Saturday, November 15, 2008

My final post...

Punta Arenas, Chile

Two days of traveling has taken me from the southern islands of Tierra del Fuego back to the continent of South America and the city of Punta Arenas. Every minute of the last 15 days has been one incredible experience after another. I have seen birds that many die hard birdwatchers dream of seeing. I have seen dolphins porpoising at the bow of the boat, so close that I could have touched them. I left my mark on a desolated landscape. I have seen hundreds of albatross soaring in the heavy winds. A skua tried to steal my gloves. I have been rained on, snowed on, hailed on, and in seas so rough you had to tie up in the stays to keep from going overboard. I had rockhopper penguins at my feet and my boots sucked into the mud and guano past my knees.

This trip has taught me a lot about penguins, other seabirds and the nature of field work in such remote locations. In the two weeks at sea I learned how to identify many of Chile's seabirds, how to count penguins and survive on a small boat in the southern ocean. I hope that the information collected during this research trip will help to protect southern rockhopper penguin populations, and I know that I will never forget my experiences with these amazing birds!

To learn more about penguins and get your chance to see them up close and personal, visit the New England Aquarium. Our penguin exhibit has over 80 birds of 4 different species, including the southern rockhopper penguin! If you are interested in helping penguin conservation efforts find out how you can help by sponsoring one of our animals. And if you think that working with penguins sounds like a job for you, check out our exciting volunteer opportunities!

Thanks for following along with me on this unforgettable experience!



Thursday, November 13, 2008

15 minutes

Isla Caroline, ChileLink
15 minutes. That was how long we had sunny, calm weather.

We had started out towards the open waters of the ocean side of Isla Caroline, before the winds and hail forced us to turn back. A narrow passage through the island was our last option to get to the open ocean facing side of Caroline. About an hour later we were finally there, and the small islands covered in tussock grass looked ideal for southern rockhopper penguins.

Unfortunately, the weather continued to be uncooperative and we were not able to make any landings. We stood on deck with binoculars searching for signs of rockhopper colonies, but nothing definite was seen. Rockhopper penguins were reported in these waters almost 100 years ago by explorers taking refuge at Isla Caroline from a storm at Isla Ildefonso.

Could it be that the southern rockhopper penguin has died out or left this area of Chile? Our boat crew tells us that over the years there has been heavy fishing in this area, an insight that may explain the absence of penguins around Isla Caroline. Over fishing is a major problem facing all species of penguins and has taken a serious toll on their overall population numbers.

The weather starts to turn again and we must leave the exposed, open ocean side of Isla Caroline. Today is the last day for us to search for rockhoppers and we must make our way back to port in Punta Arenas. Although we are disappointed that we were not able to visit all the islands and explore as many penguin colonies we had hoped, such is the nature of working in the field. The wind and rain do not always cooperate, and sometimes the snow and hail make matter worse.

You may get 15 minutes of beautiful sunshine, and then spend the rest of the day shrouded in fog. The only thing you can do is use every moment available to explore and learn about the environment around you, whether it be the penguins you came thousands of miles to study or the gulls nesting right outside of town.



Wednesday, November 12, 2008

40 degrees

Isla Waterman, Chile

Crossing through the open seas are difficult. This morning we left Isla Waterman and tried to reach Isla Caroline through the open ocean waters. Huge swells rocked the boat side to side and back and forth. I watched the pendulum of the gauge that measures the angle of boat pitch swing past 40 degrees! Eventually we had to turn back and instead tried to reach the ocean side of Isla Caroline by first crossing through the narrow channel that ran behind it. Along the way we looked for any signs of southern rockhopper penguins.

Some of the smaller islands surrounding the back of Isla Caroline had similar characteristics to Isla Terhalten and Sesambre--tall, jagged cliffs topped with dense tussock grass, and the open ocean access rockhoppers seem to prefer. As the failing weather would not allow any landings on these islands for further investigation, the best we could do was scan the islands and water with binoculars, but no rockhoppers were seen. Hugo found a small cove for the Chonos to anchor in for the night. Tomorrow we will have one last chance to reach and explore the ocean-facing side of Isla Caroline.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The tasty glove

The southern branch of the Beagle Channel

This morning the weather cleared enough for us to leave Isla Gordon and head back into the southern branch of the Beagle Channel. The black browed albatross and giant petrels took advantage of the heavy winds and effortlessly soared over the waves. Both birds seem very aloof and neither species came close enough to the boat to get a good photo. On the other hand, the Chilean skua flying with the albatrosses, seemed to have no fear of the boat or the people standing on it.

