This week at Macquarie Island: 13 September 2019

Fifty thousand chicks and counting

The counting of the kings

The annual king penguin census kicked off in August. The Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers Stella and Andrea, and the amazing wildlife photographer and keen volunteer Pete, headed down island to colonies on the east coast.

The census involves counting the chicks which still have their fluffy brown coats and are huddled in groups (crèches). A few adults remain to help guard chicks from predatory birds, but mostly the adults are at sea, feeding and returning briefly to feed their chicks.

We took photos of each colony starting from Sandy Bay in the north to Lusitania Bay in the south. The Lusitania Bay colony is by the far the largest of all the colonies where about 80 per cent of the island’s king penguin chicks are huddled in over 50 separate crèches.

To get the best vantage point we climbed to the top of the escarpment to take photos of the mosaic of crèches below. This involved climbing up and down tussock covered slopes and rock hopping along rocky shores. Having a great photographer with a steady hand was the key to successful photos (thanks Pete!)

Mild temperatures, low winds and good visibility are ideal conditions for photographing the colonies, but in the sub-Antarctic these conditions do not persist for long.

The weather was not on our side from the beginning. Snowy weather from the south-east blanketed the island in deep snow from the plateau to the coast. Chicks huddled together in tight crèches making them hard to photograph and impossible to count.

Luckily, we were able to get Lusitania Bay on a beautiful clear day and the photos were a great success!

Back at station expeditioners had a crack at guessing the number of chicks at Lusitania Bay by examining a full panoramic image of the colony. Some interesting and experimental methods were used to estimate the total, including attempts to count individual penguins, averaging all the other guesses and also guesstimates using counts from previous years.

In the end, the closest guess came from Kerryn, our trusted Chef (just over 50,000 chicks!). Nice one, Kezza! 

Until next time,

Stella. 

A series of huddled brown penguin chicks along a coastline
Mild weather and clear visibility meant chicks were less huddled together in…
(Photo: Andrea Turbett)
A group of adult king penguins cluster together on snow covered tussock
The striking golden plumage of adult king penguins
(Photo: Andrea Turbett)
A large colony of penguins on a snowy beach
Snowy conditions at Lusitania Bay are not great for census photography but…
(Photo: Andrea Turbett)
a close up photo of brown penguin chicks huddled together in the snow
Cold, wet and crowded king penguin chicks. Until these chick develop their…
(Photo: Pete Layt)
A woman stands in snowy tussock taking photos
Andrea photographing chicks in the snow
(Photo: Pete Layt)
A man in a yellow jacket stands in the snow
Pete and his camera gear in snowy conditions
(Photo: Andrea Turbett)
A woman is counting penguins from a coloured photograph
Chief penguin counter
(Photo: Andrea Turbett)
A screenshot of a compuer counting tool that marks penguins when they have been counted
The computer counting tool
(Photo: Stella Thomas)
Two women and one man stand in front of a rocky outcrop on a beach
The king penguin census team of 2019: Stella, Pete and Andrea
(Photo: Andrea Turbett)