Amy Whitehead's Research

the ecological musings of a conservation biologist


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A day in the life of a penguin wrangler

By now you’ve probably figured out that I have something to do with penguins and occasionally disappear for months on end into the wilds of Antarctica. I often get asked what we actually do all day when we’re out in the field but my usual response – “oh, you know, count penguins and stuff” – isn’t really that satisfactory. So I’ve tried to document a typical day in the field at Cape Bird…

08:001 Bleep bleep bleep. The alarm goes off and I yank on the piece of string to remove the tightly wedged piece of cardboard in the window and let the daylight stream in. One of the problems of 24 hours of daylight is that it’s hard to block the light out. However, we’ve managed it to overcome that problem so well that we now struggle to wake up because there are no daylight cues to indicate that it’s morning. Hence the string. Eventually dragging myself out of bed, I stumble blindly out to the kitchen and get the coffee pot going. The boys are busy burning the toast while trying to identify a seal drifting past on the sea ice. At first glance, it looked like it might be a leopard seal but, on closer inspection through the binoculars, it turns out to be a weddell seal. They’re pretty common in this neck of the woods, so attention quickly turns back to rescuing breakfast. Then there’s a quick discussion about the plan for the day, which quickly digresses into some random conversation totally off topic!

10:00 We start to layer on the gear in preparation for going outside. It’s not a particularly cold day outside (maybe hovering just below 0°C), so no need to go overboard with the layers. Just a pair of polar fleece trousers, insulated overalls, merino t-shirt, merino longsleeved top, fleece sweater, primaloft jacket and windstopper jacket, topped off with a fleece-lined woollen hat, a neck buff, sunglasses and a pair of possum-merino gloves. Oh, plus a pair of thick woollen socks and insulated boots. It takes a while to get ready! Then it’s outside to start the day’s work.

Peter heads off to start bandsearching – walking the edge of the subcolonies and looking for birds with flipper bands. Once located, he’ll record the band number and the bird is up to. This is usually a straightforward process but there is always someone who flaps their flippers or turns so that you can’t read the band. This usually turns into a frustrating game where you and the penguin dance around each other for five minutes (or more!) until eventually you manage to outwit the bird. Once is tolerable but when you’re doing this for 8 hours or more a day, it can get pretty tedious.  On the other hand, spending this much time walking around the colony means you get to see a lot of interesting things and take a lot of pictures.

Hamish & I head down the hill to the weighbridge colony. This small subcolony of approximately 200 nests is surrounded by a mesh fence, with the only access point into the colony across a bridge. This bridge hides a set of scales that weigh birds as they cross, as well as recording whether they coming or going. Every couple of days we download the data from the weighbridge and record the status of the marked nests – which adults are present and how many eggs or chicks they have – as well as the total number of adults and chicks in the subcolony. This information is used to work out some pretty interesting information about how long adults are out at sea and how much food they bring back for their chicks.  It also lets us compare how the colony is doing from year to year.

11:00 Next we head off to count adults and chicks at two more reference colonies. Unlike the weighbridge colony, these subcolonies are not surrounded by a fence. We monitor 30 marked nests in these colonies from early November when the eggs are laid until the chicks creche in mid January. While we’re walking between colonies, we find a freshly dead chick that has just been killed by a skua. Penguin colonies are filled with death and destruction and it can take a bit of getting used to. But it can also offer some unique opportunities. All dead chicks in reasonable condition (i.e. they are still whole and not super stinky) are weighed, measured and then dissected. Looking at the stomach contents gives us some idea about what’s happening out at sea. This chick has been fed mostly krill but the grey mush suggests that adults are also starting to bring in silverfish. This tends to happen later in the season when the chicks are about three weeks old.

 

12:00 Chick counting done for the moment, it’s off to do some actual penguin wrangling. Since we arrived in mid December we’ve been catching banded adults with chicks and attaching small devices called accelerometers. These collect information about a bird’s foraging behaviour: how long they spend out at sea on one foraging trip, how often and how deep they dive, and the types of movements they are making while under the water. This morning’s task is to look for birds with accelerometers that that have returned from sea. Foraging trips typically last anywhere from 2 – 8 days, depending on the conditions out to sea. This year they seem to be at the longer end of the scale, suggesting that it’s taking longer for birds to find enough food to feed themselves and their chicks.

