.

Penguin adults and chicks at Cape Royds, Antarctica.

So now, what about the other penguin city, the one at Crozier (standing in for Beaufort in this tale)? At Crozier, not only did a maximum number of birds attempt to breed, but almost all successfully hatched their eggs. This was because initially finding food was easy, as long as a parent only had its own mouth to feed. Not long after peak hatching, though, the parents began to make longer and longer foraging trips as they depleted food nearby. Of course these seabirds had help from whales and fish in this consumption, unlike the case for any other place in the World Ocean.

Chicks at first did ok, but once they reached the age of maximum growth rate, around 3 weeks of age, troubles began for Crozier. Eventually, parents’ trips reached three days long and less food was returned as some was digested on the trip back (these penguins hold the food in their stomachs, and then regurgitate it to their chicks — see previous dispatch — and once that cold wad begins to heat up in the parents’ stomach, it begins to digest, a common occurrence when the trip back to the colony is more than a day long). Well, basically the chicks at Crozier, though reaching appropriate size (height) for their age, became way under weight. At week 7 they were more than 1 kilogram (1000 g) lighter than Royds birds, and their feather development was halted. In fact, average weight was lower than we’d ever measured it at Crozier. Many chicks began to die of starvation. There were just way too many of them to be fed with the result that almost all were under-fed. In fact, breeding “success” at Crozier was 1.0 chicks crèched per original nest (it’s usually no better than 0.9). Wow! That’s a lot of chicks when you consider there were 150,000 nests to begin with.

Looking to the immediate future, it would seem that the chances for eventual survival of the Crozier chicks is close to zero, quite in contrast to the fat, vigorous but many fewer chicks at Royds. The Royds chicks should have a great chance for survival.

Below are images from Cape Crozier taken on 20 January. The contrast with Royds is dramatic, as almost no adults are present, even though the chicks are just a few days older than those shown in the images above from Royds. Sad.

Cape Crozier chicks with few adults in sight.

Cape Crozier chicks with few adults in sight.

Here you can see lots of chick carcasses. These chicks, unfortunately, have died of starvation. Also sad.

Crozier chicks and carcasses.

So, this is all pretty amazing, but we had to go through the entire season to see how things played out, and flip-flopped Royds vs Crozier. In the last several seasons (2001-2005), we witnessed somewhat similar events at Crozier, but chalked it up to effects of the big icebergs that were present then. The icebergs occupied a large portion of the Crozier colony’s foraging area.

Those icebergs have been gone now for two seasons. So, we have to consider other ideas to explain what is going on now. Perhaps, it seems, Cape Crozier has grown too large!! This rarely could happen to a seabird colony elsewhere in the world. Mostly this is so, because the population is kept low by pollution, toxic die-offs, invasions of feral animals or other type events; or breeding success is low owing to difficulty in finding food early in the season (over-fishing). In some warmer-water colonies of seabirds, where the environment allows the population to be present year round, a portion of large populations may just hang out in waters nearby and not participate in breeding. That doesn’t seem to be an option for migratory seabirds nor for seabirds that live in extreme environments, in both cases like is the case for Adélie penguins.

Well, ok, it was a very “educational” season for us, as are many. To complete our education, though, we have to be present in 4-5 seasons hence to tally the winners and losers among the penguin cities. That’s because young Adélie penguins spend their first years at sea and don’t visit the colonies.

For this season we are done, and here is what our camp at Cape Royds now will look like through the winter darkness. (See dispatch, “So, You Want to Be a Penguin Researcher?” for a view of the camp all set up.) In a couple of months you’ll need a flashlight to see this, our camp in a small box….well, a slightly large one.

Our camp.
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Penguins’ Best Friends Are Minke Whales Thu, 15 Jan 2009 02:03:12 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ANTARCTICA– I’m sure Inuits have a name for it, but otherwise it’s the fizzing sound as great expanses of ice dissolve so rapidly that any air still between its spaces or molecules is released into the atmosphere.

We heard that sound again two days ago at Cape Royds, having heard it before in January 2005, when a several square kilometer opening appeared in the fast ice just offshore in a matter of hours. The ice was dissolving, or would we call it melting?, and it was happening so fast that you could see it disappearing without even needing your imagination to be going overtime. It’s kind of like putting an ice cube in a cup of boiling tea water to watch it disappear; only here the water is just a degree above freezing. That’s plenty warm as ice goes. In 2005 the fast ice was thinner, so it went from white ice to blue water; this year it was much thicker, so for a couple of weeks it slowly turned darker shades of gray, as it took on more water. Then, fzzzzzzz.

Otherwise, except for this new patch of open water within the ice, called a polynya (a Russian word; without a doubt the Inuits have a name for this, too), there is still fast ice to the horizon as I have described in various of my previous dispatches.

The Swedish icebreaker Oden going south, very slowly, through the ice a few kilometers out in McMurdo Sound, while a polynya begins to form next to Cape Royds.

The south ‘shore’ of the polynya, the day after it initially formed, showing proximity to the Cape Royds penguin colony (tan area on left side of image). The polynya is to the right, beginning to dissolve the gray ice in the center of the image.

In fact, in the Arctic, Inuit villages — and, for that matter, seabird colonies — are located near to polynyas. And, wouldn’t you know, so are penguin colonies, although at the opposite end of the Earth. This is because polynyas allow these predators much easier access to their food. Normally, McMurdo Sound is one big polynya, and the penguins are here at Royds because of it. As I’ve been making the point in previous dispatches, the Royds penguins have been having a hard time of it this season, because their polynya didn’t form, owing to calm winds which allowed the ice to thicken until not even the strongest winds could blow it away. So, they’ve had a very long walk to get food. That is, up until a few weeks ago, when the few remaining penguins still having chicks were provided a large crack to feed in, just 4-5 km north of the colony. Now they’ve got a full-fledged, mini-polynya and all is right in the World!