Skuas are a larger relative of the gull family. They are an intelligent and aggressive predatory bird, praying on the eggs and chicks of many bird species, including rockhopper penguins, and are also known to attack other birds in order to bully them into regurgitating their freshly caught meal. This large Chilean skua decided to land on our boat to see if we had anything of interest.

In the video below you can see the skua after it has landed on the bow of the zodiac. Shortly after, something catches its eye and it takes off towards the video camera. The camera then goes out of focus and what you don't see in the commotion is me trying to keep the skua from stealing the glove off of my left hand. Apparently that's what caught his eye and I guess he thought it might make a nice addition to his nest! Following the altercation the skua hovered above my video camera for a while, his black eyes thoroughly checking me over for anything else he might like.

This was an incredible experience for me. Despite what you may think about their aggressive nature, every animal holds an important place in the natural order of things. The Chilean skua is a beautiful bird with a striking cinnamon colored chest and bold, white markings on the tips of its wings. With this unique experience the skua has become an unexpected favorite for me.

- Caitlin


Monday, November 10, 2008

A lot of time for solitaire

Isla Gordon, Chile

This morning we were relieved to wake up to the beeps and grumbling of the Chonos's engine starting. The winds had finally calmed and the harbor master had given the okay for boats to leave Puerto Williams.

Today we were able to make it through to the southern branch of the Beagle channel before another storm again forced us into hiding. The protected cove on Isla Gordon that will be our home for the night is surrounded by waterfalls and across the entrance of the channel you can just make out a glacier through the rainy darkness.

Our hopes of making Isla Caroline in the near future are fading. As frustrating as this waiting can be it is the nature of research in the beautiful, harsh and unpredictable fjords of southern Chile.

- Caitlin


Sunday, November 9, 2008

Puerto Williams gulls

Puerto Williams, Chile

Last night after leaving Isla Terhalten we headed back into the Beagle Channel. The plan was to get as far through the channel as possible in order to make our next destination, Isla Caroline, in the next few days. Isla Caroline is an open ocean-facing island near the southern most part of Tierra del Fuego. Historical records show that explorers working on Isla Ildefonso in 1910 took shelter from a storm at Caroline and reported seeing southern rockhopper penguins. Feather Link hopes to find and census these penguins. Unfortunately for us, a storm also forced us to take shelter and we anchored in Puerto Williams for the night. By this morning the high winds have not shown any signs of stopping so the harbor master closed the port. No boats are allowed to leave as the weather is too dangerous. Not content to sit at the dock, a few of us braved the winds and walked over to a gull colony located on a sandy spit of land alongside the channel. The winds were so strong that even the gulls had difficulty flying into them, and instead just hovered directly over the ground.

The colony was mostly nesting kelp gulls,

but there were a few pairs of dolphin gulls,

Magellanic oystercatchers,

and a pair of upland geese.

Let's hope the weather clears for tomorrow.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

An island overview

Isla Terhalten

Today is our last day at Isla Terhalten. Watching from the boat I saw a group of Magellanic penguins on the shoreline that were very hesitant to get started with their early morning fishing trip. What you can't see in this video is the reason for their delay, the group of southern sea lions waiting in the water below.

Our captian, Hugo, brought the Chonos in for close drive by of the entire island for one last look before we head back towards the Beagle Channel. In this video, you can see an imperial cormorant breeding colony on the exposed slope, as well as many southern sea lions lounging on the rocky cliffs. It amazes me that an animal so large and ungainly on land can climb such steep cliffs! Take a look!

- Caitlin


Friday, November 7, 2008

Counting penguins

Isla Terhalten, Chile

This morning we left our sheltered cove on Isla Lennox to once again head out into the open waters and Isla Terhalten. Today the seas are much calmer and I hope to have another shot at getting on to the island. As we approached the island you could see shiny white dots that were actually the bellies of rockhopper penguins filing down the rocky cliffs, headed out to sea to forage for fish. As the boat got closer some of the penguins farther up on the rocks stopped abruptly and stared out at the boat, while others turned and scrambled back up into the grasses on the edge of the cliff. The small group that had already made it down to the water porpoised through the waves off the starboard side of the Chonos and out to sea.

