This week our resident biologists take you out into the field and give an update of the work that they are doing here at Mawson this summer.

Penguin counting in the Mawson area

Each year the penguin biologists at Mawson head out to islands within the Robinson, Rookery and Kista Island groups to undertake population counts of Adelie penguins.

These counts contribute toward estimating long term trends in the Adelie breeding populations across the Mawson area.

Counts have been made at various islands in the Rookery and Kista groups over the past 40 years and are generally undertaken close to the 2nd of December when breeding birds are sitting tight incubating eggs. Two observers work their way around the outside of the colonies both undertaking the counts from suitable vantage points and comparing results at the end. Best not to forget where you were up to as some colonies were over 3000 birds.

Heavy snow conditions in the Robinson Island group this year seemed to be taking a toll on the number of successful nests with many of the islands still covered in deep snow. Determined birds were found incubating eggs below the snow line, but many others found the challenges a bit too much. Meanwhile in the Rookery and Kista groups conditions were much better and the penguins were able to go about their business in the usual way. All part of the ups and downs of living in such a tough environment, but not an easy life.

Out in the field: the real biology

You can learn about biology (the study of living beings) without leaving the inside of a building (from books, using a computer, working in a laboratory) but it has never felt as real for me as in doing field biology in Antarctica. It could be because I am used to studying aquatic organisms which are not as easy to observe as closely as the seabirds that we are working with, but there is definitely more to it than that. Antarctic seabirds are amazingly well-adapted to extreme environments…emperor penguins can breed on the ice in the middle of winter! That same extreme environment reminds you that the human species is not as well-adapted to the Antarctic conditions as the rest of the animals here and that nature has a power that we tend to forget while in our usual habitats (the winds here are crazy!).

We are working mainly on the Adélie penguin monitoring program, but also collecting samples for several different projects involving flying seabirds such as snow petrels and cape petrels. Our group includes me and Helen (an experienced field biologist and excellent trip leader) but we often get invaluable help from the Mawson crew that is very enthusiastic about going out and that makes the job easier and more fun (to them thank you!). We have visited colonies in several groups of islands (Kista, Robinsons, Macey, Rockeries, Forbes glacier). To access them, we travel by quads or Hägglunds on the frozen ocean spotted with different kinds of icebergs (some crevassed, others shaped round by the wind), napping Weddell seals and sometimes during penguin traffic peak hour. The scenery is breath-taking every time we go out.

Unlike emperors, Adélies breed during spring-summer on exposed rocks, they put so much effort in building their beautiful nests with little rocks and it is amazing how high they can climb up on the islands. Every year they return to the same nest and mate, although this is a challenging mission. After laying their eggs in mid-November, the females have to walk around 50km on sea-ice to get to the sea where they find their food. As agile as they are when they swim, when walking they look like a one year old toddler. However, they manage to walk fast and, in the best case, overcome every obstacle to get back to the colony to swap turns with the father that has been incubating one or two eggs and is very hungry by then. It seems such a great effort that on December 14th when I saw the first chick hatched, I was thrilled.

When we come back from the colonies we have to leave our working clothes in the basement as it has a strong smell (or so we are told). It may sound weird but we get very excited when we can get a fresh penguin poo sample. This is because back at the Division scientists can use that poo to extract the DNA from which they can determine what the penguin has been eating. The poo also contains the penguin DNA and a technique is being developed to determine the age of the penguins. They will be able to assess the technique success since we know the age of the penguin (that kindly donated its poo) because they have been tagged when they were chicks, as this program has been going for twenty years now. All these projects are really impressive!

Our next field work adventure will be on the mountains, visiting snow petrels nests (“the Antarctic angels”). We will travel on the plateau, the immense ice sheet (kilometres deep) that covers the Antarctic land. I can’t wait.