Well, just like in 2005, within a day of the polynya forming, a couple of minke whales showed up in it! Where they came from, I’m not sure, but they may have followed the Oden into the ice (35 km from the fast ice edge), and then pealed off when a crack that intersected the icebreaker channel allowed them to get to the Cape Royds polynya. Maybe they heard it fizzing! Or the sounds of joyful penguins!

The minke whales, for several hours, cruised around the polynya feeding all the time. They’d submerge for 6-8 min at a time and likely were like big “Hoovers”, i.e. vacuum cleaners. Between dives, they exhaled (i.e. whale “blows”) 4-5 times, clearly audible in the still air from a kilometer away. Within a couple of hours after the whales’ arrival, the penguins’ diet switched from krill to fish. I’d been monitoring it by watching what passes between adult and chick everyday for the past few weeks. Wow! I knew that the whales could do this to the penguins, but I didn’t realize that the whales were so efficient! Not long after the whales left (they’ve not been seen for about 24 hours now) the penguins’ diet switched back to krill. Therefore, this is pretty good evidence for what we call “interference competition”. The whales certainly eat a lot but also their vacuuming causes the krill to try to escape, of course. And what krill do when being pursued, if they can, is to dive deeper and, it seems, deeper than penguins want to go, especially when there are enough fish to be had at shallower depths, though apparently not in a density that in this case would interest a minke looking for easy pickings. If the whales had vacuumed all the krill, when they left, there would be no food for the penguins. As it was, the krill ventured back up into the light (where the phytoplankton occurs that the krill eat), to then be caught by the penguins again. Both whales and penguins go for the easy meal, i.e. that nearest the surface.

Parent feeding its chick. With binoculars, if you get the right angle, usually it is possible to determine whether krill (pink) or fish (gray) is being fed to the chick.

Well, so, you’d think that maybe whales are an annoyance to Adélie penguins. As it turns out, though, minke whales are life savers! Adélie penguins, if given a choice, would always want to have minke whales around, despite the whales’ appetite and despite the best (?) efforts of the Japanese whalers. You see, minke whales — because, like Adélie penguins, they are pack ice denizens — have evolved a very long and sharp “beak”. When you see the whales in areas were the sea is freezing, it becomes quickly obvious why this is a good thing. The whales use their rostrum to break breathing holes in the new ice.

This ice is thick enough that penguins walk over it. With the whales around, though, the penguins can swim between whale breathing holes much faster than walking. In fact, several years ago, when on an icebreaker at the time of ice freeze-up in the Amundsen Sea, one day there were whales and penguins swimming around, and then the next day, with a dramatic drop in temperature and a freeze, there were whale holes but no whales or penguins. Together, they had escaped north far enough to move away from the area of freezing.

A minke whale pushing up through recently frozen sea ice, the ice around it being 4-5 cm thick.

All but one of these penguins found a hole left by a minke whale; the next whale breathing hole is just behind the lone penguin and this flock of penguins is next going to appear in that hole.

These penguins are not walking on frosted glass. They are walking on ice thick enough to support their weight, but not thick enough that a minke whale could not break a hole.

It is good for Adélie penguins to have as many minke whales around as possible. This one, like the pied piper, is making a “channel” through new ice, soon to be followed by a flock (school?) of penguins, who would much rather swim than walk.

Penguins need whales, especially minke whales, as friends.

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Creative Parenting by Penguins Wed, 31 Dec 2008 17:54:54 +0000 David Ainley big icebergs...]]> CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– The penguins at Cape Royds have been challenged in recent years by widely varying extremes of conditions, mostly having to do with how far they have to walk between colony and ocean. That’s a very big deal for them. With the arrival of the big icebergs to this corner of the Ross Sea in 2001, the Royds penguins have experienced 5 years out of 8 in which their walk has been daunting. During egg laying in those five years they had a walk of 70 km. This was after migrating from their wintering area about 1000 km away.

One result was that the coordination and synchrony of birds with their former maters was thrown out of whack, one bird often arriving much later than the other. It’s not that this sort of condition is new to Adélie penguins, as they are pack ice creatures by choice. In a way, they are ‘used’ to it, sort of (the vagaries of pack ice that is).

When a male penguin arrives and his former mate is late (or doesn’t arrive at all), usually he has some difficulty in finding a new partner. In many cases, he goes the entire spring and summer trying to attract a new one and establish a pair bond. In the case of females, she’ll begin to look for an unattached male after waiting a few days, mateless. The mortality of females is higher, and so there is a surplus of males; easier pickings for females. In the vast majority of pairs, unless they are lost, the laying of eggs and tending of chicks occurs without fanfare: the members of the pair alternate duties equally to raise their chicks.

This is how a pair begins. Lots of bowing to assure the prospective partner that all is good!

Well, as a bit of a related aside, in my interview with Werner Herzog for his film “Encounters at the End of the World” a year or two ago (yes, you should see the movie, came out earlier this year), he tried to get me to talk about deviant or maladaptive behavior in penguins. I really didn’t know why he persisted in asking me these questions (later I found out it had to do with a penguin that wandered into their camp at the base of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, sort of lost) and I deflected his questioning pretty well (?).

