Taylor Glacier emperor penguin census, part 1
Now that midwinter is over it is time to do some science! AAS program 4086/4088 (no one knows which number it is for sure) is the boring designation for an important, interesting and fun project to monitor the emperor penguin rookery at Taylor Glacier.
Emperors are fascinating animals. They are the largest of penguin species, weighing up to 45 kg. They are the only penguin that breeds during the Antarctic winter, trekking 50–120 km over the ice to their breeding colonies and surviving temperatures of forty below, all to raise just one chick each year.
To better understand these birds and their environment, it is important to track their breeding success each year. To get a good count we wait until the female lays her single egg and then hands over to the male to incubate. She returns to the sea for a well-earned rest and to feed up before coming back in two months. With only the stay-at-home dads left, there are only half as many penguins to count.
Because of the significance of Taylor Glacier emperor rookery it was the first site to be classified as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area under the Antarctic Treaty system. ASPA have very strict rules on entry and activities while in the area — few people get to visit and you must apply for a permit to enter.
Day 1: Travel to Colbeck Archipelago
All the risk assessments, job hazard analyses, operations plans, permits, briefings, meetings and training have been done. The vehicles are loaded, rosters swapped, fire tags turned. Right! What were we doing again? That’s right, we’re going to Taylor Glacier to count penguins, let’s go!
The rookery is located on the coast, 100 km west of Mawson station, in a valley between the Taylor Glacier and a small group of islands. Our accommodation will be in the hut on the nearby Colbeck Archipelago. This is where we are heading on the first day.
We travel along the sea ice and although rough at times it is relatively safe this time of year. The main danger is tide cracks — these are cracks in the ice usually formed by tide or currents in the water underneath. They can be from a few centimetres to several metres across and run for kilometres. The crack is usually filled with newly frozen water of unknown thickness. When we come across ones that look too big to cross we need to test the thickness using a drill. Our Hägglunds needs ice at least 60 cm thick to travel on — they can cross a gap no wider than 70 cm. We did come across a few wide cracks but the ice in between was good and we crossed safely. After seven hours on the road we made it to Colbeck Hut.
Colbeck Hut and RMIT van
Upon arriving at the hut we could not find the door. Was this some omission of the builders that no one had told us about? There was a lot of snow on the downwind side, however. After a lot of digging the door emerged along with the LPG cylinders. We weren’t sure what we would find inside. Previous reports had told about the floor being covered in several inches of ice, however we were pleasantly surprised to find the hut dry and free of ice inside.
Also on the island is an RMIT van, named after the Royal Melbourne Institute of TAFE where they were designed and built. They are basically a caravan made of an inner and outer shell of fiberglass with insulation in between. They are mounted on sleds rather than wheels though.
We split into two groups — snorers in the hut and non-snorers in the RMIT van. This ensured a good night’s sleep was had by all.
Day 2: Penguin census day
After a hearty breakfast Andy, Dan and Greg headed off to Taylor Glacier emperor penguin rookery to do the census. Of course we don’t actually count the penguins while there — this would take way too much time and risk disturbing the birds. Instead we take a photograph and send it back to the AAD where experts count the penguins in the comfort of an office. Much more sensible.
As mentioned before, the count must take place while the females are away. Unfortunately this occurs at the end of June when it is cold and dark — challenging conditions for photography. It was only the second day the sun had come back since it disappeared two weeks ago. Rising at 12:26 pm, it barely got over the horizon before setting at 1:18 pm.
Since there is nothing to build a nest out of, the emperors have to balance their egg on their feet and put their belly over the egg to keep it warm. This means they have to be very careful and only shuffle around, otherwise they may lose their precious egg. It only takes a few minutes for the egg to freeze if it falls out.
Because of this we have to be extremely careful not to disturb the penguins. To photograph them we went to a hill overlooking the rookery but stayed behind the ridge line so they could not see us. Station photographer Greg then took the shot we had come so far for. Once done we retreated back down the hill leaving the Emperors none the wiser.
Automated penguin cameras
There are two automated cameras set up in the hills around the rookery. These take a few photos every day. Although not high enough in resolution to do the penguin census they do show when the first birds arrive, where they are congregating and when they eventually leave. All useful information.
Andy, with Dan as assistant, visited the two cameras. The memory cards from each camera was swapped over. One of the cameras had stopped and its battery and solar panel needed replacing.
As part of the conditions of entry to the Taylor Glacier ASPA we must carry our permits with us at all times. It was a good thing too, because as soon as we left the ASPA an inspector came out of nowhere and asked to see our permits. He didn’t look like the type to take a bribe and a Hägglunds does not make the best getaway car, so we had to trust that the AAD had got the paperwork correct. After a few tense moments everything was in order and the inspector let us go on our way.
Colbeck Hut emerges from the ice
Over the years Colbeck Hut has had snow build up around it. This snow has turned to ice, encasing the sled it is built on.
Ewan, Jens and Heidi spent the day jackhammering and shovelling ice away from the hut. This allowed Ewan in his BSS (Building Services Supervisor) role to assess the condition of the hut and whether it was possible to move it. It turns out it’s a DIYer’s dream, and with a bit of TLC could give shelter to expeditioners for many years to come. Hopefully the hut will be fully repaired and relocated in a more suitable position.
To be continued next week…
By Greg Stone