Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 22, 2012: Sailing the Antarctic Sound

Gourdin Island
Adelie penguin

Today was a really cool day as I visited two sites that I had never been to before.  This morning Melissa and I landed at Gourdin Island which is home to over 16,000 breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, ~1,000 pairs of Chinstrap penguins, and ~600 pairs of Gentoo penguins.  This is one of few sites in the Antarctic where all three species of Pygoscelis (or brush-tailed) penguins breed sympatrically.  Due to the large number of nesting birds spread across a vast landscape, Melissa and I decided to count the large colony of Chinstrap penguins close to our landing site.  The wind was blowing at about 20 knots and the few beaches we could land on seemed to be clogged with ice.  After cruising around for 10-15 minutes, we settled on a rocky outcrop where we could scuttle up over the snow bank with relative ease.  I am always grateful to have Melissa as my partner in situations like this as she has much more field experience and is an all around logistics queen.

We had about an hour to complete our work and decided the best use of our time would be for Melissa to create a GPS tracklog around the Chinstrap penguin colony while I counted all of the birds inside of the colony.  This type of census helps inform our colleagues back in the United States who use satellite imagery to count large penguin colonies.  The tracklog that we created can be overlaid on a satellite image to map the location of a given species, in this case Chinstrap penguins, among the abutting Adélie penguin colonies.  Counting the number of nesting pairs in the field helps the researchers double check that what they counted as nesting birds in the photograph matches what we saw in the field. 

As monitoring penguin populations via satellite imagery is a rapidly growing technique, it is import to continue the field work.  The type of work we did today serves as a means of “ground truthing” in that someone counting from a photo can learn to recognize differences among species (after all, they are all little black and white birds) as well as the difference between nesting birds and those that are just perhaps taking a mid-day snooze.  While counting from satellite imagery may be more accurate in some ways as the counter can “check off” nests they already counted (which is not possible in the field), counting in the field also has its merits in that we can use behavioral cues to alert us to nests and to determine which birds are “posers”.  And yes, “poser” is a scientific term for a bird pretending to be on a nest and in so messing up your count as three-quarters of the way through they get up and leave.

In the afternoon we sailed east to visit Esperanza station, an Argentinian research base in the Antarctic Sound.  Established in the early 1900’s Esperanza not only functions as a scientific research station, but is also a well-studied community populated by approximately 140 people each year.  Individuals and families (including small children) arrive at Esperanza from all over Argentina volunteering  to spend 10 months living and working together.  There are small homes with satellite TV and internet, a school, church, infirmary, and scientific labs.  While getting a tour of the station Melissa and I managed to find two of the Argentinian field biologists; with 205,000 nesting pairs of Adélie penguins and 300-500 pairs of Gentoo penguins, there is certainly plenty of opportunity to for penguin research.  The two women we met had arrived about a month ago and were studying oxidative stress and diet in penguins, while other researchers were monitoring reproductive success and chick growth in the birds nesting near the base. With all parties using their best English, Spanish, and Spanglish we all really enjoyed learning how we run our respective scientific programs.  It is always a treat to meet other women, especially young women, conducting Antarctic field work given that Antarctic science has historically been a male-dominated field.  These women have taken the passion and commitment one step further by dedicating 10 months out of the next year to complete their research project.  Girl power!

Esperanza Station, Hope Bay

Oceanites and penguin biologists from Esperanza Station

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