He wanted me to talk about gay penguins…heck, why not, I’m sure there are some of those. There’s that lovely story about the penguins in the Bronx Zoo, Tango Makes Three, banned by some immoral (or at least unauthorized) persons who were put off by what they viewed to be deviant behavior. And then he asked questions about other sorts of things, like prostitution. The latter happens when a devious female (not deviant) gains access to a male’s nest, by being totally submissive, and then makes off with one of his rocks. A researcher published a short note about this several years ago, and of course this made the front page of the London Times. Right, sells newspapers!

Here’s a male (on left) who is not convinced this female is sincere about her intentions.

In any case, check out the following histories. The first was last season, when owing to lots of wind, the pack ice was very extensive during the winter and many penguins had a super long trek to make in the spring. Many arrived later than they should. What to do if you’re a female and your mate is nowhere to be found upon arriving at Cape Royds? Well, one female attracted a young, mateless male (Band # 04163) to her nest. They paired, and she laid eggs and then departed, as females are supposed to do. Well, a few days later the female’s mate of the previous year apparently returned, kicked #04163 off the nest, and of course the eggs, in the process. #04163 moped around for a week. The female came back and, of course, associated with her old mate. #04163 moped some more and then left. This past season, he showed up again and attracted a female (the one of the previous season?), who laid eggs, and on they went for quite a while (eventually skuas stole the eggs). Hmmm.

A penguin alone on its nest, but with whose eggs?

This season, without much wind during winter, the large-scale pack ice was not extensive and so wintering areas were closer than usual. Many birds arrived a week earlier than in the past since they had a much shorter distance to travel. In one case, female #02985 arrived much later than her mate, paired with another male, and quickly laid eggs. That mate, having been around a while, then left first but returned in 7 days, just in time. Off she went, but then this male’s former partner arrived and began tending the nest and eggs. Eventually, #02985 came back, very late owing to that 70 km walk, and found herself without a nest. The two formerly paired birds currently are raising two, somewhat adopted young. #02985 is pacing around, dejected.

A similar scenario happened, this time with another female banded penguin, #03809. She paired, apparently with a new partner, laid eggs and off she went. Same sort of thing happened. She eventually came back, again after a longer than usual trip, to find a stranger on the nest. Well, she somehow managed to sit on the eggs for two days, but then other bird came back and displaced her. So, she’s looking on from a spot above the nest in question.

A loving parent, regardless of who was responsible for adding the egg (and ultimately the chick) to the nest.

So, there you have this deviant behavior in penguins. Of course, the really ‘deviant’ behavior (but which I’m sure would not pass as immoral to many people) are the males who come back late to find their ‘homes’ occupied, and then blast the occupants off the property, eggs and/or chicks to boot. You know, protecting one’s home is allowed and is the ‘first’ rule (according to certain national leaders of ours). Then they strut around, collecting rocks to make their castle, friendless and at least for awhile, mateless.

So, you see, penguins are just like people.

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Royds Tranquility Fri, 12 Dec 2008 23:00:52 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– First time this has happened, but I was sitting today for a spell just to watch the penguins here at Cape Royds and the only sound was that of the blood going through my ears. Not a sound was coming from the 2000 or so penguins arrayed before me. Then I heard a skua call, and then a penguin sneezed. These penguins are “zoned”! or Zened! This is quite the opposite of the chaos I found at Beaufort Island, the subject of my last report. What a contrast!

A tranquil scene at Cape Royds: penguins quietly sitting on eggs, dreaming of food, 65 km away. But, tranquility sometimes can be deceptive. Kind of like the Western Movie where one guy says, “Its quiet out there, isn’t it?” And Tex says, “Yes, too quiet!” Then a big shooting battle starts.

The colony has certainly been quiet, with very few birds coming in or going out to sea. In my first dispatch of the season (“The Early Returns”) I detailed the fast ice situation: a continual sheet of ice out to beyond the horizon. Its edge at the open water is about 60 km away now; at the beginning of the season it was at 75 km. Walking about 2-3 km/hour that distance adds 30 hours to a trip, not counting times for resting or checking that there are no leopard seals at any wide cracks along the way. I can recall seeing 3 cracks on trips that we’ve flown out to Beaufort. Penguins can wait at these for hours to make sure nothing nasty lurks in those black waters in the channel between the white ice.

The penguin pairs are well coordinated in their schedules but there is very little cushion for major delays. Adding a day or two to a trip can spell disaster to the bird on the nest who is dreaming of a fish or krill dinner. Well, it’s a disaster for both members of the pair! In fact, this season has been a disaster so far for many. I’ve been keeping track of 38 nests of banded, known-age birds since early Nov. As of today (12 Dec), 55% of nests in which eggs were laid have failed. Each nest started with one or two eggs, plus of course the incubating bird. Such a loss rate means that lots of birds incubating the eggs waited way past comfort…stomach growling…and finally had to leave. Males are prepared to sit for two weeks or a bit more while taking the first turn at incubation. They can lose 30% of their body weight or more awaiting their mate to return.

Here is a penguin that can not wait a minute longer. He has been staunchly taking care of these eggs for 3 weeks, and now it is time to eat. His mate is no where to be seen, but he’s got to go. That’s the way it’s been so far this season, males taking very long first responsibility on the nest while the females search for food in order to be able to sit for weeks when she arrives back.

Sometimes skuas can intimidate penguins to leave. The skuas just sit there staring at the penguin for hours, just out of pecking range. The penguin can’t take it any more. Or, sometimes one skua pesters the penguin by pulling its tail, and then the other grabs the egg when the penguin reaches back to peck the tail-pulling skua.

