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Posts Tagged ‘fieldwork’

Week 16: Sa 10 February 2018, 18:18. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Considering chinstrap penguins and gentoo penguins come here for the same purposes – procreation and chick rearing – it’s pretty entertaining to see the number of ways in which they differ. I generally prefer gentoos to the chinnies, but Nai feels the opposite.

In terms of appearances, I consider gentoos to be one of the bird species I’ve worked with that has the sexiest markings. They have bright orange-red bills, orange feet, clean white
fronts, dark bodies, and beautiful white speckling that spreads from behind the eyes to span the crown of the head. They’re gorgeous!

Chinstraps have dark bodies, moderately white fronts, black bills, and a black strap that crosses below the chin on an otherwise white face. It’s that chinstrap that biases me away from
them; the chinstrap facial hair of some humans often seems to go along with an obnoxious, self-impressed attitude. In similar fashion, the chinnies are too loud and have too much attitude for me.

Chinstraps’ attitudes lie along the lines of “I will destroy you!!!” One was once so bent on defending the nearby chicks from me that it charged and successfully chased me away from the
colony’s edge. (Yes, I ran away from a penguin.) Given the strength of the slaps they hand out with their flippers, I chose to save my shins rather than hold my ground. Seriously,
chinnies, chill out! Have I ever taken one of your eggs or chicks for keeps? No. I can respect the “Don’t f*@! with me” attitude, but I don’t have to like it.

Gentoos’ attitudes lie along the lines of “AHH! You’re clearly after me! I must run away!” While I admit that it’s unfortunate to feel like I’m frequently scaring gentoos – which also
makes it harder to read their bands – it’s better than having a heart attack every time a chinstrap unexpectedly jumps toward me while emitting an amazingly loud call of outrage. Gentoos
tend to look around anxiously and then move a few feet away when they feel at risk.

Although gentoos tend to take the ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ attitude, they do win when it comes to bravery against predation by brown skuas. Rather unfairly, skuas can fly, meaning they
have a whole slew of moves that penguins can’t use. Skuas often stand on the edge of a penguin colony, then move in on foot to scope out nest contents. To grab an egg or chick, they grab a
penguin by the tail, pull it off the nest, and then hop over the bird to reach the nest before the penguin can return to it. Watching this predation makes me feel like life isn’t fair, but gentoos don’t let their offspring go so easily.

Enter the Hero Penguins. Hero Penguins are far more often gentoos than chinstraps, and they find it their duty to chase predatory skuas away from the colonies. It doesn’t matter whose nest
is being eyed; Hero Penguins often come running, flippers held out, to the rescue. A skua will simply be standing near a colony when a gentoo will come “racing” out of nowhere and force a
skua to leave the area. Sometimes the skua will land within 50 feet of its start point and then realize the gentoo is still heading for it. Head down and full of determination, a Hero Penguin is protective, dedicated, and selfless. Respect, Hero Penguins.

Chinstrap penguins are much more mate-oriented than gentoos. From the days of standing around in snow, through copulations and nest building, chinnie mates are more often clearly present
than gentoo mates. With their necks stretched skyward, they interact by moving their necks in a snake-like swaying motion and squeaking out their loud calls. Gentoos tend to ignore each
other a lot more – even when both adults are present at the nest. They bow to each other and their nests in greeting… if and when they do decide to acknowledge one another.

The sounds of gentoos are pretty compared to those of chinstraps. I’m not going to try to spell out their sounds, though; I’ll leave that to birding guides. (If you’d like to know what
these birds sound like, look up the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I assume that it has good recordings of their vocalizations.) Chinstraps make LOUD, crackly-squeaky calls that startle me
enough to make me jump when I’m not expecting them. Gentoos are generally quiet birds that tend to make their trumpeting call at random times, sometimes with their mates and sometimes just because other birds are doing it.

In addition to the above reasons, I prefer gentoos because their colonies are not the “mud”pits in which chinstraps live. I described chinstraps as having “moderately white” fronts
because, once the snow’s gone, chinnies can’t really be described as clean. Their colonies are full of a mud-poo slurry that has grown more juicy as the season has progressed. Chinstrap
chicks never appear completely clean or dry after roughly their first 2 weeks of life.

Gentoos prefer having a little more personal space and build taller nests that prevent them from living in “mud.” Like gentoos, I prefer a little more personal space than a life of getting splashed with mud and being shouted at and bitten by neighbors.