Before I knew it I was wearing a life jacket and sitting in the small zodiac headed straight for the rocky cliffs of the island. When the tiny inflatable boat ran up near a low rock face Manuel effortlessly jumped onto the island and made it look easy. Now it was my turn. I climbed to the front of the zodiac, over the rope webbing protecting the boat from the sharp rocks and barnacles, and tried to scramble up onto the island. Let’s just say I was not as graceful.

My feet and hands could not get a hold on the very slippery, algae and barnacle covered rocks but luckily Manuel was able to grab my life jacket and help me to shore. Once standing upright I took off my life jacket and passed it back to the zodiac, noticing over my right shoulder that an enormous male southern sea lion was watching us from the rocks about 20 feet away. Before I could get my camera out of my pocket he slipped into the water to investigate the second launch arriving to his island. His massive head bobbed in the waves about 10 feet from the zodiac. Two female sea lions went in after him and poked their much smaller heads out of the water on either side of his.

He watched the zodiac intently as the rest of the team made their way onto the island and then lost interest and disappeared under the waves as the small zodiac headed back to the Chonos. Now that the entire team was finally on Isla Terhalten, we made the climb up into the largest of the three colonies located on the island. At the top of the cliff where the steep rocks ended and the tussock grass began, were the small group of rockhoppers that had stopped in their tracks when they first saw our boat.

They watched us closely, unsure of what to make of us. Southern rockhopper penguins in Chile breed in such remote and harsh locations such as Isla Terhalten that most have never encountered humans. Once at the base if the colony, our first matter of business is to measure out areas called plots, in order to get accurate counts of nests and eggs. Four ropes tied together to make a large rectangle designate the area in which to count, although attaching the ropes to small trees or dense clumps of tussock grass around the colony is much easier said then done.

This colony is situated on either side of a small, muddy creek bed. The mud is so thick in some areas that if you stand still for too long your boots are sucked in to the mud past your ankles. The colony is also on a hillside and climbing up the slippery rocks and fallen trees can be a recipe for a face full of mud and guano. Most importantly, you have to be very careful about where you step as to not disturb any nests or eggs. The penguins, not sure if we meant them harm, abandoned their nests and ran into the surrounding tussock grass as we entered the colony.

Luckily, the striated caracaras watching from the nearby bushes were also too afraid of us to come into the colony and steal the now unguarded eggs.

Once the ropes were in place we moved quickly through the colony counting nests and eggs and after a few minutes the rockhoppers cautiously returned to their nests. By counting the number of nests with eggs in them we can get a much more accurate idea of the total number of birds in each plot. Incubating eggs requires both parents as they have to be able to switch of between sitting on the eggs and foraging for fish. Pairs that lose their mate during the breeding season will eventually be forced to abandon their eggs to hunt for fish. Unguarded eggs are quickly taken by predatory birds, such as caracaras, that also live on these islands.

By counting nests we can assume that any nest with eggs must have two penguins. Our first plot had 141 successful nests, which means that there are probably close to 282 southern rockhopper penguins just in that 20m X 10m area. As we continued up through the colony we did 3 more plots, each with at least 100 successful nests. Around 85 percent of the nests that we counted had two eggs in them and I only saw a handful of abandoned nest sites in the 4 plot areas.

It seems that the remote location and dense vegetation of Isla Terhalten is helping to protect these penguins from pressures such as habitat encroachment and introduced predators. Unfortunately even the harshest of locations cannot protect them from the larger problems of over fishing and climate change that are pushing many species of penguins to the brink of extinction. Leaving the colony, we radioed to the Chonos to establish a new pick up location and made our way back down to the cliffs. Along the way we passed a pair of Magellanic penguins in their burrow, and an ashy headed goose guarding his nest site from on looking striated caracaras.

To get back down to the boat we had to descend down the vertical cliffs and again make the jump into the zodiac. On the left side of this photo you can see two of the Feather Link team members, Roger and Len, making their way down and get a good idea of the height of these cliffs.

Once safely back on the Chonos we hosed the mud off of our clothes and boots and went below for dinner. It's hard to express the exhilarating feeling of being on such a wild and untouched island. This experience is something I will never forget for the rest of my life.