We aim to recatch birds when they have returned to their nests and are happily brooding their chicks. This is for three reasons:
1) it hopefully gives the adult time to feed their chick(s) before we turn up to disturb them; 2) it’s by far the easiest way to find them (imagine looking for a penguin with a small black device attached to its black back amongst ~40,000 other black-backed penguins!); and 3) adults are much easier to catch if they are sitting on a nest. Grabbing a penguin off a nest is much easier than you might expect – you simply weave your way through the surrounding nests (getting thoroughly pecked and beaten by the neighbours in the process) and pick them up. A second person collects the chick(s) and leaves a cover over the nest to stop the neighbours stealing all the rocks while you’re away. Then it’s onto the business of taking a blood sample, removing the accelerometer and taking a range of measurements such as weight and flipper length. Once the adult has been processed, we weigh and measure the chicks before marking them with a temporary plastic tag. These individually-numbered tags mean that we can follow the growth and survival of these chicks throughout the season. Once we’re done, we release the adult and the chicks back on the nest. The whole process takes less than 20 minutes for each bird and is relatively stress-free for both penguin and wrangler. This morning we manage to retrieve three of the ten accelerometers we have out, which is a pretty good haul.

 

14:00 Blood samples and accelerometers in hand, it’s time to head back to the hut and process the samples. Vials of blood are loaded into the centrifuge and sent spinning merrily on their way, slides are fixed in alcohol, feather samples are stored away under the bench and the first accelerometer is plugged into the computer to download. It must be time for lunch! This year we’ve become masters of the scone and today’s lunch includes a healthy dose of the chocolate and date variety, with a side of toasted cheese sandwich and some dried apple slices.

It can take up to 40 mins to download the data from each accelerometer. Given that we have three to do today, we have plenty of time to do our daily mammal survey. This involves staring out the window for an hour every day, scanning the beach and water for mammals. We often see Weddell seals on the beach and some days will be treated to a Antarctic minke whale or a pod of orca swimming past. Alas, today is not one of those days and it’s a very long hour staring out the window with binoculars without seeing a single mammal. At least the view isn’t too shabby.

16:30 Blood processed, accelerometers downloaded, lunch eaten and the lack of mammals surveyed, it’s time to head back outside to finish the rest of the day’s fieldwork. We hope to put the three accelerometers that we retrieved this morning back out on some new birds. We have a list of target nests with banded birds of known ages, so it’s simply a matter of walking around and checking those nests until we find somebody at home. Once we’ve located a victim customer, it’s a matter of grabbing the bird and its chicks off the nest and attaching the accelerometer. We do this using thin strips of tape that are layered under the feathers, a technique that is robust enough to stay on for up to three foraging trips. A nice, non-wriggly bird will take about 5-6 minutes to process and return to the nest. A wriggly bird may take a bit longer and will likely result in some strong words from the handler and the tape sticker! Oh how we hate the wriggly birds!

18:00 Three accelerometers deployed, it’s time to go and count some more penguins. As the season progresses, the number of adults at a subcolony decreases as the chicks are left to creche. This leaves the chicks particularly vulnerable to skua predation. We have some small subcolonies of penguins just below the hut that are quite isolated and surrounded by skua nests. These colonies drop in size quite dramatically as chicks start to disappear into the mouths of skuas. [skua swallowing chick photo] The skua effect can be so severe that the smallest of these colonies rarely manages to fledge any chicks. Every couple of days we count the number of adults and chicks to document the skua-induced declines. Today everyone seems to be well and accounted for but there are six hungry skua stalking the edge of the colony, so I suspect that the next counts will be somewhat lower.

18:30 Heading back up to the hut, we dump our packs and pick up some shovels and a wheelbarrow, and head over to the snowbank. Our hut has no plumbing system, so we have to collect snow to melt for water. A couple of times a week, we shovel snow into the wheelbarrow and dump it in a large container in the hut where it slowly melts. We also have to carry all our waste water (including pee) in buckets down to the sea. As such, washing is an event that is much less regular than would be socially acceptable in the real world! Luckily, we all smell equally of penguin.

 

20:00 “Scott Base, Scott Base, this is Cape Bird”. Every night we check in with Antarctica NZ at Scott Base on the VHF radio to let them know we’re okay and haven’t been eaten by skua or drifted away in a boat2. It’s our only opportunity to talk to someone outside of our group of three, hear some news from the outside world and get a weather report. Then it’s time for dinner – usually some sort of stirfry/pasta/curry dish. Today it’s a variation on lamb stirfry, followed by a special treat – passionfruit cheesecake! As far as field food goes, we have it pretty good out at Cape Bird. We have a freezer, so we can have frozen meat and vegetables, and there is a large well-stocked pantry with most of the things you need. Like most field huts though, Cape Bird is the place the food goes to die and expiry dates are treated more as a game (“Guess how many years since tonight’s dinner ingredients expired!”3) than a guideline for edibility. And you definitely start to crave fresh food – what we wouldn’t give for a simple salad.

21:00 Fed, watered and dishes washed, we all sit down at our computers and enter the day’s data, download photos, and work out a plan for tomorrow. This year Peter is trialling a new approach to data entry by entering it directly into a tablet in the field. It seems to be working well and saves having to enter up to 14 pages of data at the end of the day but there is still room for improvement. I spend some time in the lab sorting out the bleeding kit; finding more needles, pre-labelling sample bags.

