Tagging Whales in the Antarctic Seas

Life at Palmer Station
by -- February 7th, 2013

 

Donna ordered me back to the boat! Who is Donna, you ask? Donna is one of the ‘Birders’ at Palmer Station, where I waited for ten days for the rest of our crew to arrive for our cruise. For three of those ten days, I was a volunteer Birder. The bird research, both with penguins as well as flying birds, has been a mainstay of the work around Palmer for almost 40 years. Bill Fraser has been studying penguins since 1974, and they have added studies with other species over the years. Bill was not at Station, but his wife Donna was there, leading the Birders.

So, I volunteered with Donna, and it was AWESOME. Here’s what we did: 1) chick counts on Adelie and chinstrap colonies; 2) switched out transmitters on gentoos; 3) weighed and measured giant petrel and brown skua chicks; and 4) sampled diets from chinstraps. Now, a bit more about each one…

It was during the chick counts that I was ordered back to the boat. Chick counts are relatively easy, you’d think, but it all depends on knowing what the chicks look like! When they have their down they’re easy to count, even I could do that, but once they loose their down they look much like the adults. Once I learned what the down-less chicks look like, it was easy! Three of us would stand near the colony and, using a clicker counter, would make independent counts until our counts were within 5% of each other. Number of chicks in a colony ranged from 1 to 280!

How many chicks do you see?

On Biscoe Island, east of Palmer Station, we landed on the rocks, wandered past the southern elephant seals and located our first Gentoo that was carrying both a satellite transmitter as well as a radio beacon. Donna crept up on it and netted the bird. Then, with the bird on my lap (and holding it tightly!) Donna removed the transmitters in about 5 minutes. We then released the bird back near its nest. These transmitters send the bird’s location and some information about its dive behavior, which helps the Birders understand a great deal about the ecology of these birds.

Weighing and measuring giant petrel (GP) chicks was great. The GPs have become habituated and very tolerant of the Birders scooping up their chicks right off the nest, measuring the culmen (part of the beak) and flight feathers, then putting the chick in a bag and weighing it. The adult GPs are very determined brooders. For one adult, Donna put a fake wooden egg on the edge of the nest while we had the chick, and the adult pushed the fake egg on the nest and sat on it! Monitoring the chick weights and measurements are critical data sources for the long-term bird study around Palmer.

One of the GP chicks we weighed and measured

The diet sampling is very important as it lets the Birders know what and how much the birds are eating, and these data are compared with things like chick weights, krill catches made by scientists, and foraging trip lengths. Comparing how much they have in their stomachs with how long they’ve been gone is a good indicator of the resources available to them and how well their chicks will do.

Ok, now back to the whales…!

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