Getting personal with the penguins
Life's a Béche
Just a few kilometres from Mawson research station…
…Béchervaise Island could be on another planet
Kim Kliska, Field biologist “Yes, Béchervaise does look like – a bit like a space station on Mars. The Googies behind us are our living and our workspace, so there’s only three of those. So very limited space, and if the weather’s bad that’s all we have, really, compared to the station – it’s quite different.”
Marcus Salton, Field biologist “While we’re out here on Béchervaise Island on our own, it’s quite peaceful aside from the noises of the penguins.
Biologists live on the island during summer to study seabirds
The Adelie penguin population here has been monitored for decades
Marcus “It’s a long standing program, been going for 30 years and it is quite unusual and quite unique. It’s because it’s about the life span of a penguin so we can start to look at things happening through time such as changes in their breeding success and how that’s linked with changes in their environment.”
Kim “Penguins are an indicator species, so we use the Adélies here to look at how much krill is in the local ecosystem, and that’s really important. We have these weighbridge systems, and as the penguins come and go we get the weights as they’re coming in and as they’re going out, so we can look at how much krill they’re actually feeding their chicks.”
Automatic cameras take photos every day throughout the year
Marcus “From those photos we can look at when the penguins are arriving, when they’re departing and how many eggs are laid and how many chicks are produced.”
Counts show that 1500 breeding pairs live here, out of a regional population of 80,000 pairs
Kim “Studying penguins is really glamorous! They’re quite smelly, so living here – we live out here for a few weeks – and yes, you become really used to the smell, to the point where you don’t notice it. Yes, they’re just fascinating. It is an amazing job.”
A summer of seabird research on a remote island off the coast of Antarctica is coming to a close for another year.
Two Australian Antarctic Division field biologists, Kim Kliska and Marcus Salton, have been living on Béchervaise Island for the past three months, continuing a long-term monitoring program, spanning three decades.
Kim Kliska said Béchervaise Island is a hub for seabird life in East Antarctica.
“It’s a fairly flat, open island, with quite a few sub-colonies of Adélie penguins. We also have skuas, snow petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels breeding here as well,” she said.
“For all the seabirds we’re trying to understand how many are breeding for each species, and what their breeding success is.”
“We want to know how many eggs they lay, how many chicks hatch and how many then fledge at the end of the season, giving us a really good indication of the population numbers.”
Marcus Salton said the long-term monitoring program on Béchervaise Island is “unusual and unique” because it spans three decades.
“Thirty years is about the life span of a penguin, so we can start to look at things happening throughout that time, such as changes in breeding success and how that’s linked to changes in their environment,” he said.
Two specially-designed weighbridges at Béchervaise Island automatically weigh and identify penguins, recording data on foraging trip durations, time spent in the colony, and mass changes before and after feeding trips.
“Even when we’re not here we get a lot of information about individuals and over time we can look at how that’s changing in relation to breeding success,” Mr Salton said.
Penguins are an indicator species and this research on Adélie penguins is helping inform management of any krill fishing in the region.
“We can look at how much krill they’re actually feeding their chicks. From that we can get an estimate on how much they’re consuming, to ensure any krill fishing in the area leaves enough food for penguins too,” said Ms Kliska.
The biologists also maintain automatic monitoring cameras that take daily photos of the penguin colonies.
But nothing beats the high quality information gained from physically counting penguins on the ground.
"We also weigh the chicks, collect samples to inform us about their diet, genetics and environmental contaminents, and attach devices to track the bird's foraging movements and behaviour,” said Ms Kliska
The seabird research program, which also extends to the broader Mawson region, has found the most recent number of Adélie penguins at all the islands within 50 kilometres to the east and west of the station is 120,000 breeding pairs.
“Here at Bechervaise Island we’ve got about 1500 breeding pairs of Adelie’s, so just a small proportion of the larger regional population,” Mr Salton said.