A few weeks ago there would have been 25 nests in the foreground of this view. Now there are 13 and all are vulnerable to skua staring as there is space free of penguins around every nest. Neighbors are needed to guard one another’s flanks.

A fine meal for a skua, offered by a penguin who had to go in search for its own food.

You can see the result of many birds having given up: broken eggs everywhere. This is quite different from Beaufort (see last dispatch). These nests didn’t roll out of poorly built nests…just look at all the rocks in these nests. These eggs were left by the penguins, and the skuas then arrived to eat them.

Well, so, things are looking kind of bleak at Royds this season, certainly a stark contrast to the ‘happy’ chaos of the Beaufort Island colony and a stark contrast to last season at Royds!!! Many, many 10’s of thousands of chicks will be produced there at Beaufort, in spite of the seeming chaos. What’s with this global climate change? They said it should be getting windier in these parts, and the wind would blow the ice away. I think they also said the weather would be getting more unpredictable and more wildly varying. I guess they got that part right! Kind of sad, though. Gotten rid of your gas guzzler yet?

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Beaufort Chaos Fri, 12 Dec 2008 04:02:14 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– We’ve made three trips, by helicopter, to Beaufort Island this season. Usually we can’t do this until the end of the season, because the McMurdo helos don’t fly over open water and a ship is not available until the end. It’s a 40 minute helo ride and a 6 hour boat ride. This year, though, fast ice extends out to Beaufort, so we can go by helo. Perhaps I’ll report on the Beaufort boat ride later, but maybe not, because the fast ice is so extensive and thick, the icebreaker likely won’t be available for us to make the trip. It will be breaking ice so that a cargo ship can resupply McMurdo Station.

The reason we go to Beaufort is that it appears to be the true “penguin pump” in this cluster of colonies in the southern Ross Sea. We want to confirm this. The colony at Cape Crozier produces lots of chicks, like Beaufort, but it has a huge area for expansion, if the penguins are up to that. Mostly they are not, because more and more penguins in one area leads to more competition for food in nearby waters. To avoid that, young Crozier penguins might want to find a territory elsewhere, or not, like at Cape Bird.

The Beaufort colony also regularly produces a lot of chicks, but until recently there was no room for the young prebreeders that result from that to find a spot, except in very poor habitat (see below). That’s why young Crozier birds didn’t want to move there either. The Beaufort breeding area has been hemmed in by vertical cliffs behind, and open ocean the other way. Penguins would be everywhere where they possibly could be, wall-to-wall so to speak. Penguins that didn’t want to tussle for a spot definitely would show up elsewhere like Cape Royds: lots of space there and no competition for food. We know this because we’ve been making the icebreaker trips almost every year since 1996 in order to band a bunch of chicks at Beaufort. In later years, we see these banded birds at Beaufort but in disproportionate numbers we see them at the other colonies, too…until recently.

Beaufort, 2001.

Here’s a shot of Beaufort from the air taken in 2001; west is towards the background. You can see the ‘shelf’ of gravel on which the colony nestles, hemmed in by precipitous cliffs in the back, snow fields to the west, and the ocean. Penguins are everywhere that there is level ground and no ice (there are about 60,000 nests crammed into this area). The west end of the colony is hemmed in by ice fields (see next photo).

Yes, disproportionate numbers of penguins raised at Beaufort have been going elsewhere until a few years ago when global climate change began to kick in around here. Then, with slightly warmer temperatures the snow and ice fields on Beaufort began to rapidly retreat [sound familiar? Hey, I drove up to see Glacier National Park this past summer to see the glaciers before they are gone….maybe by 2015 they say.] This warming caused the ice to retreat at Beaufort also, thus exposing lots of terrain with lots of small pebbles, ideal for nests.

A new breeding area at Beaufort.

Here is a picture of penguins setting up territories at the west periphery of the colony that until recently, 2001 (see aerial Beaufort photo) was covered (probably for the last 20,000 years) by snow and ice. These penguins were not here in 2001. So, you see, that bad-ee, Global Climate Change, can be “good” sometimes!

Well, there are so many penguins trying to find a nest at Beaufort, and so little space and not enough rocks, that, actually, Global Climate Change is not happening fast enough!! As a result, many penguins are nesting in suboptimal habitat and more than likely they will lose their nests and its eggs. This will force them to be more prudent next season. Either they will set up nests at the west end of Beaufort (see photo above)…the most likely….or many will seek out places like Cape Royds, where lots of stones are to be had along with lots of space (and usually open water; see next blog dispatch).

With stones in short supply, some penguins turn to nesting in guano (penguin poop).

These penguins are nesting in scoops in the guano with almost no stones. All of the stones have been used up by other penguins! More than likely their eggs will roll out of the nest and, in fact, on our next visit following this one, we found eggs EVERYWHERE.

With an insufficient number of rocks holding a nest together, penguins’ eggs roll out and are lost.

There are well over 30 whole eggs in this picture that have rolled out of nests. There simply were not enough rocks for the penguins to build the protective “basket” to hold them.

Still lots of nests had eggs but lots had rolled away– so many that the skuas had too many to eat! The other thing that happens when a penguin has a scoop but no stones, is that it fills up with water. That’s bad for eggs and chicks.

Penguins with drowned nests.

Here are penguins who built nests, and laid eggs, in a depression that initially was dry but now is filled with melt water. There was no room for them on high ground. Yes, there are eggs underneath these birds!! This is a demonstration of how staunch penguins are, in spite of adversity. They won’t give up until the conditions become impossible. These are impossible conditions, and yes, these penguins gave up!

