Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 6

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In the conclusion to this series of posts about an uncooperative research subject, she shares a bit about the data collected during this episode of field research. Catch up by reading previous posts: Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 about one particularly difficult attempt to study African penguins in the wild. 

Epilogue: despite the sleepless nights our penguin caused us, she did provide us with valuable information. After we equipped her on February 23, 2009, she left the island at 7:40 am and headed in a north-westerly direction. She only arrived back at the colony 62 hours later, at 9:40 pm on Wednesday February 25, just before the device’s battery went flat. During the time she spent at sea, she travelled 184 km and ventured as far as 58 km from the island. This is quite an unusually long foraging trip compared to the other 53 foraging trips we recorded at Halifax Island so far, although trip lengths and distance covered can be highly variable. While at sea, our penguin dived 1479 times, or 24 times per hour. Her maximum dive depth was 71.2 m, not the deepest dive we have recorded so far, but still respectable.

Catching a logger penguin: crawling into the colony to catch a penguin wearing a logger.

Food appeared to be scarce around Halifax Island at the time, with chick condition generally poor and large numbers of chick mortalities due to starvation noticed all over the island. The data we collected that summer showed that the penguins at Halifax Island were working harder than usual to feed their chicks.

This is precisely the type of information we need in order to find ways to improve the tenuous conservation status of African penguins in Namibia. The information emanating from our project has been instrumental in defining the shape and size of Namibia’s first Marine Protected Area, the Namibian Islands’ Marine Protected Area (NIMPA), which includes Halifax Island and the surrounding waters. Our project continues to play a vital role in monitoring and evaluating the NIMPA’s effectiveness and I look forward to Katta’s visit next February.

Want to see penguins in person? Visit the Aquarium! It's the summer of Penguinology right now, so not only will you be able to observe more than 80 penguins, you'll be able to learn the most wild and surprising facts about these beloved birds. Here's where to start planning your visit.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 5

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. Catch up by reading previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4!

The fog hovers over the coast for most of the morning. As soon as it begins to clear, the wind returns with its usual vengeance. At 5:00 pm we repack the vehicle for the umpteenth time and head for Guano Bay. The wind seems to be dropping. Again we take turns staring through the telescope, scanning the colony and landing beach from the shore. As the sun is setting, Katta calmly announces “there she is, she just arrived.”  We are on Halifax Island in record time. I am not taking any chances and have brought my catch-net along.

Detaching the logger: Katta carefully unwraps the lattice of tape holding the logger while I hold the penguin.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Normally I catch penguins directly by hand because it is a calmer approach, but with a nervous penguin it can be less stressful with a net. We carefully move toward colony 2. She is lying next to one of her chicks, looking in our direction. All we can see are loose tape ends fluttering on her back. Our hearts stop. Has the logger fallen off? Is she just wearing the lattice of tape strips?

We slowly shift position to see her back, but still can’t confirm whether the logger is attached or not. I slowly tip-toe closer, focused, catch-net at the ready. I am about 2 m away from her when she becomes aware of me. She gets up and edges away. Before she has a chance to run, I put the catch-net over her. Got her. And yes, the logger is still attached. Just. Her chicks must have had fun undoing and playing with the tape ends, but our precious logger is there. We quickly take off the logger and tape. I carry her back to her nest and fully expect her to make another dash through the colony. Not so. She calmly settles next to her chicks. All is well.

On our way back we are overcome by a giggling fit; it must be the relief kicking in. It is now getting dark. And for the first time in ages we both catch the perfect wave to the shore.

Stay tuned for the last post of this series. It'll bring home why the researchers go to such lengths to attach—and retrieve—these GPS data loggers. 

Can't wait? Want to see penguins in person? Visit the Aquarium! It's the summer of Penguinology right now. So not only will you be able to observe more than 80 penguins, you'll be able to learn the most wild and surprising facts about these beloved birds. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 4

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. Catch up on the story so far with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Saturday, February 28, 2009: We drive to Guano Bay at the usual time. The early mornings are starting to take their toll on us and we are feeling tired and despondent. Again the wind is pretty strong and we are reluctant to paddle. We’ve brought the telescope along and start scanning again. Suddenly we see her. No doubt, it’s her. The logger is still on her back and she is standing with her chicks. Strangely enough, the wind has calmed down a bit (or is it just our imagination?), so without hesitation we climb into our wetsuits, jump on our paddle-skis and paddle as fast as we can.

We arrive at colony 2...our penguin is gone! We check the beach, hoping that she is still socializing with the beach crowd, but no, she has already left to sea. We return home, disappointed but hopeful. At least we know that she is alive and well, that she has obviously not abandoned her chicks and that she is still carrying our logger. Phew!

Logger bird feeding chick: Dinner is served. Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Sunday, March 1, 2009: We cunningly revise our strategy and opt for a pre-dawn raid; clearly our penguin is a very early riser. As we leave town at 5:30 am, we get enveloped in thick fog. So thick that it is hard to even guess where the road is heading, although we know the route by heart. We arrive at Guano Bay in foggy darkness. Daylight somehow never comes. We can’t see a thing from where we are parked. Not the shore, not the sea and certainly not the island. Way too dangerous to attempt a crossing. We patiently wait for the fog to lift, even just a little bit, but it doesn’t. It just sits there. An hour later we give up. No point in waiting; our penguin would have left the colony by now.

