Biologist Marcus Salton reports on seabird monitoring work being done from deep field at Bechervaise Island

This week, biologist Marcus Salton sends in Station News from deep field at Bechervaise Island

Friday 9th of February is the start of week 13 at Mawson and now over 17 weeks since leaving Hobart on October 10th with the Mawson 76th ANARE summer team. This is the sixth summer I’ve spent in the Australian Antarctic program working on wildlife, and my third time at Mawson as part of the Seabirds Research Program.

This program has been running for over 30 years at Mawson and it is great to be here again to extend this work that aims to safeguard the wildlife and ecosystems around Mawson.

If you’d like to know more about the program, check out these links: automated penguin weighbridge, the tracking of penguin foraging, how this work feeds into the CCAMLR ecosystem monitoring program and the status of the Mawson penguin population.

While this is perhaps not ‘everyday work’ it is certainly a welcome change to my office-based work as field coordinator of the Seabirds Research Program at Kingston, Tasmania. In Antarctica, I work with one other field biologist, this year it’s Benjamin Viola, to map, count, sample and attach tracking devices to seabirds so we can assess their health and how it relates to the current state of the environment and compares to other years.

This year was forecast to be an extremely low sea ice year, which could potentially be the new normal for the birds in light of global warming and climate change. The seabirds that live around Mawson must find food to sustain their own body condition as well as enough food to raise their chicks. To monitor how well they do this in a low sea ice year, we are tasked with attaching GPS tracking devices to birds, sampling tissues to assess diet, counting the number of breeding attempts and how many chicks are raised, and weighing the chicks to see how healthy they are. We also microchip some chicks so that in subsequent years we can see how well these chicks survive after this breeding season, to become juveniles and hopefully – in a few years’ time – become breeders as well. So far things are looking pretty good, with lots of nice fat penguin chicks and quite a few skua chicks compared to other years.

Once Ben and I arrived at Mawson, our job involved venturing off station across sea ice to distant islands to access the seabird nesting areas. We made hay while the sun shone and the winds were low, spending long days in the harsh Antarctic sunshine and dry winds, venturing out to some spectacular parts of the Mawson area.

As expected, the sea ice was rotting quickly this year. We expedited our preparation to move out to the Becherviase Island field camp, and made that move just before Christmas. We set up a little Christmas tree and thankfully the weather was good enough to pull out the deck chairs and enjoy a charcuterie board with the sights and sounds of penguins and skuas in the distance.

At Bechervaise Island, we continue the long-term monitoring that has occurred on this island each year for the last 30+ years. Since Christmas, it has just been Ben and myself and a whole lot of birds (sounds romantic doesn’t it, like a seabird biologist’s dream!)

It is quite a peaceful existence after a busy time on station, especially while the birds are still on eggs with only the first little chicks starting to emerge. It certainly is isolating, and we really start to appreciate the team support on station tending to the daily jobs that allow us to focus on our work. While there are fewer of these jobs at a field camp, they do compound on us after a long day of working on penguins.

We are very grateful for the internet connectivity allowing good connection with family, friends and our nightly phone calls to Mawson station. Six weeks later, we now listen to a noise colony of penguins just over 100 meters from our field huts, and the begging call of skua chicks being raised on the outskirts of the penguin colony.

Ben and I have well and truly run out of the lovely cryovac meals from the Mawson chef, Nick (thanks Nick!), and have worked our way through some of our favourite foods – only one block of chocolate left to get us through four more weeks!

We are starting to spread our wings too. I recently called my mum for help to make scones (thanks mum!), and have been recalling past tips from other field teams on how to make bread in these cold, drafty huts with a pretty basic oven. After a long day in the field, working with stinky and feisty penguins, we sure are motivated to find creative ways to replace chocolate with milo, honey, jam and maple syrup, and despite it being cold outside we are always keen to have a “camp shower” or “bucket bath”. Hand washing, on the other hand, requires us to muster a bit more motivation!

Our efforts to feed ourselves seem minute compared to the relentless attention the penguin and skua parents must provide their now-enormous chicks. And what about those tiny Wilson’s storm petrels! How do those adults that weigh only 35g find food and deliver it back to their little chicks? And how do those little chicks survive unattended in their little cracks under rocks in the current sub-zero temperatures?! It is truly amazing how life finds a way to survive in such harsh conditions.

As the summer season nears the end, I have been reflecting on all the work we have achieved this summer and the teamwork needed to pull it off. I’m really impressed with all that this year’s Mawson team has achieved and the grace, resilience and comradery everyone has shown. I’m very grateful for the team support and proud to have been a part of the Mawson 76th ANARE. Well done team! Thanks for your great support! You should all be proud of yourselves.

Marcus Salton