Ill-fated nests.

Here are a bunch of penguins that have built their nests on a nice sandy beach (above). How idyllic! It’s the kind of place that people would hang out; all we need are some palm trees. However, when all that ice in the background eventually melts later in the summer, then the sea is going to come pouring in, waves crashing, to wash the penguins’ feet, but also their eggs and chicks, too. These penguins, too, next season will be looking elsewhere for making a nest!

So you see, and I know you’ve been told this before, Nature works in strange ways. It takes some adversity to convince penguins, and people, to alter their behavior…that is, to stay in higher or safer ground!!!! This is going to be the same for people beginning very soon, as global climate change REALLY gets going. I hear that insurance companies no longer are insuring houses on the US Gulf Coast, owing to increasing numbers of hurricanes and rising sea level. See, if the insurance companies can’t afford this, neither can the rest of us. Where are all those Floridians going to be living? In Georgia, I guess. Penguin Insurance Companies, to stay in business, would not insure these penguins’ homes shown above. (Penguins don’t get government bailouts for bad decisions.)

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So, You Want to Be a Penguin Researcher? Tue, 02 Dec 2008 18:14:14 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– What is required? I’ve been asked many a time.

Well, there is the usual sort of thing, like learning as much as possible in school about science and math, getting a good understanding about how the universe works, including the process of evolution. Then, it’s good, but not necessarily necessary, that you go to graduate school to rub elbows with people who have done research.

Anyone can be a scientist, really. In fact, ‘science’ is basically just a way of looking at things. In science, when you see some pattern out there in nature, or in a test tube, or through a telescope or a microscope, you formulate a preliminary explanation of what you see (which is called a hypothesis). Then, you try to be clever to find ways to DISPROVE your idea. If your explanation can withstand your testing, then you’re probably onto something.

On the other hand, if you are not a person thinking in a scientific way, then you just have an idea about something that strikes you as cool, and maybe you write a poem about it or paint a picture, or just continue to think it to be cool. Truly, there are ways of seeing things that are valid even if you are not being scientific. I’m not talking here about religion, or about morals, these two not necessarily being the same thing. I’m a scientist but I am also religious: I feel the vast and great forces of Nature all around me, and I’m awed and feel insignificant.

For a scientist, the cool part of it, besides the phenomenon itself, is coming up with an explanation that withstands concrete, observable alternate explanations. Then you see if someone else has had those thoughts (by reading stuff), and if not, you write a scientific paper about it and submit it for publication. This is the sort of thing you’d learn about in graduate school, mostly the process of being a scientist, that is, a person who finds stuff out and is responsible enough to tell other people through a publication.

Thomas Jefferson was a person who was not a ‘scientist’ but he was a great practitioner of ‘science’ and was very knowledgeable about nature, especially botany. He once said, in regard to his charge, Meriwether Lewis (the guy he sent to explore the Missouri and Columbia rivers before other white guys did), that “observation unrecorded is knowledge lost”. That’s so, so very true!!! In the olden days, people ‘recorded’ their observations and knowledge by intricate and constant story telling. Now we write things down, take notes, etc., and write papers and essays.

In any case, enough of this book learning side to being a penguin researcher. Let’s see, what did I do yesterday in this process of learning facts about penguins? Yesterday, and the day before and the day before that, we were engulfed in a major storm, winds up to 60 knots (though higher away from the shelter of where our platform tent is located) and from time to time snow so thick one couldn’t see more than a few yards. Well, Roald Amundsen, polar explorer extraordinaire, once said, “If you’ve had an adventure then you haven’t prepared!”

True, but sometimes there are ’small’ things that don’t go exactly as planned. And you have to deal with them before they become big things. This I was thinking, yesterday, upon hearing a thud and a clank outside, at the same time that our heating stove died. Seems we had a gust of wind from an unanticipated direction, which then took advantage of the fact that the propane in one of our canisters had been used up. Thus the canister was about 150lbs lighter than when I hoisted it in place.

Shoot, why now? Definitely not fair! So, I donned all my polar clothes… looking like the Dough-man… got a wrench, and out I went. I proceeded to wrestle with the two remaining, full canisters, which had blown over, too, upon the other becoming too light (these winds ARE strong). This isn’t so easy to do in a hurricane, wearing gloves and a parka hood that wouldn’t sit straight on my head. Thus I was usually seeing out with just one eye. Try untying and then re-tying knots wearing gloves in those conditions! Ultimately, though, I succeeded, made sure all the ropes on various tents and things were snug, and then back inside I went. Heating stove started right up!

That was the highlight of yesterday. Today, with lessening though still blustery winds I ventured down to the penguins. The penguins could care less, of course, what with this weather. The tent, though, which protected the computer that goes with our automatic weighing scale, was in need of help. Thought I’d gotten it right the first time, when setting it up! But the wind had torn some of the sewed-in loops out. So, it was kind of the same story, tying and un-tying knots in very strong winds, with tent flaps flapping etc etc etc, wind trying to take them one way, and me trying to force them the other. I sure am glad that my Dad and others taught me a lot of neat knots. They don’t teach that stuff in science graduate school! Finally, I got the whole thing staked down again in all its important parts. Then, after an hour or two, I went off to see how the penguins were doing. Taking notes as I went, of course, me being a scientist.