Although I fully admit that gentoos don’t seem to have much going on upstairs, their chicks seem smarter than chinnie chicks for a couple reasons. Instead of living in wet mud, gentoo
chicks move to dry areas outside the colony once it’s time to creche, or leave the nest and hang out as a pack of chicks while the adults are out foraging. Once in a group, they stick
together and run from dangers as a group. I imagine that if I were to organize them into ranks and create an army, they’d follow orders without a problem. They’d recognize when to flee and when to fight.

Chinnies, well… that’s another story. I needed to swap out a temporary Velcro band for a metal band on one chick, and during my 5-10 minute search of all the chicks in an area for that
specific bird, it didn’t move more than 5 feet. By the time I had identified the black Velcro band beneath the muddy down, all I had to do was bend down and pick up the bird. Like the rest
of the chicks, it had made no effort to run. Smart, chinstrap chicks. An army of those guys would freeze up at the first sign of trouble.

Working with these 2 species of penguin has again reminded me of how much personality individual animals can possess. Having also seen a few Adèlie penguins, a king penguin, and a macaroni
penguin has made me wonder what each of those species is like. One thing seems certain: taking any sort of measurements of a king penguin would require one person to contain the bird and another to measure.

Although gentoos are my favorite here at Cape Shirreff, I was saddened to see that today brought a mass exodus of chinstrap adults from the colonies. Apparently the time for their
“groupthink”-motivated departure had come, and it came without warning for us. They’ll be around to feed their chicks, but it seems the days of full colonies are over.

The change marks the beginning of the end of our fieldwork, and – as usual, I’m not interested in everything that brings. It’s terribly sad when seabirds don’t say goodbye.

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Week 8: F 15 December 2017, 20:49. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

In celebrating the holiday, last night we toasted our midnight suns with a hearty “Skol!” and feasted on fårikål, lefsa, kringle, and pepperkaken. God had provided the proper weather
overnight and into the day; we awoke to lightly howling wind and a coating of snow blown against the northeast-facing doors of camp. Small snowdrifts had built up at the bases of doors,
bringing a smile to my face as I greeted my campmates with a heartfelt “Happy South Pole Day!” On the 14th of December 1911, Roald Amundsen and crew arrived at the South Pole, having
successfully travelled the distance by skis and dogsled. On the 14th of December 2017, we celebrated their achievements and threw some insults at the British. Robert Scott didn’t make it
to the Pole until January 1912, and his planning was so poor that his polar crew died during their return trek.

Since the weather had delivered Antarctic conditions, Nai made a proposition that I couldn’t ignore. “Skis?!” she whispered excitedly to me as we made our preparations to leave camp.
Having been virtually unable to ski since late November, the idea was tempting – so enticing that I couldn’t turn my back on it. “Embrace your inner Norwegian!” encouraged Doug as I
swapped my XtraTufs for ski boots, donned my ski mask, and headed out the door. While there was enough snow to ski, it wasn’t necessarily going to be the most prime skiing of the year.

I had to ski around Pehuenche rather than on the rocky downhill between it and Aymara, and I was a little wind-beaten when I arrived at the Skua Shack. Still, skiing for a probable last time was a treat.

The Skua Shack’s anemometer registered a high wind speed of 52 knots, which meant that the wind was really – no, really – whipping on top of ridge 29. In retrospect I probably should have
skipped checking my chinstrap colony up there. While walking amongst the penguins I leaned heavily on my trekking pole for support against the wind; the chinnies had every right to look
concerned about my balance. The wind was so powerful that I couldn’t safely or neatly record data while visually noting which mate was attending the nests in each plot. I needed to repeat
the data in my head and take a mental image before carefully moving away from the penguins to a spot that just barely put me in some lee. Once there I sat down with my back to the wind and was able to record what I’d seen.

My ski trip back to camp was challenging, as I battled a crosswind that threatened to blow me over for the first half of the journey and then became a headwind for the second half. I
couldn’t be too upset, though, since Amundsen had met with much worse during his months of travel. Besides, headwinds build character.

Back in camp Doug began making fårikål, a lamb and cabbage stew mentioned as the national dish of Norway. Nai tackled the kringle, which we decided is like a big pie crust-textured cookie
shaped in the number 8, and pepperkaken, pepper cookies. That left me with trying my hand at lefsa, Norway’s potato flatbread. We’d intended to have iceberg lettuce “& things,” but our
lettuce is so sad these days and our salad ingredients so limited, that we decided to just appreciate the icebergs visible through the windows.

Our proposed sledding was replaced with hot showers for 3 crew members. Somehow sledding in -1C and 30 knot winds wasn’t the most enticing after spending the day working outside. I read
some passages from “The Last Place on Earth” about Amundsen’s arrival at the Pole, and we declared it a successful holiday. Thanks, Roald Amundsen and Norwegian explorers!

