Sunday, December 05, 2010

Back to the Ice

I'm sure we've posted photos very similar to this one in the past - it's always a magical moment, stepping out of a very dark airplane hold into the brightest and strangest environment on earth, thankful that the hardest part is over. This was Dec. 1 - everything had gone perfectly thus far. Now it is Dec. 5 and I should be at Cape Crozier... but I'm not. The wind and blowing snow are keeping the helicopters grounded, so I have an extra day to catch up on correspondence. Scott and Annie at Cape Crozier report 94mph winds there, so they are taking a hut day. Katie and Libby at Cape Royds have a little less wind, but their heater mysteriously burned through two tanks of propane in a few hours. Fortunately the third tank is behaving normally.

The days here have been typically full. I had shipped two weighbridges back from the states and they arrived in less than perfect shape. We have learned that small particles of dirt get shaken loose in shipping and end up under the loadcell inside the bridges, which makes the weight data completely unreliable. Fixing requires pealing back the rubber mat (which is glued down), taking the whole scale apart, cleaning, attaching a shim under the loadcell to give it more clearance, and then putting it all back together again. If all goes perfectly this takes about 3 hours, plus 24 hours for the glue to set up again. That on top of all the refresher courses (cold weather injuries, survival bags, helicopters, sea ice, waste management, lab safety, communications) and getting our food together for the next month required about 3 full days of effort. It isn't all bad to have a relatively easy day in the midst of this, as long as we are able to get out to field camps tomorrow!

At this point there is no internet connection whatsoever at Cape Crozier, so there may not be much updating going on again this year, at least not until I get back to McMurdo - approximately January 2.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Visiting the Emperors

Scott emerges from the secret passageway to the Emperor colony

We finally finished our first complete round of band-searching through the entire Adelie colony on December 3rd. After looking at about 200,000 Adelies (and specifically, their left flippers) we were ready for our annual Emperor Penguin count. The Emperors nest on fast ice that forms in the lee between the Ross Ice Shelf and Ross Island. This year they were tucked well into a large ice canyon, about 4km walk from our hut. We found a beautiful passageway carved by wind between a long-grounded iceberg and a massive snowfield, connecting the island to the ice near the colony. We emerged in beautiful light to find 661 very healthy looking penguin chicks, attended by about 155 parents (there would have to be at least 2 x 661 parents associated with the colony this year, but most of them are at sea finding food at any given moment).

The Emperors send a scout to investigate the visitors

A big chick wonders whether any of these adults will feed it

A pair of off-duty parents take time out for a good preening

Friday, December 11, 2009

Snow Petrels

Adelies and Snow Petreles rarely interact, but this one was interested in what the penguins were up to, for some reason.

This year there are a lot of Snow Petrels - every day we see at least 4, and sometimes more than 30 at once. Over the years they seem to be steadily increasing in numbers, at least as seen from Cape Crozier. But are they nesting here? We have tried several times to find them on Post Office Hill, Pat's Peak, and other seemingly likely cliff areas, with no luck.

Snow Petrels are the southernmost breeding birds, and except for humans (and humans' symbiots), the southernmost breeding animals, utilizing nunataks (snow free mountain tops and ridges exposed above the ice fields), sometimes many miles from the ocean. Apparently they project very stinky oil (i.e., they barf) at intruders to their nesting crevices, so perhaps it's just as well that we have not located them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Incubation begins!

Female Adélie Penguins looking for a good place to jump in the ocean after laying their eggs.

Clutch completion averaged 10 days late this year - November 25th instead of the usual November 15th. It was good to see all the dirty and skinny females finally get their chance to jump in the ocean and replenish reserves. They seemed pretty excited about it too. Adélies normally lay two eggs, but this year it seems the average may be just 1, which is a good plan given the late start they are getting. Perhaps because of reduced numbers of birds attempting to breed this year and the lower clutch sizes, chicks will still fledge at the normal (or even heavier than normal?) weight in February... we shall see.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Setting up the weighbridge

The storm lasted until late Dec. 20th. On the 21st we set up the weighbridge (WB), which first requires that all newcomers pose with the loaded sledge at the top of the hill.

Ice conditions were perfect for delivering the sledge to the colony, 1km downhill, so the walk only took about 30 minutes (of course the sledge wanted to get there much faster than that, though not necessarily with intact contents). Setup went smoothly and within a few hours the WB was collecting data.

Because the penguins in this subcolony have been tagged with transponders, when they go through the reader coil their identities are recorded, along with their weights and the time, date, and direction (in or out) of travel. This lets us keep track of the condition of the penguins through the breeding season, as well as how much food they deliver to their chicks, and how long it takes for each foraging trip.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Mountain tents in the wind

A Scott Tent in 100mph wind

We have a few choices in tents when we head out to the field - Scott Tents are the big yellow ones, and seem to do well up to about 120mph of wind - we use these more and more. Mountain tents are the more typical 4-season backpacking tents that you might find at your local outdoor store. These don't seem to handle more than 80mph before they're starting to collapse, and 100mph is definitely not good...

Mountain Tent at 80mph

Mountain Tent at 104 mph

Saturday, November 28, 2009

News from Crozier

From Grant:

Blogging is a little slow due to sat-phone-only internet at Crozier thus far. So, I will send a few updates to Viola and she will post them, along with suitable images from her collection from past years.

Scott, Annie and I have been here for 10 days now. The penguins have gotten a late start, and it seems that many will not attempt breeding this year. Of the ones that have started, many have only one egg, probably hedging their bets. It seems windier than usual - my tent was up for 24 hours before it was obliterated in a 105 mph gust - and we've already had several days of fieldwork with 40mph winds, which is not pleasant. But, generally things are going smoothly with our work - hoping to have the full colony surveyed for bands by this weekend.

First Minke Whales (3) yesterday!