These are the kinds of things one has to do to have a successful season of field research. It’s a lot of camping and ‘surviving’ in order to be collecting data and taking notes, and thinking scientific thoughts. So, if you want to be a penguin researcher, do a lot of camping before hand, just to become comfortable with those little ‘adventures’ that arise day to day. Of course, some penguins live in places where the comforts of civilization aren’t all that far away. But I like camping out there in Nature, with my religion all about.

Part of our field camp.

Above is our lodging for this 2008-09 penguin research season. It’s called a RacTent (the blue and yellow structure). You can see the propane canisters in the back to the right, where the anemometer (wind gauge) is located (that pipe sticking up). To the left are the solar panels. Those have to be rotated now and again to keep them facing the sun, especially when there are lots of clouds and not much reflectance off the snow.

Inside the RacTent.

Above is the inside of the RacTent. In the far right corner is the propane camp stove, underneath which are about 5 boxes for recycling, one box for a different kind of stuff: food waste, cans, mixed paper, and non-recyclable stuff (plastic and cellophane food wrappers, etc). To the right is the propane heating stove. Anything put on the floor is liable to freeze, including your feet. Walking around, though, the upper half of your body is comfortably warm. To the left, you can see my ‘desk’ and laptop. Note the telephone on the card-table. That’s a wireless connection to McMurdo Station. The other morning at 5:30AM, the McMurdo Fire House called saying that someone from this number had called in a 911 code. Must have been some penguins fiddling with the antenna, or some electrons that the wind had overly excited.

The computer tent, with Adélies.

Here’s the tent containing the computer, with the automatic scale to its left. Solar panels that run the computer and scale are to the right of the tent. The wind is very, very clever about un-raveling things, wanting everything to enter a state of chaos. So, one has to keep paying attention to the small things, so they don’t become big and chaotic.

The green, plastic fence surrounding the penguins directs them to go and come by walking across the scale.

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Will the Banded Birds Please Stand Up! Wed, 26 Nov 2008 21:55:00 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– The major trust of our project is to quantify the vital rates of Adélie Penguins in their changing world, as global climate change proceeds. Vital rates means such things as age of first breeding, proportion of years in which they breed, breeding success each year (number of chicks fledged), survival and emigration. The entire metapopulation, i.e. the four colonies at Capes Royds, Bird and Crozier, plus Beaufort Island, has been increasing in size, though with lots of surges and retreats, over the past decades. At the same time, the colony at Royds, once growing the most rapidly, is now in decline. It all has to do with access to the ocean, which has to do with the extent of sea ice (see our last dispatch).

Every season, we band a lot of chicks at each colony, and in later seasons spend a huge amount of time looking for them when they come back as pre-breeders (teenagers) and then adults. The numbered metal bands are placed around their left wing and this will identify each bird, as well as the year the bird was born and its natal (birth) colony. Once a banded bird begins to breed (its mate or itself laid an egg), we mark its nest with a plastic tag and nail driven into the permafrost. Then we keep track discovering what happens to each banded bird during the course of its lifetime, at least here at the colonies.

Wing Band. Numbered metal bands are attached to the birds when they are chicks. It identifies which colony the bird was born in and what year.

The banding process takes place at the end of the breeding season just before the chicks do their final molt and head out to sea for the winter: 400 chicks each at Royds and Beaufort, 1000 each at Bird and Crozier, each year. We’ve been doing this since 1996 full-scale, with a few banded in 1994 and 1995. So, in total, more than 33,600 chicks banded to date. This banded “sample” of the colony population will serve as an indicator for the movements and survival rate for each colony.

Some of the things we have learned so far are: Adélie penguins do not always return to the colony of their birth and will move from one colony to another to breed and raise their chicks. This is why we call this complex of colonies a “metapopulation”…no colony is independent of the others. What causes penguins to relocate is mainly due to, as we said, access to the ocean, but also the difficulty of finding food or nest stones where there are a lot of penguins. Thus as colonies grow, and resources become harder to come by, penguins are encouraged to move to smaller colonies….just like people!

Beaufort Island Adélie Penguin colony. These grounded icebergs have been here for several years. They are about 1 km off shore and dwarf everything in the area.

Here is the Ross Sea and the coast of Victoria Land in a NASA image taken last week (below). The red stars show the members of the colony cluster that we are investigating. The blue stars show the other Ross Sea Adélie Penguin colonies.

Penguin colonies in the Ross Sea. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Only the Terra Nova Bay (2 colonies) and Cape Hallet colonies have been thoroughly search for our banded birds, thanks to colleagues in the Italian Antarctic Program (Silvia Olmastroni and friends) and New Zealand Antarctic Program (BJ Karl and friends), who camped at each for several weeks. They found one of our banded birds at each of these three colonies. So, now we know that birds within our metapopulation exchange readily among themselves, but also we know that a few, but not many, intrepid penguins go much farther afield in search of a breeding spot. Tourists with sharp eyes have also noted single banded birds at Franklin Island and at Coulman Island.

At Cape Royds, where we are camped, there are about 2000 nests, so looking for bands takes one person about an hour to complete. However at one of the other colonies in our group, Beaufort Island, there are 60,000 nests and the other day it took four of us four hours to search, and doing so without pause. In fact, we were walking more rapidly in search for bands than is our norm.

In past years there has been open water between Cape Royds and Beaufort so helicopter transport was not possible and band searching could not occur at Beaufort. However, this year the ice is thick so helo transport is possible. From Cape Royds it is a 30 minute helicopter ride to the Island and on this day we stopped to pick up help from Cape Bird: Katie Dugger (co-PI on the project) and Len Doel (volunteer from NZ). Unlike the birds at Cape Royds, the Beaufort Island birds walk less than one mile to open ocean. Why then do the Cape Royds birds make the 50 mile trip when they could nest at Beaufort? We’ve given some hints to the answer, but this is a question for another day.