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Week 6: Sa 2 December 2017, 22:10 … through Week 7: Sa 9 December 2017. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

And suddenly it’s December. In just another month we’ll be at the halfway point when we get our resupply and camp leader swap. What have we been up to since our arrival the last week of October?

For the first few days we focused on opening camp, which included lots of shoveling snow, unpacking totes of food shipped from the U.S., setting up our weather stations and wind turbines, and killing mold that had grown everywhere over winter.

Toward the tail end of our first week, Nai and I made our way to the Skua Shack to shovel, remove more door and window covers, turn on the solar energy system, set up our weather station,
and scout for penguins. Since the chinstraps (aka chinnies) weren’t around at all and the gentoos were mostly showing up later in the day, our days consisted of drinking tea and listening
to podcasts while drawing lines in our databooks. In the afternoons we’d walk through our penguin colonies to resight banded birds. Until the penguins started building nests – but really,
just laying eggs – our season didn’t fully begin. Hence, we did a little sledding.

Our first chinstrap egg showed up on November 15, and the first gentoo egg appeared on November 18. From that point on we kept sharp eyes out for eggs in the plots we’d set up inside the
colonies. We marked plots with large rocks painted bright orange for non-disturbance plots and green for standard reproduction plots. By keeping track of the number of eggs present and
which mate is on the nest daily, we monitor the 5 nests closest to said rocks. Regardless of location, Known Age birds’ nests are marked with blue rocks and monitored in the same way.

We began banding penguins associated with our study nests around the last week of November and just finished that up a few days ago. From experience I can say that penguins are strong!
Holding a squirmy bird between my legs while trying to keep the left flipper accessible for banding and keep the right flipper contained was very difficult. Throw in the fact that they’re
not the happiest about being handled, and you’ve essentially got a bite-prone torpedo just waiting to burst free. The 22+ bruises on my arms from bites have almost all faded now.

Mid-November also meant the beginning of Skua Rounds. Brown skuas hold territories and nest on most of the hilltops around the cape, so Nai and I each climb about half of the hills and
search for skuas every 4 days. We found our first eggs on November 29, and we’re finding more nests with each check. Checking the territories takes about 3 hours and gives us more
exercise and great views, as well as opportunities to slide back down the hills we’ve climbed.

From the end of November through present Nai and I have had long days of 2/3 seabird work, 1/3 pinniped work. During perinatals, the time when female Antarctic fur seals are pupping, the
pinniped team needs our help. After helping with the capture of a female, Nai and I take its 1 or 2 day-old pup off to the side to collect some samples and puppysit while the
pinniped team works on the female. Many of the puppies have been fairly sweet, a few were little devils, and all of them now have fitting names.

In the evenings we have often elected to pull out the comfy camp chairs, pull down the screen, and project something to watch. More often than not, something was automatically the show
“Sherlock.” For anyone who hadn’t seen it (like me), it’s quite the roller coaster. Some nights we’ll each go about our own business, eventually disappearing to our bunks one by one. Since
Sundays are our day to sleep in until 9, Saturday nights are typically later and feature socializing.

Despite the disappearance of snow, life is good here. By wearing my rubberized Grundens bibs, I can still slide down the really wet snow. Today I created my 4th slide off of ridge 29; as
the snow goes, my slides reveal rock, which doesn’t really work for sliding. I’m dedicated to sliding until I’m forced to walk downhill, though!

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Week 5: Sa 25 November 2017, 18:29. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Possibly never in my life have I had such mixed feelings on blue sky and sunshine.

This is Antarctica. It’s supposed to be snowy and cold forever, right? Actually, no. Little by little, the sunshine is melting the snow and tearing our camp apart.

Nai and Sam are on Team Melt. Adam and I are on Team Snow. Our clever conversations go something like this –

Snow: Yay! It’s snowing!
Melt: Noo-o. Melt, baby, melt!
Snow: But it’s so pretty. Even Wonder Woman thinks snow is magical. Melt team + Doug: If she shows up, let us know over the radio.

There are many reasons I don’t want the snow to melt. My primary reason is functional and lies in my preference for skiing over snowshoeing. The sooner the snow melts down, softens, and
becomes slushy, the sooner our days of skiing are over. Not only is skiing more fun – it’s also faster and a better cardio workout. In one small spot today we finally lost all of our snow
and had to negotiate around the revealed rocks at the top of our one downhill. It was a sad moment.

