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Royds Tranquility

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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