To establish a breeding colony, Adélie Penguins need ice-free land with a supply of small rocks to build their nest. Beaufort Island has a large beach area with plenty of rocks, but also always easy access to the ocean. So this colony is larger than Royds.

Beaufort Island Colony. A large, ice-free beach with lots of small rocks. The brown areas are where the penguins are. This colony has about 60,000 nests.

Searching for bands requires binoculars and a good eye as you walk along the nesting areas. When we found a banded bird at Beaufort we recorded its number and whether it is on a nest, alone or paired and if the nest has eggs we record the location using a GPS.

Searching for bands. It takes patience and good binoculars to find the banded birds in these large groups.

Color anomalies are rare in penguins, but with a colony this size there is bound to be one, today we found a blond penguin. Its color does not seem to affect its ability to survive.

Blonde Adélie Penguin. A rare color anomaly.

A good days work; about 80 banded or known age birds were identified representing all four colonies of birth, Cape Crozier, Cape Royds, Cape Bird and of course Beaufort Island. The vast majority of banded birds were banded as chicks at Beaufort. We found 5 that were hatched and banded at Cape Royds. In another 7-10 days we will visit Beaufort Island again, because by then all the females will have replaced their mates on the nests. Thus, we’ll probably find another 80 banded birds who were not there a few days ago.

End of day. Searching for bands is hard work in the cold and wind. We are ready to head home.
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The Early Returns: We and the Penguins Mon, 24 Nov 2008 21:21:37 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ROSS ISLAND, ANTARCTICA– This season, Jean came down to McMurdo Station a few weeks early with the idea of setting up a time-lapse camera at Cape Royds to record the complete cycle of colony formation as penguins returned from their wintering area. She’d keep the camera in place the whole season to show how numbers change during the penguins’ breeding season. The penguins, though, began to arrive earlier than expected, thus she didn’t set up her camera until several had already made their nests!! Our solar powered PenguinCam captured the first arrivals on Oct 20, a full week earlier than last year (you can see the PenguinCam and the images on our website, updated daily, at

During the first few weeks, we had to drive out to Cape Royds from McMurdo on snowmobiles every few days. This was because the folks at McMurdo were way backed up in being able to install solar power at our camp. Thus, we couldn’t set up a permanent camp. It’s a 35 km trip from McMurdo, taking about 40 minutes. We had to drive out in order to look for banded penguins, whether they laid eggs, and to change the batteries in the time-lapse cameras. Here we are on one of the trips; for safety two snowmobiles were required…we took along people from McMurdo so that they could get a chance to see Antarctica:

It is a 40 min drive from McMurdo Station to Cape Royds on snow machines. Here we take a break to watch the plume on Mt Erebus, the only active volcano in Antarctica.

The reason the penguins arrived early, is that with a lack of wind during the winter (that’s true, it wasn’t very windy), the large-scale extent of sea ice in this portion of the Southern Ocean was much less than usual. The penguins winter at the pack ice edge, so with the edge much closer to Ross Island, they had a much shorter, maybe 1000 km less, trip to make.

The situation with the ice patterns involves the wind rather than temperatures. The temperatures are cold, regardless. When the winds blow off the continent in the winter the ice is blown farther and farther northward (away from the continent) leaving open water at the coast which allows more ice to be formed, which then gets blown north and the cycle goes on continuously (in most winters-springs). It’s like a conveyor belt. Winters with continuous winds, which is the usual, create pack ice a long way from the land sometimes as far as 2000 km. This last winter the winds were not strong or persistent and not as much ice was blown away from the continent. Thus, the penguins were not very far away when the sun rose and they began their southward journey. Not having as much distance to cover during spring migration, they arrived earlier than usual.

Once the first penguins arrived, the ‘flood’ began. Throughout the following few weeks, birds continued to come ashore, build their nests, find their mates and on Nov 5th we saw the first egg.

The first egg of the 2008-09 Adélie Penguin breeding season at Cape Royds, a bit early this year Nov 5.

Here’s a graph of penguin counts from the PenguinCam, comparing this year with last (the spaces between counts were days when it was too windy or snowy to get a clear image…many more of these windy days in 2007):

Arrival of Adélie Penguins at Cape Royds, based on photos from the Penguin Cam.

The window of successful laying at Cape Royds is short. If the eggs are not laid by about now (24 Nov), it is unlikely that parents can be successful. That’s because the winter comes early! A major factor that will contribute to the success rate of this year’s colony is the distance the birds will have to walk to find open water and food. After the female lays her eggs, she leaves the male in charge of the nest and returns to the sea to forage. This year, because of the lack of wind, a very extensive continuous sheet of ‘fast ice’ was able to form. Normally, wind would have blown new ice away, but the wind didn’t happen, so the ice sat in place and got so thick that whatever the strength of the later wind, it was not strong enough to budge the ice. It was locked fast in place by various points of land (kind of like a jig-saw puzzle). Now it is a long way from Cape Royds to the ocean and food, 70 km. This means two days of just walking, one way. Many females may decide not to return to relieve their mates, or will return a few days too late. The males will not sacrifice themselves for the sake of the egg, the drive to satisfy their growing hunger outweighing the inclination to raise progeny, and if the females do not return they will abandon the eggs. Only time will give us the answer to this one, but it is likely that the ice will remain in place until January, when the icebreaker arrives.