Snow also keeps everything cleaner. My bibs, gaiters, and boots are always splattered with mud and poop when I leave the penguin colonies. Snow helps clean some of that off on my walk back
to the Skua Shack. Once the snow is gone, layer after layer of “mud” will build up on my gear.

Maybe most importantly, the longer the snow sticks around, the longer I get to sled. Body sled, real sled, whatever. IT’S THE BEST! I have 2 different chutes for body sledding on my
penguin colony rounds, and I’ll be heartbroken when I have to just walk down hills. The ride down from ridge 29 is initially a steep drop, but it mellows out as it continues to the flats.
With below freezing temperatures lately, the surface is frozen enough to let me set new distance records! There’s always a part of me tempted to climb back up the ridge just so I can slide down again.

A few nights ago our evening activity turned out to be everyone else watching me sled down El Condor, the steep hill behind camp. The slog uphill with large sled in tow was taxing, but the
ride back down was guaranteed to be pretty epic. It was the tail end of a beautiful day; the skies were muted dusky colors, and the setting sun turned the surrounding hills a pleasant
shade of orange. The distant snow-covered mountains were out in their glory, and the air was clear. I turned the sled around at my Launch Point and had a moment of questioning my sanity,
as I noticed a steeper drop near the beginning of my descent. Nonetheless, I radioed camp with the message “This is a little intimidating, but I’m ready to go.” As the crew gathered
outside camp, I did my classic “act before you can think about what you’re doing” and jumped headfirst on the sled, which was already pointed downhill.

Whoosh! With ski mask in place, I shed no tears from the wind but instead had a clear view of my path toward Playa El Modulo. It was Awesome! Once I came to a stop, I learned from the crew
that jaws had dropped as they observed the speed of my descent. Next time I think that needs to be measured.

Clearly life is better with snow. If that means taking away our sunny days that make me want to play tourist and take lots of pictures as I make my way through my work, I’ll be okay with that. Just send me more snow for summer.

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Week 3: F 10 November 2017, 23:54. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

This past summer on Buldir I was entertained by factoids shared by Kevin and McKenzie from the book “The Last Place on Earth: Amundsen and Scott’s Race for the South Pole.” At the time, my
working in Antarctica was still in the hopeful phase. However, I’ve been interested in the Antarctic for ages, and the information I was given told me the book was well-written and rather entertaining.

At an impressionable age, Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland and other polar expeditions inspired the Norwegian Roald Amundsen to pursue exploration. He grew up skiing, took the time
to learn the necessary skills for polar travel, formed a small crew with useful traits and meshable personalities, adapted to circumstances, and constantly worked on ways to improve gear.
When frozen in for winter in the Northwest Passage, he studied the Netsiliks’ (Canadian Eskimos) cold weather clothing and dogsledding skills. By traveling through the Northwest Passage he gained skills as an expedition leader.

In stark contrast, the Brit Robert Scott seems to have only pursued polar travels in the interest of promotion in the English Royal Navy. His personality and work ethic weren’t getting him
anywhere, so he tried the expedition route – despite the fact he himself once said he had no predilection for polar exploration. It sounds like he had a poor personality for leadership,
felt no need to learn skills ahead of time, ignored the lessons learned by those who travelled before him, and chose crew members based on whether he liked them or not – regardless of
skills or experience. He practically shunned skiing and dogsledding in exchange for manhauling and a custom motor sledge designed for snow travel… because he had no idea how to ski or
work dogs! He had no idea how to treat the dogs he took to Antarctica on his first trip, so his mushing endeavors were failures from the get-go.

I’ve lived in the Antarctic for about 2.5 weeks and can now verify what I knew before arriving. Why on earth – specifically the ice and snow-covered earth – would manhauling be the best
way of traveling to the snowy South Pole??? Oh yeah, because clearly skis aren’t helpful in snow, nor are dogs.

Oh wait, that’s only when you’re Scott and have spent no time learning how to ski and even less than no time learning about dog mushing. Reading his opinions on dogs is positively painful.

Reading about the way Amundsen’s team cared for ~100 dogs during their sea voyage from the North Atlantic all the way down to the Bay of Whales in Antarctica makes my limited-experience
dog handler’s heart happy. His top notch dogs chosen from Greenland were well fed, understood to bicker with each other and yet managed in a way to give them freedom on board, and cuddled
with by the ship’s crew. Now that I think about it, it seems that Amundsen’s ship would have been the perfect place for me: his ship, Fram, was quite the rocker and was full of puppies headed for adventure. That’s the dream!

