Field travel and emperor penguin week

Auster rookery

Being the premier Antarctic station, Mawson has many stunning natural features. The Framnes mountains rising from the plateau, the Forbes glacier, the Adélie colonies on Bèchervaise Island, and field huts nestled in the mountain ranges. The jewel in her crown is the Auster emperor penguin rookery. Located 50km east of the station on the sea ice, visits to the rookery are a highly anticipated part of wintering. The first trip of our season headed out last week with the team compromising Gemma (FTO), Trev (SCTO), Kolfy (Dieso), Adam (plumber), Timmy (chippie), and Kate (doctor and penguin aficionado). The trip out to Macey hut took five hours as we stopped regularly to drill the sea ice thickness and make our way through sections of rafted ice and sastrugi. The southern sky put on a show for us with dancing auroras and twinkling views of the milky way on the moonless and wind free night.

As Auster rookery is on the sea ice, the exact location of the penguins moves within a 5-10km radius (thank you Dr Wienecke!) each year. To start our search for the colony we followed the route the Mawson team used last year to find them. Open passages through the grounded icebergs made for easy going in the Hägglunds. We were unsure just how easily we would find them, so all eyes were peeled for the tell tale sign of a black line on the horizon against the white of the icebergs. A short half hour later eagle eyes spotted the black line against a dramatic blue tabular iceberg. The excitement was palpable in the Hägg as we drew closer. The line of penguins moving from the colony out onto the open ice confirmed for us we had found our big tuxedoed buddies. We parked the Häggs up a good distance away from the colony and drilled the ice a final time. With barely enough time to get our cameras ready after leaving the Häggs we were greeted by a curious party of single males. What started as a handful of penguins quickly turned into a curious mob of 15 who seemed as eager to check us out as we were to watch them.

Thanks to the wonderful forecasting work by BoM in Hobart, our day with the emperor penguins was a sunny and wind free day – a rarity at Mawson. With the silence of the wind, a new and glorious sound replaced it; the cacophony of adult emperor penguins calling and singing, and the delicate cheeping of recently hatched chicks. Careful not to disturb the single males who were visiting us, we turned and made our way closer to the colony tucked up against the icebergs in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the chicks. With long lenses and binoculars, combined with patience and quiet, we were able to spot the fluffball heads of chicks peering out from their father’s brood pouches. The attentive dads were obvious with their bulbous brood pouch and feet drawn up in claws to provide a stable surface for the chicks, who are unable to thermoregulate yet. For the next 50 days, dad’s feet will be their whole world.

After several hours of observing the majesty and drama of the colony, it was time to return back to Macey for the evening before our drive back to station the following day. Another glorious night of auroras and stars capped off the privileged experience of visiting Auster. We headed home via the coastal route with smoother sea ice and dramatic views of ice cliffs.

It was an immense privilege to visit these intelligent, curious, and beautiful birds. Like all of our Mawson team, I’m already dreaming of that next trip to see my big, little buddies.

**A note on photos: All photos of the colony were taken using a Tamron SP 150-600mm lens. The photo of the males without eggs/chicks was taken using a Tamron 18-400mm lens after the group approached us sitting on the sea ice.**