Here is an image taken by a NASA satellite a few days ago. It shows where Royds is located, and where the edge of the fast ice occurs (out by Beaufort Island). So, the penguins at Royds have to add 4 days to a foraging trip, 2 for walking out and 2 for walking back. Added to that are the days needed to catch food and replace fat reserves, i.e. several days. Four days of walking is a long time when you are hungry.

Satellite image of ice conditions in the Ross Sea area.
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Entrance of the Whales Mon, 14 Jan 2008 14:19:24 +0000 David Ainley Today we made a flight by helo along the fast ice edge and into the ice channel being made by the Oden, a Swedish icebreaker. Our purpose was to find out how many whales are in the vicinity. We found in previous years that when lots of whales arrive in the penguins’ foraging area, then the penguins’ feeding trips get longer and they switch from krill to fish. Therefore, it was clear that the whales and penguins were competing for food. Both the penguins and the whales feed along the fast ice edge, because as it breaks out, schools of fish and krill, which ‘hide’ way under the ice beyond these predators’ breath-holding range, become exposed to predation.

The open water end of the ice channel. Cape Royds is just out of the picture to the left.
The ice end of the ice channel, cutting through the fast ice that covers the south end of McMurdo Sound. McMurdo Station is located at the (dark) end of the peninsula running from left to right. White Island is the land mass way in the distance to the right.

Keeping track of the whales was easy at Cape Royds in 2001-2005, because the fast ice edge never went south of Royds. Thus, the whales — both minke whales, which eat krill and fish, and ‘ecotype C’ killer whales, which eat fish — were easy to keep track of just by sitting at a high vantage point with binoculars and spotting scope. Last season, though, the fast ice edge eroded south to the point that we no longer could see it; it was open water from Royds to the ice, several kilometers to the south. So, the whales were beyond view.

Last season, 2006-07, we noticed a dramatic exodus of adults from Royds on the 15th of January (see figure below). My suspicion was that a bunch of whales had arrived. So, this year we’ve been making helo flights along the ice edge to do a whale census about once a week. On 4 January, we saw just 6 minke whales (MW) and 6 killer whales (KW), and during that period the penguins were making short foraging trips. Lots of adults hung around in the colony. When we made the flight today, we encountered an astounding 73 minke whales and 32 killer whales in the same areas as the 4th Jan flight. On this day, too, there was a mass exodus of adults. The helo pilot reported that in the previous few days he’d seen just a few whales present.

Note the rapid decline of adults in the colony upon the arrival of the whales. (MW = Minke whales, KW = killer whales.)

It seems fairly clear, then, that the whales are causing the penguins to work harder. Why so many are present in McMurdo Sound this season, we don’t know.

Four minke whales in the ice channel

When both parents of chicks leave the colony to forage, the chicks gather in groups, called ‘creches’. The adults who remain keep the skuas at bay. In years previous to 2006, Royds parents never made long foraging trips and, thus, many hung around. Chicks never made crèches. This season, though, there are lots of crèches. However, in spite of this, the chicks’ growth rate is actually a bit higher than last season; and last seasons’ rate was typically high, compared to what we find at other colonies in the region. Thus, by having the chicks form crèches, allowing both parents to forage simultaneously, the Royds penguins are keeping up with the whales. You see, they’ve been working this out for millennia.

Chicks in crèches at Cape Royds, January 2008
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No Sea Ice in Sight Sun, 13 Jan 2008 14:19:33 +0000 David Ainley CAPE ROYDS, ANTARCTICA– Since coming back from Cape Bird it’s been very gray and windy here at Cape Royds. It has been blowing 20 knots at least, and often the wind has been much stronger. Climate change predictions or realities, I know, are totally abstract to the vast, vast majority of people or at least those in the US. But, increased winds have been projected for the Southern Ocean and so, folks, I’d like to report to you that the predictions have come true. Next, a neighborhood block close to you. What predictions have been made for your region?

One result of the wind is that now there is no sea ice in sight. Well, except for on the south horizon. I can just make out the edge of the fast ice, which has receded by about 15 km since we arrived here in Nov. At that time the edge of the fast ice was 2 km north; now its that far south. Here’s a shot to compare with a photo in my earlier collection. The only sea ice off Cape Royds is a piece stuck on a low-lying rock. The penguins, of course, are loving it. They are traveling easily now, no walking required.

The open sea.

On the 1st of January the waters off Royds were invaded by at least 30 minke whales, and perhaps more. A helo pilot who had been flying along the edge by chance figured there were 40-50; he had a better view than me but I’m not sure what his experience in whale counting might be. There were lots. Besides the fact that they were diving under the fast ice, a few at a time, thus making it difficult to keep track of individuals, it was also hard to count them because it was blowing about 40 kts. Thus, the spray from their ‘blows’ was dissipating rapidly. The penguins, lined up along the ice edge, 1000 or more of them, and I think were a bit disbelieving or wondering what was going on. Well, what was going on was the whales were eating the penguins out of ‘house and home’ so to speak. Their trips to/from their nest became longer, and they started to bring back fish.

The whales in those numbers were around for two days, moving farther west along the ice edge as time progressed. Then they departed. About 5 days later, the penguins’ food switched back to krill. And they started to show up with very full bellies of food for their chicks. For several days, I got the impression that the chicks we’re getting all the food they wanted. Now they are, and the ground around the penguin nests is becoming red. That’s from the color of their poop, after a diet entirely of krill.

The red snow.
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