00:00 How did it get to be this late already?! It’s hard to keep track of time when it never gets dark outside and we often find ourselves working much later than we intended. The light at this time of day is often stunning and it’s tempting to head back outside to take pictures. Tonight we set up the timelapse camera to try and capture the moving sea. Then it’s time to wedge the cardboard back in the window and drift off to sleep, counting penguins…

 

1 This hour of rising may be somewhat optimistic and is purely here for the benefit of my boss (who I’m hoping doesn’t read footnotes!). Even this is much later than the season when he was there but that’s what happens when you leave me in charge!

2 This happened to a group of researchers at Cape Bird in the 1970s. It took five days before they were rescued. Needless to say, we are no longer allowed boats!

3 I think 2004 was the oldest expiry date encountered this year, although there were a couple of items that I think actually pre-dated expiry dates!

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Wildlife Wednesday: Antarctica

Now I realise that Antarctica technically isn’t wildlife. But it’s full of wildlife, albeit of a somewhat limited variety (we saw a total of 10 species of vertebrates, plus a couple of crustaceans and some algae in two months). And it only seems fair that I share some of that wildlife with you. I haven’t had time to properly edit the ~65GB of photos we took at Cape Bird this year, so here is a photo for every one of the 56 days we were in Antarctica. I hope you’ll forgive me the odd non-wildlife photo!  Hovering over a photo will give you some inane caption, while you can click on one and enter slideshow mode for a better view.  Enjoy!

More southern stories will follow soon….


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My academic history (in a word-cloud)

Earlier this week, the postdocs in the QAECO lab presented a short talk about their academic life: past research, current research and future aspirations.  Limited to three powerpoint slides and eight minutes, it was an interesting exercise in brevity and finding ways to clearly communicate the major themes of your research.

My research history hasn’t really followed any obvious themes.  In fact, it’s really been driven by a series of happy accidents and crap-portunities*.   I started out as a field ecologist; studying the habitat use of freshwater fish, and working as a ranger for the Department of Conservation managing threatened bird species.  This was followed by more freshwater fish research, this time on rainbow trout in the United States, before I veered off (due to a crap-portunity) into the mysterious world of modelling (of the mathematical kind).  This fortuitous deviation led to an investigation of the sustainability of harvesting shovelnose sturgeon for caviar for my Masters and greatly influenced my research interests.  Returning to NZ, more ranger work for DOC led to a PhD looking at ways to improve the effectiveness of whio conservation: a glorious combination of fieldwork with spatial, demographic and population modelling.

Another happy accident saw me end up at Landcare Research, where I became the person that analysed all the random data living in the bottom of people’s filing cabinets.  I  investigated the effects of removing livestock from high country farmland, modeled disease transmission in Tasmanian devils, and looked for relationships between rabbit breeding and grass growth.  A short break in contracts provided an opportunity to do volunteer work in Antarctica.  This led to three seasons monitoring Adélie penguins and skua; and research looking at the effects of environmental conditions on Adélie penguin chick condition and the relationship between skua populations and penguin density.  I also spent time estimating the number of burrow-nesting petrels across a group of islands by identifying relationships between burrow density and habitat, burrow occupancy and breeding success.  And I briefly branched out into scary maths when I constructed a virtual model of masting trees to assess the impacts of herbivory.

I summarised all this in my talk by producing a word-cloud (in R because that’s how I roll) that showed the relative importance of keywords from each of these projects (and some pretty pictures of my study subjects to keep people interested).

academic wordcloud

So I guess you could say the central themes of my research to date are the management and conservation of populations threatened by invasive pests.  There will almost certainly be modelling involved, probably in (but not limited to) R, and I’d be keen on doing some fieldwork if possible.  I’m good at sorting out your horribly stored dataset (although I’d rather not) and I can put my hand to most forms of analysis (provided it is google-able and preferably done in R).  I’m currently branching out into yet another new field: conservation planning in the face of regional and urban development in the QAECO lab at the University of Melbourne but that’s another story for another time.

* When new opportunities arise out of the shitty things that happen.

Photo credits
I’d like to claim credit for these amazing photographs but, the truth is, I never actually saw some of my study species  (one of the downsides of being a modeller).  So thanks to the following contributors of the photographs I acquired from the internet.
Anticlockwise from bottom left: kokopu – Steve Moore; tussocks; rabbits; devils – Ian Waldie/Getty; drylands; masting; Adélie penguin – Amy Whitehead; whio – Amy Whitehead; oi – Mike Danzenbaker; kaki – Glenda Rees; shovelnose sturgeon – Konrad P. Schmidt; rainbow trout; kakapo – Mark Carwardine/naturepl.com; skua – Amy Whitehead; takahe