Click through to Part 5 for a resolution to this quest to retrieve a scientific GPS logger from this uncooperative African penguin! 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 3

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. If you're behind, catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009: We arrive at the colony just before sunrise, fully expecting our penguin to be there. Alas, no sign of her. Her chicks have teamed up with the neighbor’s chicks and all four are guarded by one adult penguin. Oh well, it’s only day two, we’ll try again tomorrow morning.

Halifax Island welcome committee: African Penguins tend to be a curious lot.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

Thursday, February 26, 2009: We arrive at Guano Bay at 6:30 am, but discover that the wind is already too strong to paddle to the island. The sea is whipped into foamy curls all over the bay and we don’t think it is worth the risk of getting blown straight to Brazil. Besides, we’ve got Plan B, the use of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources’ research vessel, the !Anichab later that day to do a routine bird census on Halifax Island. Of course the odds of seeing our penguin in the middle of the day are not that great—the best chances are around dawn and dusk when penguins arrive back from sea to feed their chicks. And, as expected, our penguin is not around; at least “our” chicks look well-fed. But what if the wind stays strong and we can’t paddle across again the next morning? Staying overnight at the island is not really an option; there is no shelter on the island and it is covered in bird ticks that cause us to break out in massive, itchy welts. We are not really too keen on that prospect.

Friday, February 27, 2009: Back at Guano Bay at 6:30am. Wind conditions are marginal and we risk the paddle. Katta misjudges a wave and gets bucked off her paddle-ski. Our equipment is packed in waterproof backpacks, so no harm done. On the island we don’t bother to change into our dry clothes but head straight for colony 2. Surely, she has to be back. She isn’t. We stand and wait. Freezing in our wet wetsuits. Scanning the beach. Scanning the colony again from all angles. Then the wind picks up and we have to head back. This time I get dumped in the surf, but that’s not unusual. We drive back with the car heater on full blast. And now we are getting worried.

En route to Halifax: Paddling to “the office” – Katta on the left, Jessica on the right.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources

The wind remains strong throughout the day, but we give it another try in the late afternoon. We drive out to Guano Bay, armed with paddle-skis, wetsuits and my telescope. Perhaps, if we are lucky, we might get a glimpse of her from the shore. We take turns scanning the colony and the landing beach until it is too dark to see anything. Still no sign of our penguin. Neither of us sleeps well that night.

Keep reading with Part 4 of this series, as the quest to find the missing penguin—and GPS logger—continues.

Can't wait, need more penguins right now? Visit the Aquarium! It's the summer of Penguinology right now. So not only will you be able to observe more than 80 penguins, you'll be able to learn the most wild and surprising facts about these beloved birds. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Guest Post | An uncooperative African Penguin: Part 2

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts about an uncooperative African penguin, she retells one particular experience while conducting field research of wild penguins. Read Part 1 for an overview of the research project.

Monday, February 23, 2009: It is 7:00 am and Katta and I just paddled to Halifax Island from Guano Bay on our paddle-skis, a 10 minute trip. The weather is still calm, but the south wind, for which this region is world-famous, is about to come up, making the paddle back to the mainland difficult, if not plain dangerous. We are scanning Penguin Colony 2 for a potential candidate to carry our GPS logger and settle for a penguin at the northern edge of the colony—easily accessible, in good condition, two healthy downy chicks. I leopard-crawl into the colony, trying not to upset the general peace, and slowly grab our penguin. An easy catch.

Halifax Island: Halifax Island in southern Namibia, home to about 6,000 African penguins.
Photo: Jessica Kemper | Namibia Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources 

After retreating some 20 m from the colony, with my victim held securely under my arm, we quickly weigh and measure the bird, a female. While I gently but firmly hold the bird across my lap, her eyes covered, her heart racing, but not struggling to get away, Katta expertly fixes the small device to the lower back of the penguin by weaving strips of Tesa® tape into the feathers and wrapping the loose ends over the logger. The beauty of this method is that the logger can be taken off again without any damage to the feathers; that’s important because feather damage would compromise the bird’s waterproofing and therefore its survival, clearly not what we intend. The seawater will eventually take its toll on the effectiveness of the tape and after a week or so the tape will start to come apart. But that’s not a problem for us, because we will collect our logger again long before this becomes an issue.

Five minutes later the logger is securely affixed and I release our penguin next to her nest. Usually a penguin quickly settles back at the nest with the chicks, breathes a sigh of relief and carries on contemplating life, but this time our bird just takes off, dashing through the colony, panic-stricken, away from me, away from her chicks. From a distance we watch the nest for a while, hoping our penguin would return, but she is nowhere to be seen. With the south wind picking up we decide to call it a morning and paddle back to land and a hot cup of tea. I am left with a niggling feeling that we have a particularly uncooperative bird on our hands. Catching her again to take the logger off might be tricky now that she knows what to expect.

Keep reading with Part 3 of this series, where the researchers return to the island for their first attempt to retrieve the GPS logger. Things don't go entirely as planned!

Can't wait, need more penguins right now? Visit the Aquarium! It's the summer of Penguinology right now. So not only will you be able to observe more than 80 penguins, you'll be able to learn the most wild and surprising facts about these beloved birds.