I digress, though. Manhauling, while admittedly slightly satisfying and good for exercise, is exhausting. Nai, the 2nd year seabird tech with whom I’m working, and I have made trips
lugging a couple small fish boxes (large containers used for storage) and a large, heavy tripod on a sled. Snowshoes are a lot better than just wearing boots, but fresh snow sure creates
friction against a sled. When we got back to camp with one load, we more or less staggered inside and, when offered a drink, merely wanted water. We were beat.

That was from hauling one load for ~45 minutes. Robert Scott thought manhauling was a good idea for an entire expedition of hundreds of miles?

Let me help fix the public’s thoughts on Scott and show how utterly ridiculous the man was as a polar explorer. Where maybe I once would have respected him, I have lost almost all respect for his limited accomplishments. Help spread the word: He was a fool.

**I haven’t finished the book yet, but I don’t think I’ll read anything that will change my mind. It is a very entertaining read that clearly lays out the history of the race for the South Pole. Amundsen, on the other hand, was quite the man.**

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Week 2: F 3 November 2017, 22:38. Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, Antarctica

Plenty of people dread waking up on Monday morning and starting their work week. The concept of driving through traffic to sit at a 9-5 desk job for the next 5 days is so painful that
sorrows get drowned in mug after mug of coffee from the nearest drive-through coffee stand.

Fortunately some of us are smart enough to ignore the system and blaze our own trails. Literally. This morning I snowshoed through near white-out conditions on my way to work. When
thinking back on most of my jobs, I can honestly say the commutes were as enjoyable as the work I did.

– On the North Slope my commute varied between helicopter rides, skiff rides on the Colville River Delta, and hikes to the day’s search area.
– On St. George I got to zip around on an ATV and then hike along trails to music, podcasts, or silence.
– In New Zealand my commute took me through fields of cattle, horses, and sheep before crossing a log bridge that took me into the bush (kiwi habitat). A plum tree even provided me with treats on my walk home!
– My YK Delta commute included a boat ride across the Tutakoke River and then a focused effort on not getting my feet stuck in the sucking tidal mud.
– In the oilfields of Alberta I commuted on ice roads and had to radio out my location at every mile to alert big rigs. That was different!
– When working around Sacramento I did have a more typical commute in Sac’s traffic, but since I love driving and got paid for my commute time, I actually hoped for delays.
– Commutes on Buldir weren’t necessarily kind to my body, but I’ll always remember those hikes… and be thankful every time I’m Not hiking on a cobble beach.

My new commute takes about half an hour and can be skied or snowshoed. Snowshoes take me NW from our main camp, over Chungungo Flats. From there I drop down to Playa Chungungo and
continue following that NW, saying hello to Antarctic fur seals, Weddell seals, and the occasional leopard seal as I go. A short, steep climb takes me partway up Aymara, and then I hug the
slopes of it, Diaguita, and Pinguinera before reaching the back side of Enrique. Continuing north to cross Enrique’s ridge, I then turn west and walk along Enrique’s northern slope, which is where I reach my office: the Skua Shack.

The Skua Shack is the weathered building where most penguinas – historical nickname for the female seabird techs at Cape Shirreff- tend to base their days. The penguin colonies are all on
the northwestern end of Livingston Island, so returning to main camp for lunch or other duties is illogical. In addition to having a Coleman stove and propane heat, the shack’s windows
provide a fantastic view of chinstrap and gentoo colonies, breaking waves, and snow covered dramatic rock formations. It’s nice to have a warm haven for protection from the wind and snow.

What really makes my commute to the office a joy is the fact that my route follows a visible penguin highway. When there’s no fresh snow, I can follow their tracks to work. Many penguins
emerge from the water elsewhere around the island and then troop past our camp on their way to the northwest corner, meaning I encounter gentoos and chinstraps on my commute almost every
day. Their toddling, sliding, and dedication to the march makes for lots of natural entertainment. Who needs coffee, radio stations, or smartphones when there are penguins to watch?

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Sorry for the lack of posts, but having just under a month and a half of internet between remote gigs made other things the priority. After returning to Homer I spent about 10 days there wrapping up data and putting away field gear. I went up to Fairbanks to walk the lovely Equinox Marathon and have a week with my Dad at the tail end of his 3 weeks of moose hunting.

Then I proceeded to bike, enjoy beer, and watch all of the football I could, since football season is now over. I’m in Punta Arenas, Chile, and will board the Laurence M. Gould icebreaker tonight. Tomorrow we’ll be bound for Livingston Island, Antarctica, where I’ll be studying chinstrap penguins, gentoo penguins, brown skuas, Antarctic fur seals, elephant seals, and leopard seals until mid-March!!! I’m headed back to summer.

Farewell, internet! I’ll do my best to post through email like I have on Buldir.

 

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